Flaking Out

Sound advice on winter getaways, negligent neighbors and big mouths


John D. Spooner is an investment adviser, author and novelist. His most recent book is No One Ever Told Us That: Money and Life Lessons for Young Adults. Here, he responds to queries from advice seekers of all ages. Send your conundrums to thedance@improper.com.

My wife and I own a house in ski country, and every winter, we open the doors to our family. They stay without charge, making it a very popular destination during the colder months. The problem is that the infighting begins as soon as the first snow falls. Everyone in the family always wants the same weeks: Christmas and February vacation, etc. We can only sleep an extra four people at a time, so there’s no way they could all stay together. This is not a hotel, and we’re starting to resent people feeling they have the right to expect a certain time be held for them. Do you have any suggestions so that everyone gets a fair stay? Help! This is a pretty easy one, but, in today’s family climate, it’s made tougher by this question: Who are the adults in the house? Sorry, folks, but I think it should be the parents who run the household, not the children—even the adult children. There are times when being a benevolent dictator makes life easier on everyone.

Devise a schedule that is “set in stone” for the family. This year, one side of the family gets the year-end holidays. The other side gets the mid-winter school vacation. Next year, they flip the weeks. Or you can toss a coin to choose who gets those weeks in December and January. This saves the arguing and the drama. People will always complain about fairness, but if you stick to the “set in stone” schedule, that should keep the calm.

Of course, if you want to be snarky you could always say, “If you married someone whose parents had a vacation house, you wouldn’t have this problem!”

I am a new condo owner in the city, and my unit backs up to a small green space. I’ve been told that for many years this space has been “cared for” by a neighbor and her husband, but the space is in rough shape—overgrown and unsightly. My windows overlook this site, while the rest of the condo property has nicely landscaped areas. We pay high condo fees, and I would like the condo association and its landscaper to take back control of this green space and make it nice. My neighbors see it as their garden and don’t want a landscaper to touch it. I have had a friendly relationship with them so far, but should I make an issue of this? Or should I keep quiet and stay in the good graces of my neighbors? My sense is that in any association—condos, proprietorships, boards of governors, etc.—a very small minority of the population are a pain. They’re relentless in their complaints about all types of issues, and they’re oblivious to the wishes of the majority. In many cases I’ve witnessed, they can damage the morale of the communities they live and work in. The space you describe is on the condo property. If your neighbors have tended to it as a garden for the use of all, growing flowers and vegetables, then that’s wonderful. But if it’s as unsightly and overgrown as you say, then it’s time for the association to take it back, grow some grass and have it cut. Obsessions fester when people hold things inside. My advice is, “Out with it.” Speak your mind and insist that you get to look onto urban green, not urban blight.

Lately it seems like I am constantly sticking my foot in my mouth. A few examples: At Halloween, I complimented a co-worker on her costume, only it wasn’t a costume. Ouch. Then at a dinner party I asked a woman when the baby was due, but she wasn’t pregnant. Ouch again. Do you know how I can recover from these awful missteps and social gaffes? I just want to run and hide when they happen. You have to turn a “faux pas” into “triomphe,” a gaffe into a “victoire.” We’re all guilty of the same thing at one time or another. I’d try hyperbole to get you out of the situations. For instance, to your co-worker, I’d say, “You know, you always have such a flair for clothing. I noticed it when I first came to this company, so I think of you as someone who pulls together a great costume every day, not just on Halloween.” You turn a gaffe into a flattering compliment.

As for the “pregnant” reference, there’s only one way to go in my opinion, and that’s what I call “over-the-top sincerity.” You can tell her, “I’m sorry. Pregnant women glow with a special radiance, and your skin looks that way to me.” I’ll never tell. 

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