This is part of Help! Wanted, a special series from Slate advice. In the advising biz, there are certain eternal dilemmas that bedevil letter writers and columnists alike. This week, we’re taking them head-on.
Today’s columnist is Pulitzer Prize winning author Andrew Sean Greer, who has written numerous bestsellers like Less and The Confessions of Max Tivoli. His sixth book, Less, won the Northern California Book Award for Fiction, entered the New York Times bestseller list and, in April 2018, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. You can pick up a copy of the follow-up, Less Is Lost, which is now available in paperback.
We asked Greer to weigh in on lonely travelers, growing up, and sister-in-law rivalries:
My husband is very, very smart. He graduated from an Ivy League college, has published in academic journals in multiple fields, and achieved success in a competitive field while still in his 20s. That is all great, but what I like best about him is that he always wore his intelligence lightly. He prefers to ask questions than to expound, answers questions clearly and simply without being patronizing, and is always looking to find people smarter or more knowledgeable than him—he has no desire to be “the smartest guy in the room.” But that has changed in one specific context.
We moved, for my job (for the second time—so it is not that he has any problem moving for my career), to a small city/large town in a new region. He has not had a smooth adjustment and says that he is bothered at how the people here seem to think highly of their own intelligence and abilities but are incompetent. Going very much against character, he now seems to go out of his way to use the force of his intellect to humiliate people here. Elsewhere, he is his usual delightful self. He also refuses to trust the expertise of anyone here, after an experience where our new pediatrician refused to do some tests on our son my husband asked for based on his own hunch, which turned out to be correct. Now he and our kids visit the doctor and dentist on trips back to our previous hometown. I wanted to do some renovations on our house, and he brought in a team for three months from the town where we spend summers. I am not sure whether I should just suggest we move somewhere else (we don’t need my income and I could probably find an acceptable position in many other places) or if that is avoiding a necessary reckoning with his behavior?
—Married to Suddenly Smartest Guy in the Room
My Dear Married,
I’m sure you agree with Prudie that something else is going on here. Has your husband made friends of his own? Is he the kind of person who requires friends, that is, is he a loner or someone who relies on you for friendships? Because this behavior sounds like someone trying very hard not to attach to people or to local businesses. You both need to have a talk about 1) whether his heart is really in this new place and 2) if he is lonely. With all that a move entails, with kids trying to find their own way as well, often a shy or reserved spouse gets left behind. This may be him yelling, “Wait for me!”
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I returned to my part of the U.S. six years ago for a long-term relationship that ended during the pandemic. During that whole time through now, I have never managed to feel settled or truly happy. On top of all that, I moved to another city during the middle of the pandemic months after I split with my partner. I have a friend group in my new city after being here for over a year, but I don’t feel close to anyone and am struggling to make deeper connections. I work from home most of the time, so that doesn’t help, but I really am putting myself out there by joining activity groups I’m interested in and being a regular at a fitness class I like.
It feels like no matter what I do, I don’t feel close to people, not like I did when I lived overseas and made deep and strong friendships that I still have to this day. The problem is, those friends live all over the world now, and I want some close friendships where I am.
Am I doomed to feel lonely if I keep living here or should I just throw in the towel and move overseas again where the lifestyle and attitudes of people were more conducive to getting deep, and where there’s a chance more people will have life experiences like my own? Or do I have to accept at this stage of my life (I’m in my late 30s), people don’t have time and can’t connect anymore the way we did in our mid to late 20s, and stay lonely?
—Lonely Hearts Club Band of One
My Dear Lonely Hearts Club Band of One,
Ah, this sounds heartbreaking! And yet all too familiar. Prudie has found it is harder to make friends in one’s late-30s than in one’s late-20s; there are numerous reasons (children, partners, jobs, health issues) but rarely a failure to connect. She has also lived abroad, with very mixed results; you may find your fond memories of connection have more to do with single life and youth than people more “conducive to getting deep.”
What you need to find is a Nexus: a person from whom more friends will come. You never know who it’s going to be! But it’s that person who always has people over, or brings birthday presents, or goes to quiz night at the pub, and always a person who keeps up friendships. That person will come with a ready-made group. Find them—and that means following up on friendships, a step beyond the activity group and fitness class. Invite people to dinner. Bring a birthday present. Go to quiz night with someone. Take a chance—it’s like dating without the heartbreak. Enjoy the newness of people and be open to possibility and chance.
Overseas will always be there. Though remember that life might be different there now than it was then. After all, the past is also a foreign country.
How to Get Advice From Prudie
I’ve never written into an advice column before and I’m nervous to do so but here goes nothing. I graduated college last week and I’m currently living at my parent’s house until I move into an apartment in my college town this summer. I know I should be excited but I do not do change well at all and it’s been eating away at me. I mean when I graduated high school I had a panic attack that lasted like two weeks because I was so uncomfortable and uncertain about the future. That’s how I’m feeling now. I deal with intense anxiety and it flares when life changes. I feel like I’m just anticipating all this disappointment to hit me once I move and enter the real world of working a full-time job. I’ve never had to pay monthly bills, schedule and oversee all my appointments and my health, maintain my mental health, etc. How does anyone go from being young and dependent to the weight life throws on them at age 22? Is everyone just pretending to have their life together? How can I feel better about this change and how can I think about it differently? I have a job lined up that I’m not even really excited about. I want to be a writer of some sort but some realistic side of me knows that can only be a side gig because the industry is so unreliable. I’m just feeling so lost and unassuming!
—Sincerely, Not Ready to Grow Up
My Dear Not Ready to Grow Up,
I am so glad you took a chance and wrote to Prudie. Let Prudie tell a story from her life: My most capable friend, who can get her children to school and arrange dinner parties and host Christmas and look like a million bucks, told me she can’t change a light bulb. She just can’t manage to get to the store and then get a ladder… It overwhelms her. So she sits in darkness. I was shocked. And then I thought: Oh right! There’s no such thing as a grown-up!
You have found, even at a young age, the truth of the world: THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A GROWN-UP. Yes, they are all pretending to have their life together. At best, they have it together now but are pretending nothing will ever change—but change is guaranteed. If you and I were unkind people, we would chortle with glee how ill-prepared they are for what is coming! But we are, of course, not unkind people. So let our hearts go out to people with tidy apartments and well-behaved pets and spouses and children, with their gleaming copper pans and bathrooms. To be honest, it doesn’t sound very fun—and these are the good times!
Prudie was once in a place where none of the plugs worked; someone had to replace them, and unless she wanted to sit in the dark like her friend, that someone was Prudie. Sometimes the person who has to do it is you. That’s the only definition of grown-up I know.
The flip side of anxiety (which Prudie shares) is a sensitivity to the world. You may feel its sorrow more than others (what better reason to become a writer?) but you’ll also feel its joys and delights. It’s a trade-off, sure. But if we can never achieve this mythical “grown-up” state, at least we can cherish and keep alive the childlike part of us.
Get Even More Advice From the Dear Prudence Podcast
I don’t like my sister-in-law. There’s no reason for this. She just irritates me. I don’t even like how she breathes. It’s like nails on a chalkboard being in the same room as her for any length of time. Again this is not her fault. While she is genuinely irritating in some ways, it’s not proportional in any way to my feral goblin rage. She hums if she is doing anything, no tune just occasional pitch changes. Or when you are watching TV and something starts, she wants to know what it’s about and who everyone is. We both read the synopsis, Marie! You know as much as me!
And now she’s coming to live with me. She’s pregnant, my brother’s deployed, and he doesn’t want her on her own. So she’s living with me for a month…or so…until my mom gets back from a family situation in Florida. I’ve obviously never expressed my irritation to anyone except non-mutual friends (they say I can be like this with a few people, but usually I just take my irrational dislike and go). As far as my family knows, I feel pleasant to neutral about her. And I am! I do. When I’m not IN THE SAME ROOM. Conceptually, I’m fine with her.
So how do I do this? I already run a lot, so I’m thinking I take up training for a marathon and that could keep us apart for a lot of non-contentious hours. Other than that, how do I make sure she feels welcome and happy here without at any point exploding over something ridiculous like she doesn’t blink in time (this is not something I’ve previously noticed, but after two weeks I’m sure if she does I’ll know about it)? I am also exaggerating a little for effect. I’m not going to chase her down the street in a rage with a saucepan. The worst that will happen is I’ll get prickly and say something snappy about how she knows as much as me, but then her feelings with be hurt. I’d rather avoid that. My brother loves her and she’s never done anything to me but exist in a way that bizarrely irritates me too much.
My Dear Goblin,
When a problem presents itself as “it’s not her, it’s definitely me,” you’re in luck! Because you are the only person who you can possibly change. Therapy is called for, some light video therapy if you can find some through your insurance (I know it’s hard these days). Look, we all just went through the worst of a pandemic, and our social wires are eaten through by rats from disuse, so be easy on yourself but do the work. Getting irritated for no reason (at more people than just your sister-in-law, yes?) can’t be a pleasant way to live. You turn into the cranky neighbor in a sitcom—and you deserve to be the star! So be the star.
And incidentally, I don’t see how you got this far into this situation without saying, “Wait! I’m not comfortable with that.” It’s your life, your time, your house. Many of us would not be comfortable taking in a pregnant sister-in-law. I suspect you’re getting irritated at the person you’re “allowed” to be irritated at, instead of the spouse who has put you in this position. I wonder why there was not an equitable conversation about your needs.
My stepdaughter was always a scribbler. She would fill notebook after notebook as a child to the point we had over three hundred of them stored at our house. She never let us read any of them, but it was an artistic expression that we supported. When she went to college, I moved them all into boxes to store in the garage.
Despite being in her own home for four years, she never expressed any interest in taking possession of them—so when our garage flooded and all the boxes were ruined, I just tossed them out. She knew we had stored them in the garage and it flooded. She never asked about them—until now. I told her they were long gone and she accused me of deliberately throwing them away to spite her. I told her don’t be ridiculous.
I was dealing with the death of my father, the flood, and my husband’s fading health. My stepdaughter hadn’t shown any interest in those notebooks for years and declined to take them every time I offered. We always had a contentious relationship, but it wounds me that she would think so little of me that I would intentionally destroy her writing. She is demanding an apology and refuses to speak to her father and me until she gets it done. Both her brothers think she is being ridiculous but my husband wants me to apologize to keep the peace. My stepdaughter is nearly 30. I have been married to her father for 20 years. I understand her being upset about this loss but I am not the bad guy here. What should I do?
My Dear Tossed Out,
Is it possible the stepdaughter is grieving more than the loss of her notebooks? I caught the phrase “my husband’s fading health” which would be her father, no? That sounds like a hard situation not just for you, but for your stepdaughter as well. Some sympathy might be called for. But I do think terrorist actions such as those you describe do not call for paying the ransom. As you have found, however, being correct does not automatically solve the situation.
With terrorists, one just kindly stands firm. A sympathetic statement (“I’m so sad your drawings were ruined, I didn’t know they still meant so much to you. It’s been a disaster for all of us, but I understand you lost something you loved”) is worth trying because it’s true. You do sound sad. As for the rest, you and your husband need to be on the same team here. He has perhaps been dealing with these threats all her life; time to stop them. Be kind. But don’t back down. Keeping the peace comes when children learn to grow up.
My sister-in-law is a lovely human being in the comforts of her own home, but if you travel with her she turns into an unhelpful lump. Ask her to do any task like looking up attractions or restaurants and it is nearly impossible. She constantly complains over the slightest thing. She won’t even pack properly if there isn’t someone in the room looking over her shoulder. She is just a headache and a half as a traveling companion. The last time we traveled together, she had to sit in the front seat for her nausea but refused to act as my navigator. It was raining and getting near dark. We had an Airbnb in the country and I didn’t want to miss the turn-off. My sister-in-law refused to help despite my pleas and even went so far as the turn up the radio because there was a song she liked. We ended up circling for hours until some nice local at the gas station let us follow her to the right road. The trip just left me completely frustrated and my sister-in-law went on her merry way complaining. And later blamed me for us getting there so late. My sisters agree with me but don’t know how to uninvite our sister-in-law without causing a big family ruckus. We have another trip planned for a few months from now and my sister-in-law had made noises about joining us again. I rather cancel altogether. Help!
My Dear Trip Trouble,
Travel really makes things clear, doesn’t it? At least to you—because it sounds like you haven’t discussed this with your sister-in-law at all. Or your sibling married to her. You’ve only discussed it with your sisters. Is it possible simply to talk with her? And talk with her with empathy; it’s entirely possible travel is a source of enormous anxiety to her and she’s lashing out everywhere. Best to assume the best. Usually, questions work well: “We’re planning this trip. How did the last one we had together work out for you?” If she says great, then you can try: “I noticed you had a lot of anxiety about planning and navigating, why do you think that was?” If she refuses to acknowledge the problem, then you have to tell her you’re not meant to be travel companions. That’s how it shakes out sometimes! Your married-to-her sibling might be another person to consult. And you might consult yourself why that sibling is not invited, nor are any men. The gender stricture may be another cause of unreasonable expectations; how about we throw the “girls’ trip” out the window and decide everyone who travels well together travel together?
When Stephen King Was Guest Prudie
I work as a reference librarian at a public library. Since starting this job, I’ve been shocked to discover how many of my otherwise-conscientious friends and acquaintances feel entitled to pop into my workplace to hang out. It’s one thing when a friend just stops by to say hi; it’s another thing entirely when they expect me to entertain them until they’re ready to leave.