Heating houseguests and unleashed dogs

Nicole-GallandBemused readers ask novelist Nicole Galland for her take on navigating the precarious social landscape that comes with living on Martha’s Vineyard. Nicole, who grew up in West Tisbury, is known locally as the co-founder of Shakespeare for the Masses at the Vineyard Playhouse. Her combined knowledge of both the Island and the world’s greatest melodramas compels her to help prevent unnecessary tragedy wherever possible. Trying to untangle a messy Island ethics or etiquette question? Send it to OnIsland@mvtimes.com

Dear Nicole:
We have annual February houseguests. Believe me when I say that we appreciate them for coming to visit us in the winter – it’s a sign of true friendship. The problem is, they seem to know we are desperate for winter companionship and we sometimes wonder if they might be taking advantage of our social solitude. We first noticed it with the food. They eat all of ours and never hit the supermarket to resupply. Then there’s the heat. They crank it up to tropical.  They’re going to be here soon and we’re looking forward to their visit. We’re wondering, however, if the rare off-season visitor should be handled with extreme care, or if it’s okay to ask them to help out and give us some money to help pay for the higher heating bill?
Confidentially yours,

Dear Feb:
Yes, visiting in February rather than August is certainly a sign of true friendship. You know what else is? Consideration and common courtesy. The unspoken but universally understood premise of house–guest–ness is that the guest at least OFFERS to help out in some way. This has nothing to do with Vineyard etiquette – it’s pretty universal and is true (I hope) even if you’re visiting your mother.

It is frequently the case that the host deflects the offer, and needs or wants absolutely nothing from their guest except his or her presence. (This is often the case when you are visiting your mother.) Doesn’t matter – the offer should still be made. This guest/host ritual is pretty fundamental. Even if your intention is to spoil your guests while they provide nothing, part of the pleasure is in saying, “No, no, that’s fine, really,” when they make the offer. You can’t do that if they don’t make the offer – it’s inconsiderate of them to rob you of showing off your magnanimity.

So, in an ideal world, where your guests were classy, they’d offer to help out in some manner. They haven’t done that. Asking them bluntly for money isn’t really classy either, though. Even if you have the kind of relationship where you feel you can do that comfortably, discuss it with them well before their arrival, so they aren’t in for a rude surprise when they get there. Also, be gracious enough to let them feel like it’s a choice they’re making spontaneously, rather than a demand you are issuing. This allows you to practice that time-honored Vineyard skill of benign passive-aggressiveness.

For instance, “Our heating bills are really out of control this year, so we’re keeping the temperature at 60 and wearing lots of sweaters. We’d offer to crank it up while you’re here but it would really blow our budget. Sorry about that. But don’t worry, we have plenty of sweaters you can borrow.”

Perhaps they’ll offer to help defray the cost of a warm interior climate. Perhaps they won’t, and will simply borrow your sweaters. Perhaps they won’t come at all. In that case, use the heating-bill money you save from their not-visiting to go to Key West for a week or something. That could be even nicer than February house guests.

And for the record, there’s not that much social solitude in the winter. If anything, it is the time when friends can connect on a meaningful, satisfying level, without the bustle and rush of summer. If you have so few year-round friends that you are desperate to have inconsiderate houseguests, you might need to get out more.
That’s my take.


Dear Nicole:
I was taking a walk in the woods and saw a woman with a dog approaching me. I am nervous around dogs and I called out to ask her to please put her dog on a leash. She said the dog is friendly and that I shouldn’t worry. I told her that I would still appreciate it if she put the dog on a leash. She acquiesced, but then when our paths did cross, she growled at me. (The dog was fine, it was the woman who growled.) Was it wrong of me to insist she leash her dog?
Confidentially yours,

Dear Walker:
Legally, dogs should be on leashes in most public woodlands (there are some places where they are allowed off-leash at certain times of day, especially in winter). But on the Vineyard, let’s be honest, this law is observed more in the breach than the observance (to quote the Danish prince dude) and it very seldom causes problems (except some troubling dog-chicken encounters, but chickens aren’t prone to go for woodland walks).

So it was not wrong of you to insist she leash her dog. It is perhaps understandable that she resisted it; it’s probably seldom that such a request is made of her and she may have been surprised by it.

But I am surprised (and disappointed) to hear she “growled.” In my experience, dog owners are eager to demonstrate that they are responsible members of the community. They realize they can be scofflaws because no harm comes of their law-scoffing, and they want to reassure non-dog-owners that this will continue to be the case. More than that, most dog-owners of the going-for-a-walk-with-your-dog variety are generally excellent human beings (I am biased) and, I would think, are genetically disinclined to be unfriendly or growlish.

Come to think of it, If it ever happens to you again, you might want to be proactive on this front. Ignore the growl (nothing good comes of reacting to the growl) and just say, as perky and friendly as you can manage, “I really appreciate how responsible most Vineyard dog-owners are – thanks for being one of them.”

People are less likely to growl if they are being appreciated; they are also less likely to act like entitled jerks when they are complimented for not acting like entitled jerks.
That’s my take.