I’m going crazy in my job

Dear reader, Below is another archival column from Cary. He’ll be publishing a brand new column next week. As always, if you would like advice, please write to advice@carytennis.com. Happy New Year!


Classic column from October 17, 2012


I’m going crazy in my job

I’m anxious and insecure and paranoid and bored — but it’s such a great job!

Hi Cary: Two reasons I’m writing to you specifically: a) you’re an advice columnist, and b) I have a feeling you might have dealt with exactly what I’m going to ask. I’ve just got a new job. It’s an office job, but it’s for an interesting company, it’s young, it’s safe, it’s comfortable, it’s even fairly moral(ish). As far as corporates go, it’s pretty right-on, if you know what I mean. It’s my first job since I went traveling a while back, and herein lies the problem. I don’t like work. I never have. There are three brief parts to this. First: It might be partly because I’m lazy, and almost certainly because I’m immature, but it’s something about turning up to work every day and being expected to do the same set of actions, have the same attitude and belief systems, have lunch with the same people. It seems crazy to me. I know this is hardly unique to me. The second part is that I hate business-speak. Even light references to competition, beating out the other players, maximizing profits, make me feel awful. Don’t they realize they’re talking about putting other people out of jobs? Don’t they realize that all we’re doing is taking people’s money for things they probably could live without? I cringe every time someone whoops about getting bigger numbers than the other guy down the street. The third and final part is this: For some reason there’s nothing like a business environment to bring out all my insecurities. I constantly worry that I’m doing OK. I constantly assume that every meeting by every superior is in regards to how disappointed they are in the new guy. Every time I look over at a conversation between two people, and one person’s eyes flick over to me … I have to spend minutes trying to calm myself down, reeducating myself on failure schemas, social anxiety schemas. It seems like modern office jobs, particularly those involved in the communication of information rather than the construction of goods, are impossible to self-gauge your performance in. You might be making one manager happy, but the guy above him may hate you! At the moment I’m involved in a project that is just under-resourced, everyone seems to know it is, and yet I can’t help but feel that they’re still disappointed — or angry — that I’m not able to do better. Maybe I should be staying later? Maybe I should be less honest about how difficult the current situation is when they ask? I feel guilty and inadequate all the time, even when I’m doing my best. In my last job, it lasted the entire time I was there, so I know it’s not a new job thing. Now, if I may, I’d like to cast free from the idea that I seek other work, or make do with a more nomadic, freelance lifestyles: I’ve tried these, they don’t work. I’m in my 30s and the idea that a perfect career will happen upon me has been shelved for reality: I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and work, I just need to figure out how. My current job is good, I was lucky to get it, it’s in a field I like, it has a good coffee machine, I like having a paycheck every month, people “oooh” when I tell them who I work for. If I quit this one, I can promise you I’ll just quit the next and the one after. I know, Cary, that you’ve worked office jobs in the past, and found them less than fitting in all ways. What I’m asking then, is this: how do I reframe my thinking to a) be OK with routine, b) be OK with corporate ideologies, and c) how do I get over the constant, nauseating feeling that I’m not doing well, that I’m screwing up, that everyone secretly wishes I wasn’t there? And does anyone else ever feel this way? Any clues?

Thank you, Cary.

Employed But Uneasy

Dear Employed But Uneasy,

Yes, other people do ever feel this way! And they find a way to keep sucking it up and doing the job day after day. But why?

I suppose there are good suggestions about how to make your days bearable, and I guess you really want this job and it is a good job, but frankly, as one human to another, I don’t want to tell you to just suck it up, work hard and be a part of the company.

I want you to find what you are looking for. This is alienated work and alienated work sucks. That’s no mystery.

There’s nothing wrong with you. You are just in the wrong job.

Until you somehow find the work you were destined to do, no amount of status is going to erase your nagging insecurity.

You feel like you don’t belong there because you don’t belong there. That’s not to say you can’t do the job. Of course you can do the job. But life is short. Every year is a year of your life. You can do it. We humans can put up with just about anything, from boring jobs to torture cages. But should you? Why?

Unless not doing this job is going to cause the death of a child or put you in starvation, I think you should plan to keep looking into your soul for what you are really driven to do. Sure, keep working and save some money. But don’t pretend that there is some magical way you’re just going to “adjust.” The reason you’re not comfortable is that this is not the right job. It never will be. I know what you are saying about the difficulties of drifting from job to job, how the insecurity of not having a paycheck or a place to live can paralyze you and make you literally sick with worry. Yet I know that there is some greater truth in your discomfort. There is something else you really belong doing and it is your larger purpose to find that thing. You may have to do more wandering. Maybe not now, but when you have had your fill.

Save some money. Tough it out for a year, save your money and then leave and wander some more.

I mean, you are a citizen of the world and the world is hiding your prize somewhere in its skirts, but not at this job. Welcome to the reason people start revolutions. Welcome to the reason people used to grow their hair long and get in vans and drive to California not having a job or a religion or even any relatives to stay with. Welcome to the reason that every day in America someone somewhere gets up from his desk and walks out and gets drunk and calls in and says he’s had an emergency and can’t come back to work that day. Welcome to the reason that every day someone looks for a job in the arts or becomes a police sergeant or a lifeguard or a taxi driver because our technology has allowed us to create these penal colonies of cubicles where spirits rot and emotions die and penises sit limp in the pants of avid young men and women’s breasts fall and their tight asses go saggy and their makeup runs and their bodies grow encased in useless fat from sedentary disuse and anxious eating and blood-sugar highs. Welcome to the reason that Prozac has become the new sacramental wafer. Welcome to the reason that so many of us are wandering around looking for a new car. You know this. I know. You have wandered. You want to settle down. But I don’t think you’re truly ready to settle down yet. If you were, you’d know it. So your discomfort speaks to me. I’m sorry if you just want to be shown how to fit in. If you stick around you will sort of fit in a little bit. But I don’t want to see you just fit in. I want to see you find your destiny. That’s not crazy talk. It’s very real, down-to-earth talk. It’s just that your destiny may not be some world-shattering discovery. Your destiny may be something quiet and true, but you will know it. It won’t make you insecure. It will come with a kind of “aha” feeling, and a sigh of contentment. Meanwhile, your story gets my ire up: What are we doing in this country about building a culture? What are we doing about building the kind of cities and towns where children can look around and say, Daddy, I want to do that! If the choice is to be Derek Jeter or a telemarketer, one will choose to be Derek Jeter — broken ankle or no — but there is only one spot for Derek Jeter and he’s already in that spot. So what is left are these prairies of desolation where human heads are fastened to glowing screens by stroke-counting software and surveillance is the norm, where phone calls are recorded and video cameras watch over the workers as though they were cattle in pens, where you wonder when every now and then one worker is singled out and culled from the herd, you wonder what they did with her until you see her installed in the marketing department with a new title and an Audi. Why do we live this way? Do we have no choices? Is making a living the most important thing in life? Why don’t more of us just give up and sit in the street? Is it any wonder that to many, many of us, it recently made more sense to encamp outdoors and call ourselves a movement than it did to continue to work day after day in these apparently clean and comfortable environs? Clean and comfortable? What is clean and comfortable to the questing soul? What is clean and comfortable to the spirit that needs adversity and difficulty and triumph, that needs the sun and wind and the hard muscling work of ranches and the digging of meadows, that needs to be in the body, working under a car or hailing a cab or making cheese? What does it mean to be clean and comfortable if you are dead in the spirit?


It takes a lot of courage to have no program and no plan for economic security and to trust your heart, to know that you might not have all the answers but that this shit is just wrong and go outside and sit in a tent near Wall Street or in front of the Federal Reserve Building for months at a time, to not know the answer but just to know that the answers given are not sufficient and to have enough faith in humanity, in our innate sense of need and desire and truth, to just say, Man, this is not it. This is not what I need. It takes a lot of courage or maybe you could call it cowardice, sometimes they look like the same thing, depending on whether you’re walking toward something or away from something, so I think the essential thing is just to be walking, and it takes courage to get up and walk. But sometimes you just have to walk out. You just have to say I don’t know what it is but this is not for me. And walk out. And maybe you spend a lifetime leaving this and leaving this looking for the one place where you feel at home. And maybe after a lifetime of leaving you say, well, you were a little irresponsible gutter punk is what you were. And yet I had wisdom! I had the wisdom of the stars! I had the wisdom of the poets and of Jesus and Mohammed, who never would have sat in a cubicle selling time shares in Waikiki, who would have gathered in the lobby and said enough is enough, my spirit says to go now so I’m going. So, listen, my man (or woman?!), you have articulated the angst and terror of our age and I just want to say it is real, and there really is something wrong with our culture and the way we live, and nobody has to live this way. My mother, bless her heart, said she had had enough and just packed up and bought some land way up off the road and lived up there in blessed quiet and solitude for 25 years. You don’t have to just do what they say. You can be a punk and move to San Francisco and get a mangy dog and live on the streets until you figure it out. You can go down to any marina and hang around until somebody will take you on as crew and you can sail around looking for your reflection in the water, waiting for the moon or the fish to speak to you and tell you what’s your next step. You don’t have to do this. So keep being discontent and keep trying to figure it out. Take your own discomfort seriously. Don’t just stuff it down. You’re uncomfortable there because you really don’t belong. You are going to have to get out of there eventually. Eventually. Go somewhere where you meet people who seem just a little crazier or just a little less crazy than you and make friends with them and follow them around for a while. Maybe they’ll be following a band like people used to follow the Dead, or maybe they will have some magical way of making money by selling people dreams. Go deep into your heart and ask what you want. Follow the waking dream that is your active consciousness. Who you are is what is going on in your head from moment to moment, and what is underneath that, and underneath that, and underneath that. Follow that. Narrate it as it speaks to you. Speak into a tape recorder what is going on in your head from moment to moment. That is who you are. Be like one of the ancient saints. Listen for the voice that tells you where to go and just pack up and go there. Your life might end up as a ragged mess but it will be a beautiful mess. My travels often ended me up as a ragged mess, but it was where I had to go and I am glad I did not stay home counting my vacation hours on my time sheet, waiting for my 401K to vest, hoping for a good golf game. © Copyright Salon Media Group Write for Advice


My 13-year-old still believes in Santa Claus

Dear reader,

Below is another of our favorite holiday columns. And, as always, if you would like advice, please write to advice@carytennis.com.  Norma and I wish you all a very Merry Christmas!




Should I tell her the truth — to save her from the derision of her friends, if nothing else?


Hi Cary,

I will be the first to admit that this may seem like a lame problem in the full scheme of things, but I would love for you to weigh in on this. My nearly 13-year-old stepdaughter believes in Santa Claus. Completely.

To give some background, her father was widowed when she was an infant, so we are her only living parents. I also have two small children from my first marriage who are still very much in the Santa target demographic. So you might assume she’s going along with the game for the younger kids, but it’s truly not the case.

Last Christmas, our first as a family, I was stunned when she asked me how Santa would know to find her at her new address. And just yesterday she admitted to wondering how Santa could truly go down everyone’s chimney at midnight. (“That would be impossible, even for Santa.”)

Her comments and questions have all come at times when the other children are not around. She’s not pretending.

This is an incredibly bright child — honor roll, advanced classes, very much a freethinker, with an amazing social consciousness. She’s not stunted in her emotional development. Tooth fairy, Easter Bunny — she gave those up years ago. But Santa’s legitimacy isn’t even on her radar.

So here’s the question my husband and I are pondering: Do we spill the beans?

I have very vivid memories from fourth grade when an insensitive teacher made a comment about Santa truly being our parents. My classmates and I were stunned when the one little girl in the class who was apparently still in the dark put her head on her desk and burst into tears. The rest of us had already known for some time. That was the early 1980s. And kids today are supposedly so much more advanced.

My husband is concerned she is going to embarrass herself around her peers. And he has a point — especially at this age where she’s so overwhelmingly self-conscious about fitting in and being part of a group.

But at the same time, a part of me thinks it’s kind of charming. I mean, she’s had to grow up faster than her peers in some ways, having no mother around for so much of her life. Why shouldn’t she be able to keep some aspects of childhood around a little longer?

Aside from preventing social embarrassment, the only other advantage I see to telling her the truth is that it would make it a little easier for her to understand why she won’t receive some of the excessive gifts her peers will find under the tree on Christmas morning (iPods, computers, video game systems). I do remember from my own experience that it was quite a relief to discover that my more modest Christmas gifts weren’t an indication that Santa didn’t like me as much as the other kids.

I wish we could afford to do more for all three of our wonderful kids, but our oldest, because teenagers’ “toys” are considerably more pricey, is the only one who is really noticing the discrepancy. Maybe it’s guilt that’s truly fueling this question?

I know in the full scheme of things this seems rather small and insignificant, but I would be very interested to get your opinion on this.

Wondering Mom


Dear Wondering Mom,

Insofar as possible we tell our kids the truth. But there is of course much leeway in what truths are told and how. There are for every truth a thousand ways of telling. Tell your stepdaughter the truth. But which truth, and how?

I think you tell her what can best be called the poetic truth. It’s possible that your stepdaughter possesses a very poetic soul, and that what she gets from her belief is the pleasure of beauty and magic. So it may not be terribly important to her whether it is literally true or not — what is important is that you be sensitive to what it means to her. The story of Santa is art; it is so captivating and beautiful that she may simply want to enjoy the music of it, the captivating happiness of it. That enjoyment could be shattered if too rudely explicated, but it need not be shattered at all, even as she awakens to the impossibility of Santa’s most vaunted feats.

“Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world,” wrote Francis P. Church in his famous 1897 New York Sun editorial, “Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus.”

He said pretty much what I would have said, only better.

For doubting, secular people, Christmas can still be an innocent time, a time of taking pleasure in innocent beauty. When I was a child it was the only time of the year when society seemed to recognize that there is beauty and joy in the world and it can be shared and there is a time to sit together by the fire and play music and sing songs and give each other gifts. What a wonderful time.

What you want to communicate to your stepdaughter is this: the willingness to both know and believe.

I would ask her what she believes. I would respect her beliefs.

And then I think I would warn her. I would warn her — as if she did not already know — that other children can be extremely cruel, and that while it is perfectly acceptable to believe things others do not believe, it is sometimes wise to keep one’s most cherished beliefs to oneself. People can trample one’s beliefs. They can destroy them with a careless word or gesture. So it is sometimes best to hold one’s beliefs close, to protect them from the corrosive derision of insensitive others who would trample on our dreams.

I would warn her, too, about the way people keep score with presents, and remind her that there are, in this realm too, a thousand different ways of keeping score. If she is bright, she can keep score with grades and achievement, and if she is inward-looking, she can keep score on how true she is to herself.

So encourage her to have dreams, to cultivate dreams, and to protect her dreams and her beliefs.

There are many truths. There are musical truths and sculptural truths and performance truths; there are baseball scores and mathematical theorems; there are poetic truths and observable truths and observable truths that are not true — for instance, the observable truth that the sun revolves around the Earth is an illusion. It depends on where you’re standing.

And there are many things that we believe which are as yet unprovable. We believe that pi, for instance, does not repeat its digits. Having calculated it out to 200 billion digits in which as yet no pattern has been found can we yet be certain that no pattern ever will be found? What about at 200 billion billion digits? That’s a lot of digits. Even 100,000 digits is a lot of digits.

So I would stand with Francis Church. Mysteries and miracles abound in the visible and invisible world. Santa is among them.

© Copyright Salon Media Group


Write for Advice





Hooray! I’m covered! (by Covered California)

Wow. I just completed my online application for health insurance in California, and I am amazed how easy and trouble-free it was. And now I can’t believe so many Republican politicians worked so hard to deny me this. As a person who survived a potentially fatal cancer in 2009, who had surgery and a long recovery, who has fought to get the care I need and was concerned after losing my job at Salon that insurance would be too costly or unavailable, I was worried.

But Covered California is awesome. I feel so relieved. Also I feel angrier now, actually, toward the foes of the Affordable Care Act than I did while the debate was going on. When I had good medical care through Salon, the issue was important but didn’t affect my own survival. But after leaving Salon, it really came home to me personally. So now, having just this minute completed my California Care enrollment, and getting healthcare for me and my wife, which will cover our familiar UCSF Medical Center, for about $420 a month, I’m feeling like it’s a political victory that is pretty unreal. Pretty amazing.

So: Thanks, Obama. Thanks, California.

And screw you, Republican scrooges, who would rather see me go bankrupt or die of cancer than see the country join the rest of the civilized industrial world in providing all its citizens with health care!

Cary’s weekend archival column: Dec. 24, 2004/Dec. 25, 2005

Dear reader,

If you would like advice, please write to advice@carytennis.com. And if you would like to help support this endeavor, feel free to make a donation.



I’ve asked my family to write but they say they’re too busy.


Dear Cary,

Happy holidays; hope this letter finds you well. I’ve been reading your column for a long time and respect your advice, so I’m seeking some of it here. The brass tacks of it: I’m deployed in Iraq and I’m depressed as all hell. I would love nothing more this holiday than a card from my family or loved ones, something, anything, and here it is late December, and nothing. I try and talk to my family about this, but every time I go to bring it up I feel like a selfish ass or am reminded how busy everyone is. Help me out, man, am I being a selfish ass? Trust me, I can certainly take a yes and any advice you may have to see another view.




Dear Benjamin,

I forwarded your note to your family. Their response was rather surprising:

“Dear Benjamin,

“How selfish of you!

“Sure, you are getting shot at, having bombs go off in your cafeteria, driving over explosive devices, having your deployment extended with no end in sight, blah blah blah. But don’t you realize that we, too, face dangers every day? Who knows when the Internet connection could go down and the whole family can’t log on! Who knows when the newspaper might not arrive, and somebody might have to drive to 7-Eleven and buy the paper — and then: Are you still expected to give the paperboy a tip, or what?

“There are phone calls to make, Benjamin — important phone calls to friends and not just to any friends either but to close friends — friends of a kind of closeness that you and your buddies, with your silly risking your lives for each other, wouldn’t know anything about! And there are gifts to wrap and give to each other — did you think all these gifts we’re giving to each other just wrap themselves? Cards and gifts. Stuff for each other. That’s what we’re busy with. Why haven’t you received any? Maybe because you’re way over there in Iraq. Do you know how far that is? Do you know how inconvenient it’s been for us to have to look on a map to see where you are — I mean a big map, the kind that goes beyond Rockaway Beach?

“Why did you have to go over there in the first place? Don’t you think the world’s problems would have worked themselves out eventually? But no. You had to go enlist, protect the country, be of service, live by a code of honor, blah blah blah yadda yadda yadda.

“Besides, Benjamin, how can we be thinking of you when you never drop by? Do you expect us to remember you exist when we don’t see you for week after week? Now, if you were living next door like our junior life and casualty underwriter for Northwestern Life (you think life and you think casualty but this is life and casualty!) or pursuing a graduate degree in the metaphysics of silicone breast implants or trying to start up your own reality TV show like some cousins we know, maybe you’d be a little more in touch.

“But don’t worry, we forgive you. Silly Benjamin, always trying to help. Anyway, we’ve heard it gets very hot there in the summer, but it’s winter now, isn’t it? Maybe they’ll give you an extra blanket but don’t make a pest of yourself. And for God’s sake, no matter what you do, don’t let them see you shivering in the cold the way you used to when you were a little boy!


“Your Family”

Well, Benjamin, I just made that up. I thought it might make you chuckle, and I figured you could use a chuckle. But seriously I wanted to tell you that most of us over here are awed by the sacrifices you are making on our behalf. We are capable of making the distinction between policies we disagree with and our countrymen and women who are carrying them out. I know that’s two ideas to hold in your head at one time, but we can handle it. So for you and all the other soldiers over there whose families are too busy this holiday season: We all love you and care about you back home, and we are deeply humbled by the fact that you’re laying your lives on the line so that we can go on watching television, talking on the phone and buying stuff that doesn’t make our butts look big.

We’ll never be able to thank you enough, so, frankly, we probably won’t. You’ll just have to know that it’s true: In our hearts, we appreciate it more than we can say.

© Copyright Salon Media Group




Update on the lonely soldier

Remember that soldier in Iraq sitting all by himself wishing the family would write? Response from readers was amazing.


Dear Cary,

Could you please give us an update on the poor soldier who was alone at Christmas with the family that was “too busy” to write? Did you get many responses from readers for him?


Dear Brenda,

Wow. Did I get many responses? Yes, it was amazing. All told, more than 400 readers were moved enough by that soldier’s letter to write to him. I’ve been meaning to update everybody on that. Here’s what happened:

I was on vacation on Friday, Dec. 24, the day the soldier’s column was on the cover. I happened to check my e-mail and saw this note: “Cary, why don’t you set up a Hotmail (or something) account for that soldier, give him the password, and then publish the address so this poor guy can get greetings from your readers? It might not happen in time for Christmas, but it probably could for New Year’s and he would love it, I’m sure.”

That seemed like a pretty good idea, I said to my wife. However, it would require getting in touch with the soldier, whose whereabouts I didn’t know, getting his OK, setting up the account, getting the password to him, then publishing it. As I considered all the steps involved, I decided to take a simpler, if more labor-intensive, route and just publish a notice in that day’s column inviting readers to send greetings to the soldier at the advice@salon e-mail address, and I would forward them. I published that notice on the column around midday Dec. 24.

Then my wife and I went about our business. We wrapped presents, we cooked some food, and then set off to see the “Nutcracker” with niece, nephew and in-laws, as we traditionally do on Xmas Eve. (Tradition also dictates that every year we forget to make reservations at any restaurant, preferring instead the holiday cheer of wandering chilly San Francisco with hungry children in tow, looking for a place to eat. It seemed that every place we might eat was either closed or full. Incredibly, both Max’s Opera Cafe and Chevy’s were closed! John’s Grill was full up. The Hayes Street Grill was full up. But wait! What’s this! Cafe Della Stelle has a corner table in the window! For six! There is a restaurant God after all!)

After dinner we came home and toasted marshmallows in the fireplace and opened presents. (I got a furry jacket, which I am now wearing all the time.) After Dom and Doris and the kids left, the fire was dying down, and it was quiet and warm in the house and I was alone with my wife, and it seemed like an ideal time to … check my e-mail!

That was our “It’s a Wonderful Life” moment: The letters had been pouring in all afternoon and evening! It was so sweet! It was so moving! There were hundreds of letters — thoughtful, kind, measured letters recognizing the simple fact that, policy differences be damned, this guy is family. So we spent the rest of Christmas Eve forwarding these letters to that soldier. Here are some of the things that people said:

“Gaaahhh, your letter in Salon was terrible! From at least the 15 people I told this to, Happy Freaking Holiday!! A thousand smooches from the pretty girls. A thousand pats on the back from the boys.”

“Aw, c’mon, Cary, give us saps out here a way to contact poor Benjamin and his guys there in Iraq so we can send them letters and cards and homemade body armor and stuff.”

“Thank you for laying your life on the line for the rest of us back home. Thank you for enduring life in Iraq.”

“I propose that your family is ultimately too distracted by the culture they live in to see past the crap that burdens their existence. It’s what we all do — define ourselves by the norms and expectations of our culture. So I cannot believe they don’t love you and wish you were with them, and maybe they’re also quietly terrified of having you where you are.”

“Mahalo, Mele Kalikimaka and Hauoli Makahiki Hou from Hilo, HI!”

“I was and am against the war, but I have tremendous respect for people like you who are willing to put your lives on the line for this country, regardless of my feelings (or yours) about the decisions made by the political leadership.”

Those are just a few quotes from the first few letters. Reading through them still gives me some kind of chill. I don’t know what it is. I guess it’s just plain old goodness and compassion and decency is what it is.

My wife and I sat there at the iMac and forwarded as many letters as we could by midnight, and then we went to bed.

I got a quick note from him the next morning, saying, “Merry Christmas, brother, and my most sincere thanks to everyone who has replied.”

Not too long afterward, I got another, longer note from him:


Dear Cary,

My wife is also a regular Salon reader, it didn’t take long after she read the letter for her to put two and two together and immediately hit me up. We talked for hours over I.M. and I think both of us were reduced to uncontrollable sobbing through it all. She apologized profusely and passed the word onto my family, who also in turn have responded in droves. Sometimes a kick in the pants is all that’s needed to remind us of the truly important things in life.

I don’t want anyone to get the wrong impression. This deployment has been extremely hard on my wife, who has had to deal with severe financial constraints; I’m in the National Guard, and we took a severe pay cut when I deployed, raising our son, trying to keep everything on the home front secure and all the things a spouse does when their partner heads off to foreign lands.

Thank you, Cary. Thank you for your words of advice and for all of your readers who have responded with all their love and support. It means the world to so many of us over here, so far away from those we love and care for.

All my love to you and your readers,


Pretty cool, huh?

© Copyright Salon Media Group


Write for Advice





I got someone else’s invitation to the mayor’s ball. Should I go?


Write for Advice


Hi Cary,

Look, this might be a no brainer, but I’m just a product of a world with rapidly declining standards and dubious if any moral values, so here goes.

I live in a major international city (A BIG ONE).

Through some kind of human or machine type error I mistakenly received an invitation not meant for me at my post office box (actually addressed to a married couple at my box number).

It was a very expensive and creative envelope so you might understand why I opened it.

Imagine my surprise to find an invitation from none other than THE MAYOR of my city to a GALA NEW YEAR’S EVE PARTY at a very GLAMOROUS location.

I am currently without any plans at all for New Year’s Eve (actually at a bit of a loose end) so this presents a golden opportunity to see in the New Year in style while rubbing shoulders with VIPs and the local who’s who (or people who have swiped their invitations).

What do you think, Cary?

Should I go for it or just stay home and watch the ball drop in Times Square on TV?



Dear J,

You’ve come into possession of an invitation meant for other people. If you keep this invitation, you are stealing from them.

That response sounds very grown-up, doesn’t it? Well, let me tell you, that’s a long way from my first thought. My first thought was, “You’ve been invited. You should go!” I do believe that the universe speaks to us through accident and coincidence, but the language it speaks is metaphor and riddle. Its logic is dream logic. So as I worked through the ethical and legal implications, I realized I was making the same mistake we all make: I was taking the universe literally. I was also projecting onto your situation my own restlessness and impatience and love of mischief.

So if this means something, what does it mean?

It could mean you have a thirst for some big-time fun, some glamor and excitement that you’ve been ignoring. It could be a sign that you have some issues about honesty and stealing that you need to face up to. It could also mean that the world’s “rapidly declining standards and dubious if any moral values” are a serious concern for you, that you have been wrestling with this profound problem.

What it doesn’t mean is that the mayor wants you to come to his party. That’s for sure. Not unless he invites you. And he hasn’t invited you.

So here is what I would love to see you do: I’d love to see you find these people. I’d love to see you have some harmless fun with this. Contact the mayor’s office and tell them that you received this invitation in error and you want to deliver it to its rightful owners in person. Get their address. Then dress up for the ball. Or, even better: Dress up like a royal footman. Go to their address and ring the bell. Announce that they are being invited to a ball. Explain to them that you received the invitation in error, that you thought you were being invited to a ball, so you got all dressed up, and then realized it was not for you.

See what they do. I expect your costume will excite comment. If they have a sense of humor, you may share a great moment. They may even invite you in for a holiday cocktail. There’s no way to tell. But there’s nothing like responding to the universe’s little tricks with a little fun of your own.

Will you be rewarded for doing the right thing? Who knows. Your reward may be expressed, like this coincidence itself, in the language of metaphor.

In short, you have received an invitation. It’s just not the kind of invitation you think it is.

You’re not being invited to a ball. You’re being invited to make a choice.


Write for Advice





My parents refuse to meet my boyfriend


Dear reader,

If you would like advice, please write to advice@carytennis.com.

Dear Cary,

I am 30 years old and have been with my wonderful boyfriend for over a year. I really think he is the love of my life, we get along greatly, and we have projects for a life together, although everything for now is limited to words and dreams, because we haven’t the financial opportunity to marry, buy or rent a house yet (we both live with our parents).

All is well, apart from one thing: my parents. They absolutely do not actively get in the way of this relationship, but they refuse to meet him; just once, we went together to the theatre to see a show in which my brother acted (because my brother specifically invited my BF too), and for all the evening they didn’t exchange one single word with him. The reason behind this attitude is that – gasp! – he is ALREADY my THIRD serious boyfriend, and they are, and I quote, “tired of meeting and grow fond of guys that are destined to be dumped anyway” (because the two previous relationships were both ended by me).

I find this very offensive for many reasons: first of all, the previous relationship were ended because I was not happy and both the previous boyfriends brought lots of problems in my life, so I don’t understand how a parent would cast this up at their daughter instead of being happy for her to have ended an unhappy relationship; should I have endured fake and rotten relationships just for saving the face?

It’s not that I enjoyed ending those two previous relationships, nor I have done it light-heartedly. Secondly, they are making me feel like a whore, like having had two serious relationships in ten years (they were both long stories) equals to sleep with a different man every week. And finally, they said that they never wanted to meet any future partners, neither mine nor my brother’s, but I found out that my mother had my brother’s last girlfriend at home.

I guess the different treatment is because my brother was always dumped by his former GFs (so he is a “victim”), while I am the shameless meneater. My boyfriend is a very good-spirited person, and he says this situation doesn’t bother him at all, he says that my parents have all the rights of taking their time, and he regularly brings me vegetables from his garden to present my parents with; I wish I could have his same optimist and positive attitude about this situation, but I can’t, because I feel bad for him and I feel like I was a criminal of some sort.

My BF’s parents, on the contrary, love me to bits (and I love them), they welcomed me like a daughter of their own, and are a very close, affectionate family. My family, instead, has a history of endless conflicts, difficulty to express our feelings, and my mother and father are estranged, although still living under the same roof.

Do you have any advice? What do you think? Is this a problem of my parents who are unable to be affectionate? Or am I just overreacting and should I just get over it and live my life without caring what they think of me? Sometimes I wonder if they’d rather I kept a boyfriend I was unhappy with, just for the “image,” and end up like them, full of anger towards each other. If I had a daughter, all I would wish for her was happiness, regardless of how many men it takes before finding it.

Please forgive my not-so-good English (I am Italian but love your column and always read it), and the length of the letter.

“The Shameless Meneater”


Dear Shameless Meneater,

I think your parents are trying to protect themselves and avoid being hurt. Why don’t they just tell you this? Well, as you say, your family members don’t express their feelings well.

They probably have not told you how hard it was for them to see your previous relationships end. They have not told you how much your happiness means to them, how their hopes for you have soared and then been dashed, how they have gone through all your intense emotions right along with you, and now how they fear it will happen again and they just can’t handle it.

They may seem gruff and unfeeling but this is just a pose. They’re trying to protect themselves.

They may think that as parents they should stay out of your business. They may think burdening you with their emotions is wrong. They may think that telling you how hurt they have been is selfish and not right for parents. They may also know, deep down, that how they are handling this is silly and foolish, that refusing to meet him is not ideal. But it’s the best they can do right now. It’s the best they can do.

I think when we are young and in love we do not understand how attached our parents become to our partners. Their situation is not easy. They become attached but have no say. They have to stand on the sidelines. They have no involvement, and yet they have all the emotions.

So I suggest you respond with kindness. Tell them that you understand. Tell them it’s OK if they don’t want to meet him yet. If you show some leeway, they may become less rigid. Take an attitude of relaxed confidence. Take the pressure off them.

It would be great if everyone would show patience, but you cannot control anyone else. You can only show patience yourself and hope that it becomes contagious. So have patience with your parents. Ask your boyfriend to have patience with your parents. And know that your parents are doing the best they can.



We stood at the turning point: Brian Herrera and the beauty of change

What our friend Brian Herrera wrote today about his experience at the Creative Getaway at Marconi spurred some thoughts of my own which I’d like to share — with people who’ve had this experience and with people who perhaps do not know about the Amherst Writers and Artists method or the creative getaways Norma and I have put on at Marconi Conference Center since 2008.

Actually, I have a lot to say so I’ll post this in two or three parts. The first part, for today, is this: Brian’s post reminded me how much the AWA process can work as a catalyst at a crucial turning point in someone’s life. People get spurred on to make courageous changes and then they write books. They get degrees. They get jobs at Princeton.

Which means that they move on.

So let me tell you about my own kind of mixed-up psychology, or my personal emotional baggage: I am always trying to reconstruct my family. So if you come within my field of gravity, I will assign you a part in my imaginary family, as a brother or sister or uncle or aunt or parental figure. And then when someone whom I have assigned a place in my imaginary family makes a sudden move toward growth and change, my impulse is to say, Wait, hold on, you have to stay in the family!

Also, as a business, we can get hung up on having “repeat customers.” It makes it easier for us financially if everybody just comes every time. As producers of the event, Norma and I are focused on repeating it as an event, making it happen again and again. Yet the essence of it is about change: people using the AWA method to speak their truth, making changes in their lives and moving on.

There are some words in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous that are relevant here: “Half-measures availed us nothing. We stood at the turning point.”

People come to the creative getaway because they are standing at the turning point. They have tried half-measures, acknowledging as portion of the writer self, for instance, feeding it enough to keep it from dying but mainly in life attending to what is practical and pressing and immediate, while continuously thinking that one day perhaps we’ll get around to seeing what this writing thing is all about, and this niggling, half-ignored voice of the writer will get its due. One day. Sometime.

Keep on like that and then suddenly you’re 80. So we say come, now, while the impulse is fresh, begin a dialog with the writer self in you, and make the changes you need to make.

But how does that relate to the production of story? One might ask, where is the craft in all this? Where is the practical application? How is this going to help me be a writer?

I say, paradoxically, that abandoning for the moment all concern about craft is the route to finding our true story, for story is about revelation. Story is not about craft. Craft is a vehicle. Story is about facing desperate moments. So in coming to Marconi, or Chester, or Melrose, or Santa Barbara, or Amsterdam, or Tuscany, one may be treating oneself, but one is also mining one’s own desperation for that kernel of truth that is the only story that matters.

Story comes from personal truth in conflict with the world. One recognizes what is real, what is right, what must be done, and sets about changing, upsetting the apple cart, creating tension. Poetry, too, comes of conflict — confronting the barriers of language itself, twisting it to fit what is otherwise inexpressible.

So coming to Marconi to explore one’s relationship to the writing self is also about finding the story that writing self is best suited to write. Conversely, when we are stuck we are not only avoiding the situation, we are avoiding the story. The story begins when we acknowledge the situation and start dealing with it — as Brian did.

Thanks Brian, for reminding me what is the essential function and goodness of the AWA method.

The point is that if you “stand at the turning point,” if you are at the fulcrum of change and ready to set a new angle of trajectory, this may be what you need. And then, if this is what you need, then our job is to make it possible for you to do it.

It takes a little trust — trust of oneself, and also trust in external things coming together. In Brian’s case, for instance, there was the long-agonized-over dissertation. There was also the fact that it was his birthday; and his partner was supporting him in the decision. And a little bit of money had come into his hands that made it make sense to do it. All those things came together.

In other cases it may be just the soul crying out, saying, It’s time to do this. This is what you need, even if it does not appear to be the practical thing. Life is like that sometimes. We have to make a leap of faith.

My job is to be there and make the event happen. If now, having read this, you recognize that you are at some kind of turning point, then please let me know and we will see what we can do to accommodate you.

Oh, and feel free to phone me on impulse. 415 308-5685. You don’t need to have your whole plan figured out. You don’t have to be sure you’re coming. Call if you just want to talk about the possibility of it. I love to talk. All this emailing makes me miss talking on the phone. I don’t have things all figured out so I don’t see why you should.

p.s. Say Hello to Brian on Facebook!



Our featured person of the week: Brian Herrera

We first met Brian Herrera at our first-ever Creative Getaway. An exceptionally talented and inventive writer, he amazed us all during our evening reading sessions by one moment reading us the most deeply moving piece, and the next reading something that would leave the entire room in tears of laughter. Here’s what Brian has to say about himself, the Creative Getaway, and his new project, Storywork:

When I got the email announcing Cary’s first Creative Getaway, I knew immediately I had to go. Even though it made no sense. Such an extravagance. Terrible timing. School would be back in session and, dang, it would be the weekend immediately prior to the last-chance, do-or-die submission date for my long-overdue dissertation! But…it would also be my birthday weekend. And a perfectly-sized lump payment had finally landed in my account. So when my partner said he’d spring for the airfare as a birthday gift, I clicked the button. I was in.

It was a gift, I reminded myself. Not a reward exactly, but a tangible gift to confirm that promise I made to myself. That promise that I would finish the dissertation. That confirmation that finishing the dissertation was itself an act of healing. That reminder that finishing meant I could no longer pretend I was just a dissertator. That finishing meant I was a writer.

And what better way to make that promise real than to join a bunch of other writers on a mountain near Tomales Bay?

That first Getaway was indeed a life-changer. In maybe the first session, I wrote my first real amends to my writerly self (using only single-syllable words, naturally). Within twenty-four hours, I wrote my first words of fiction. And by the weekend’s end, I felt as if a new chapter of my life had begun.

Looking back, just five years later, I realize that Cary’s Getaway didn’t make me a writer, but the experience did goad me to embrace that I am a writer, because I am someone who writes. That simple turn of mind not only opened a new chapter in my life, but also a renewed sense of self. And, in the five years since, I have kept writing in all kinds of ways. And not only the scholarly nonfiction required for my job, but exploring other forms, including young adult fiction, children’s picture books, and creative nonfiction The practice I began at the Getaway also took me directly to the particular set of coincidences that launched my autobiographical one-man show, I Was The Voice of Democracy, which has since been seen scores of times in more than a dozen states (not to mention Beirut and Abu Dhabi). I now enjoy a thrilling sideline in what I call “storywork,” or a mode of autobiographical storymaking in which the processes of writing and performing are so twined that the one can never be fully untangled from the other. (My new Storywork website launches this week — check it out!) And just a month or so ago, my ecstatic editor sent back a set of glowing reader reports, so now I’m hunkering down for a few weeks of deep revision because… Well, you remember that old dissertation? It is now nearly a book, presently under advance contract with a major university press and with a likely release sometime (hopefully early) in 2015.

And it all tracks back to that gift of a promise that Cary’s Getaway made real for me: I am a writer, because I am one who writes. So I better get to writing!

Hanging with Judith Lindbloom at El Farolito

Judith Lindbloom, abstract expressionist, El Farolito on 24th Street in the Mission for lunch after the meeting, talking about William James,  the God thing, William James says, Look, we are scientific men, Christian men, honest men, and we cannot deny what we see: People are having experiences; they have these experiences of another world and then they change. What are we to call this? How can we, as scientific men, pretend that this is not real? So something is going on, basically, is what Judith and William James and I agree about in the Farolito on 24th near Florida Street.

How did she get 33 years sober, hanging out with de Kooning in New York, marrying Steve Lacy because he needed a wife even though she preferred women, and living in that apartment at 24th and Potrero since 1979, watching the giant construction cranes across Potrero at SF General Hospital, and my plate of al pastor, and the uncanny feeling of holy rescue one feels sitting across from somebody who rampaged through 1950s New York art scene fucking everything that had a can of cadmium yellow and a canvas stretcher, everything that had a gallery show even a group gallery show and a collection of Chet Baker records not too many because he didn’t make too many because he died young and pretty and messed up, toothless and beat up and strung out in the Fillmore … thinking how does that familiar miracle happen to this woman who is nothing but trouble for years just fucking up everything until finally one day she gets it and stops the bullshit and just keeps painting every day for the last 33 years in her studio at Hunter’s Point until the abstracts are piled up to the ceiling and still she keeps going because it’s the only way to God for her, it’s the only way to know herself, her raspy, Winston-ravaged throat, her New York by way of Chicago combination of exasperation and exultations, half the time having no idea what she’s really saying but agreeing, as we agree about William James and what he was seeing in 1890, that the old religions are crumbling yet people are having these experiences of something beyond, something other, something anti-rational that says everything you believed up till now was wrong, relax, surrender.

Let the impossible happen. Let what you don’t know guide you.

Me and Judith in El Farolito. She talks incessantly about dying. How she’s ready. How it’s a pain in the ass. How people are taking care of her. People are taking Judith where Judith needs to go. People are buying Judith lunch. People are driving Judith to AA meetings. This is community.

This is how community works, a loving community around a single person without any blood relatives nearby, this is how we close ranks around someone who tore through New York in the 1950s and is still painting abstract expressionist and still listening to jazz LPs on her turntable in her Hunters Point studio and still wearing those khaki painters’ pants the hipsters wore in New York: that faded black-and-white photo of her on the door of her Hunters Point studio: Who is that woman she’s with, her lover? A friend of de Kooning’s? Who is that woman? How did she get there? And how did we get to this table at El Farolito?

We moved into her building in 1990 and she said, “I’m the one with the great flat. You’re the ones who got the not-so-great flat.” We became friends. We went to demonstrations together.

I am giving her rides. We are taking care of her. We are closing ranks around her as she threatens to slip away from us.

Cary’s weekend archival column: Sept. 15, 2010


Visiting my family gets me down

Every time I see them I’m depressed for a week


Write for Advice

Dear Cary,

First, thank you for being persistent with your crazy wisdom, and for not giving up. I enjoy your column.
I need a new way to think about this situation, and I’m hoping you can help. Here is a bit of background, in case it helps.

I live in a separate state from my family, and visit about five or six times per year. My relationship with my parents was dicey for a long time, but it is now more even, as I started simultaneously sticking up for myself more, and caring about their approval less. I’m in my mid-30s now. After a wandering employment history (two different careers), I am now underemployed in some ways, but happy to have a job, and try to be useful. Married, have some pets that I adore. I have a history of depression but am managing for the most part. No children because I spent a long time not feeling good, and now that I feel more OK, I don’t want to ruin it (not that I dislike children, I just want some internal peace and am too old to have a bit of peace and then have children).

My problem is that every time I visit my family, I feel like shit for three to four days afterward. I don’t feel bad while I’m there (anymore). In fact, things are better than they’ve ever been. But this shitty feeling, it is on the inside, and it takes me days to shake it off, even when I try to talk myself into a better place. I try to get at exactly what this feeling is about, and the most I can tell is that I feel like a loser when I’m there. It’s kind of an extension of the more pervasive feeling I have that I somehow just don’t fit in, that there is something slightly “off” about me.

The strange thing is, my parents aren’t all that successful or well adjusted. If anything, I’m slightly more adjusted than they are, unless I just have no objectivity and am fooling myself. My sister and her husband are more successful in that they both have careers and a more standard life, by American standards. When I ask myself if I’m jealous, I am not so much envious of their standard lives as I am of their seeming feeling of “fitting in.” In other words, I don’t necessarily want what they have (my parents and my sibling), but I want to feel like they feel. This is true not only of my family, but of society in general—I don’t really admire the lifestyle I’m told I should want, but I want the part of the dream that has me feeling good about myself. It’s just, for some reason, that this part that I lack is more pronounced when I’m with my family.

Anyway, I do not want to stop seeing my family. They’re basically good people. But this does affect my willingness to visit for extended periods, since it is really inconvenient to feel shitty for a week afterward. I’m embarrassed that I still feel this way well into my 30s. Is there anything I can do about this, or is this just how it is?



Dear Confused,

Your family is never going to be the family you wish you had and they are never going to give you the feeling you wish they would give you and you are never going to fit in the way you wish you fit in and the sooner you realize this and get angry about it and shout it out and bang your fists on the floor and scream at the gods about it and grieve it and fully accept it and let it go the sooner you can be at peace with yourself and your gifts and the way you are loved now.

The way you are now is the way you are loved. Those who love you do not love this other person you wish you were. They do not even know who that person is. The way you are now is the way you are loved.

You think there is some other person you might be if you were only different but even if she showed up on your doorstep you wouldn’t know who she is because she would be lacking the full code of you. There is only one person who has the full code of you. There is only one person who can be loved as you and it is your job to keep being that person.
Why are you sad after being with your family? Because you start pretending to be somebody else because you think somebody else deserves their love. And then you lose your bearings. It takes days to put yourself back together. So remember:

It is you whom the people who love you love. They don’t need you to pretend. When you pretend they just wait for you to come back.

(Here is one reason I am a writer and not a therapist: If I were a therapist I would start making stuff up just to have something new to say. So I will not say for the umpteenth time to read Feeling Good by Dr. David Burns even though you probably should read it anyway because it seems to help with things like this.)

To sense that your family does not really love or approve of you hurts but it doesn’t mean you’re supposed to be somebody else. It means you’re supposed to bear that sadness with dignity; it means you’re supposed to bear that loss as a wise person would, knowing it’s just the tension between your capacity for dreaming and your capacity for acceptance.

Some people are fine because they don’t think about the infinite possibilities but some of us do think about the infinite possibilities which would be fine if that were all we did but then we also think about how much it sucks that these infinite possibilities do not all come to fruition although if you think about it there must be a natural cap on the number of infinite possibilities that are brought into being just as there must be a finite number of partners at Goldman Sachs.

You are here to do the one job no one else can do and that job is to fulfill the destiny written on your skin in a place you cannot read without turning inside out. Take several deep breaths. Stop what you are doing.

What is the source of your sadness?

© Copyright Salon Media Group


Write for Advice


Xmas_smallInterested in more holiday-related columns? Check out Cary’s collection of holiday columns, That Special Time of Year.