I lost my engagement ring — and secretly replaced it at Wal-Mart

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, JUN 1, 2006


I have a problem that I don’t know how to fix.

Three years ago, a year after I became engaged, I lost my engagement ring. While I was camping with my fiancé and two friends, we decided to take a walk in the water by the beach. As a joke, one of my friends pulled me into the water, and while I thrashed around, the ring slipped off my finger into the lake. We searched, but the ring was gone.

It still makes me sick to think about it.

To cover up the loss, I went to Wal-Mart and bought an inexpensive ring that looked very much like the original. This way, I hoped that no one would learn about what had happened. I didn’t tell anyone about the loss (most of my family and friends live out of town anyway), and I asked my fiancé not to tell anyone either.

However, my fiancé confided in his sister and one of his good friends. The grapevine was efficient, and soon all of his family knew. That Christmas, in front of my fiancé’s whole family, my future sister-in-law asked me if the ring I was wearing was a replacement engagement ring. I was forced to admit that I had bought the ring at Wal-Mart.

Meanwhile, the insurance for the ring came through. The amount was $900, less than half the ring’s value of $2,300.

However, the money has stayed with my fiancé. Although I’ve asked about it, he doesn’t seem interested in buying a new ring.

We are planning to get married in two months — a quiet affair, just the two of us, at City Hall. After the wedding, I don’t want to wear this “Wal-Mart special” anymore. I had suggested that we spend just the $900 insurance money on a new ring, or that he contribute the $900 from the insurance and I cover the remaining $1,400 to replace the original. However, neither suggestion seems to be the right one.

I have great difficulty bringing it up, because I feel such guilt over the loss. Should I simply let it go, and quietly stop wearing the engagement ring once we are married? We have other expenses right now — a trip overseas and home renovations — and I don’t want to add to the financial burden.

Please advise me what I should do.

Lady of the Lost Ring


Dear Lady of the Lost Ring,

I suggest you sit down with your fiancé and try to resolve the emotional issues that surround the material issues. It may be that he is angry with you for losing the ring. You need to ask him, “Are you still angry with me for losing it? If so, you need to tell me.”

It was a lot of money. He may still blame you. You have to find out.

I’m sure you’ve already apologized. You need to make your apology once again and ask him to forgive you once and for all. The two of you need to agree to let this go. The ring is gone. It was an accident. It cost a lot of money. But it’s gone. Let it go.

If you don’t like wearing the Wal-Mart ring, put it away after you’re married. You’ll be wearing a wedding band then, I would presume, and you don’t need to wear two rings.

It’s vital to resolve this before you get married. The thing about marriage is that it lasts for a long, long time, and the patterns and stories you establish at the outset persist. So if this issue remains unresolved, it is guaranteed to come up later. When money is short or when you lose something again by accident, it will come up. You will realize: He’s still mad at you for that ring. Twenty years from now, it will still come up unless you act to resolve it now.

So act boldly and with confidence now, and turn this mishap into something positive. Make sure that he forgives you, and then:

After you’re married, use the $900 to buy a fishing rod and some top-notch camping gear and go back to the same lake with your same friends.

Go fishing.

When you catch a fish, clean it carefully. Look for the ring. Then cook it over an open flame and eat it by firelight.

Maybe one day you’ll catch a fish and inside the fish will be the ring. In fact, you could make it a tradition; you could go fishing there every year, and that will remind you and your husband of your early happiness and frivolity and your early mistakes, and it will become a tradition that will help your friendships endure. This innocent mistake thereby becomes a lifelong gift.

As long as you go fishing, there will always be a chance that you will find the ring. And that will serve as a metaphor for your marriage: Every time you open yourself up to possibility, there is a chance that you will find something precious you thought you had lost. Every time you cast a line, there’s a chance that you’ll reel in a miracle in the belly of a fish.

Can our marriage survive infertility and depression?

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Dear Cary,

I wrote to you once about seven years ago — I was a faithful column reader before and until now. Your advice was spot on, and now I find myself in a heartbreaking situation that I hope you will shed your light on.

My husband and I have been married for six years. We have a mostly happy marriage with ups and downs. I love him. We have been struggling with my infertility this entire time. Basically, my ovaries have not and will not work. Of course I did not know this before we got married, although I suppose I should have wondered. I had never used birth control; I figured that the rhythm method just worked! Now I realize that my body did not work. These years of infertility have been heartbreaking. We have gone through a myriad of treatments. During this time, my husband has become increasingly cold and even cruel; certainly not compassionate. He feels like we are throwing our money away at the infertility industry. Most heartbreaking is, is that he will not adopt and will not use donor eggs (and his sperm) to have a child. In my mind, we have plenty of money — and there are ways to build a family. He just refuses. He doesn’t want kids that aren’t  “his own”; he sincerely thinks he could not love them as his biological children (despite what every parent of adopted and donor-conceived children say; your commenters will surely say this, and saying this does not help). He doesn’t want to be forced to do something he doesn’t feel right about. I understand that.

I tell him that I need compassion from him, and he says he “doesn’t express love in this way,” and I need to just acknowledge the infertility and get over it. The infertility is ruining our marriage. I could imagine handling this mountain to climb, if I felt like someone was climbing it with me. I could imagine a euphemistically called “childfree” life, if I had not found out that my husband is so callous and unsupportive. The way that my husband acts,  it’s as if he has fallen out of love with me. He says he loves me, although he sometimes says he just wants to “get away from all of it (i.e., divorce).”

Complicating the mess is that I have recently changed careers, which involves significant additional training, because I figured if I were not to have children, at least I could have a career that I found more fulfilling. He said that the infertility and my being in school is really hurtful, and he finds it difficult to talk about. Trying to communicate about it is like pulling teeth.

My school is in a different state — and we had planned to move to this state together; we were happy for a change. At the last minute he decided not to move; so now we live apart — although the “plan” is for him to move in about eight months. All of this is incredibly difficult.

I understand that my options are to divorce and become a single mother by myself (donor sperm + donor egg or adoption) or stay with him and not have children. I don’t want to be a single mother; I don’t want a divorce. I don’t want a divorce because that is not why I got married. I believe people who love each other — in sickness and in health — should be able to work things out. Perhaps you and your comments will astutely observe that it takes two to make a marriage work, and for whatever reasons, my husband has checked out. Perhaps. But he has not sent me divorce papers. But knowing that I could build a family but not doing so because of my husband’s recalcitrance is so painful I feel it in my chest <a href=”http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletters/Harvard_Womens_Health_Watch/2010/November/takotsubo-cardiomyopathy-broken-heart-syndrome”>(takotsubo syndrome)</a>.

He has finally started to go to a counselor; I think that much of his meanness is a result of depression and his own grief and confusion.

I also think he doesn’t want to be labeled  “the bad one,” who divorces his wife because she is infertile. I understand that my infertility is also a loss for him, even if he is handling it in a different way. I am in counseling too. We tried couples counseling to discuss our disagreement about creating a family, but it centered around his depression instead of our marriage and was not helpful after three months. Now that we live in different states, couples counseling is not happening. We see each other every month or so. We talk every day. He says he loves me. But once we start to talk about  “next steps,” he shuts down. He is a bit passive-aggressive (he would rather not make a decision and then all of a sudden we are too old to adopt).

 I feel like I am just waiting for him to divorce me. I don’t want to file for divorce because I can see through his pain and depression (and cruelness) to the person I loved and married. I don’t want to divorce him, when it is he who questions his commitment. I don’t want to divorce myself. Yet not having a family with children to grow old with is extremely sad. Your commenters will say to fill my life with other things (i.e., to change “childless” to “childfree”). But I already have great friends, hobbies, travel and a fulfilling career! How could it be any better? I had a great husband, and I hope he starts being one again. Childless won’t become happily childfree with a cruel husband. If I divorce, do I go on a dating site and say, “I’m forty and infertile! Who wants to adopt children with me!”? I would not have time to wait for someone else to have a family with — I would have to do it alone. How can I divorce the family I have, to adopt another family? The choices I have are all bad.

Thanks for your advice,

Infertile and Sort-of Alone


Dear Infertile and Sort-of Alone,

The key to your situation is for your husband to recover from depression. Depression can distort one’s thoughts and cause one to act cruelly. You can’t make any good decisions together, as a couple, as long as he is in depression. So the best decision you can make, right now, is to put off any permanent changes until he can be treated and show some improvement.

Does he resist treatment? He may. Until his condition becomes unbearable for him he may resist treatment. And it is a complicated situation. But the one clear message I want to send to you is that your husband is suffering from depression and that is the main problem in your marriage. So whatever can be done now to help him recover from depression should be your top priority as a couple.

His depression may resist treatment. It may last a long time. It may have several causes. He may have ups and downs. But it is the central issue and it can be treated.

Having children or not having children is not the central issue. The marriage is. A marriage can be a boundless source of energy and support for both partners if both partners are healthy; such a marriage can weather loss and disappointment. It can be a safe haven in which crucial decisions can be made. The question of children or no children may be a painful thing for him to face in his depression but it is not the central issue and it is not causing his depression. Nor is your moving to go to school causing his depression.

We don’t know what is causing it. But, again, it is my strong feeling that his depression is the factor that is pushing your marriage to the brink.

If nothing can be immediately done about his depression, or if he takes steps and there is no immediate improvement, then wait. Let life go on and let your marriage be in a holding pattern for a while. Meanwhile pay attention to your own needs; live on your own and wait. There is no need to divorce him yet. Just wait. Wait until he finds treatment and shows steady improvement or until one day you realize nothing is going to change and that his love is gone and the marriage is over. You may reach the point where you see that he is a lost cause and will never get better and there is nothing you can do. No one can say how long that might be but I feel certain that you will know if it reaches this point and that it will come to you as a kind of death. If it happens, it will come to you with fhe force of certainty and you will feel grief because it will be over. You won’t need anyone to tell you it’s over and you won’t need to guess or wonder. It will come to you that the marriage is over and then dissolving the marriage legally will be a formality. Then grieving will happen because the marriage is over, not because you are getting a divorce. It will be a kind of grieving because a kind of death has occurred, metaphorically speaking; he has gone so far into his depression that he cannot come out.

My guess is that this will not happen, that you will wait and he will improve and you will learn how to live together with your different feelings about children. You will have some shared loss and you will go on. That is what I see. The fact that he has started seeing a mental health professional is a good sign. There are many effective treatments. If he can find one, and stick with it, and improve, then the chances are good that you can have a marriage that works for you, even if it does not give you everything.

I pray that you will find the strength and wisdom to see this through.

Cary Tennis' Finishing School



My boss throws herself on the floor when unhappy


Cary’s classic column from Thursday, Jan 26, 2012


She berates! She glares! She makes backhanded comments about your lunch selection! Shouldn’t I, uh, say something?


Dear Cary,

My boss is insane.

I know people say that a lot but I’m pretty sure I win. I recently started working for someone who I thought was an extravagant and eccentric designer, but instead I find out that she is an unprofessional, spoiled, dramatic, self-absorbed, abusive, venomous … the list goes on … nut job.

I am realizing that there is probably no changing this woman but maybe I can learn to work around her moods … OR at least keep the peace in the office. Every time she enters the room, gushing with feigned merriment, the atmosphere sours.

She is self-aggrandizing. “I have such great taste, I am so amazing, I do everything around here, I’m the only one who works, I’m so smart …” Literally, those phrases spew from her mouth daily — to an office of intelligent and hardworking people. She throws herself on the floor when she is unhappy about something — actually on the floor — and whines dramatically. She lashes out at the staff, then cries (tears) and apologizes. She berates people in the office or over the phone while prancing around the workplace like it is performance art. (Oh. I forgot to mention she is a failed dancer/actress.) She glares at the staff and makes backhanded comments about their outfits or their style, even their lunch selections.

Recently a woman quit, claiming a hostile work environment. The rate of turnover in this small company is unbelievable. No one stays for more than six months, and the most senior employee on the current staff is nearing five months. She seems perpetually displeased with everything and complains incessantly to everyone about anyone not in the room. It is really exhausting. Sometimes she talks to her cat about us in a silly playful voice, but with an evil, maniacal face. It’s really creepy.

And her friends just placate her. They come into the office regularly to baby her and coddle her in soothing voices, as if her behavior is even remotely appropriate. Yesterday she called in a Zoloft prescription on speaker phone and told us she only takes it when she has a bad day! WHAT?!? She should be on anti-psychotics!

I don’t even pretend that her behavior is acceptable and I think because of my disapproving tone I am now a target. I don’t want to encourage her unprofessional and abusive behavior so I am OVERLY professional when around her and I try to keep our interactions solely business related. But now everything I do is criticized (although, after her long, strange, silent pauses punctuated by yelling, it is usually agreed that my ideas/methods are best.)

I would love to cut and run but in this economy I’d like to be smart about my next move. I also really LOVE the rest of the staff!! I want to see THEM every day.

How can I deal with this? What is wrong with this woman?!?!?!

Help… I don’t know what to do with this crazy lady!

The Only Sane One Left


Dear Only Sane One,

Yep. Sounds like your boss is insane all right.

This is probably not be the last crazy person you will have to work for. So use this as a chance to practice and learn. Observe. Think like a psychiatrist. Is she crazy like this every day, or does she go through periods of relatively normal behavior? Do you notice extreme ups and downs? Will she go several days seeming very up, and then disappear from work, calling in sick or taking vacation?

Think like an anthropologist. Why is she the boss? What hidden social system is operating? Does her family own the company? If her family owned the company that might say something about kinship practices in the modern economy. Or if she herself owns it, it would say something about the magical powers we grant people who have money, that for some reason, probably having to do with our irrational belief systems, money buys people exemption from the consequences of acting crazy.

I’m just saying, use this rare chance to observe something strange and wondrous firsthand.

This is also an opportunity to learn something about yourself. How does your reaction to her differ from the reactions of your co-workers? If you had to work with her for the next five years, do you think you could do it? How? What would make it possible?

Also, to venture even farther afield, I suggest that you treat this rather fiction-like situation as though it were indeed a work of fiction. That is, look for the thematic patterns in it, the hidden subplots, the orderly magnetism of narrative justice, and the way in which her behavior mirrors behavior you have encountered before, which would raise the possibility that this is some kind of coded signal to you. I’m not saying it is; I’m just saying, to make it more interesting, imagine that it might be.

By the way, it’s interesting that she has been a dancer and actress. Maybe she would respond if you were to play against her, like a character. What if you were to do something really outrageous? What if you were to scold her like a little girl? I wonder what would happen. Would she slap you? Would she get violent? Might she pout? Would she fire you on the spot? That might be the best thing that could happen to you. Yes, I know the economy is not good. But it might not be good for a long time.

What do you want to do with your life? Do you want to spend it tiptoeing around vicious, crazy, immature egomaniacs? Why not call her on it?

As you can see, I’m not really giving you much practical help. All the employment gurus will say I’m harming your career prospects. But you’re an adult. You don’t have to do what I suggest. But think about it. What’s going on is a form of group madness.

There is something compelling about her, isn’t there? Be honest with yourself: Is she completely repugnant, or are there aspects of her that you find interesting? Does she have artistic talent? Is she sort of a crazy artist type, a diva? Or has she gotten where she is more by political talent, undermining those who would threaten her and befriending those who can help her? Or, as I say, did she come into the situation with resources of her own — family money or money of her own? What has she got? Is she beautiful, charming, smart, talented? What? Take notes. Film her. Study her. Years from now you may find it utterly amazing.

It’s really weird how there’ll be this one crazy person and no one person is powerful enough to stop the crazy person from being crazy. You’d think that “sanity” would prevail. But the crazy person has been granted magical powers. No one can touch her. Everyone is afraid of losing their jobs. Everyone is “being pragmatic,” when really, they are being damaged. And a pattern is being set. The group is failing to to take effective democratic action. What if you were in a lifeboat? What if she were a terrorist? What if she were abusing children? Where is the dividing line? What is this terrible passivity that settles over people in the presence of the deranged?

Don’t you wish, in situations like that, someone would be the hero? It might mean sacrificing a career. But is a career sacred? Is there nothing more important than one’s career prospects? Is self-esteem and dignity not more important than getting a bad reputation in an office that appears to have gone collectively mad?

I’m not suggesting you film her and put it on YouTube, though that would be amusing. I personally was very happy to be able to write the headline, “My boss throws herself on the floor when unhappy.” So there is that, too: How we turn mental illness into an occasion of glee. I know, it’s maybe not funny.

My main point is that this is not just about career. It is about moral choice. You have a chance to do something or do nothing. Years from now, if you play it safe, you may wonder why you didn’t act.


I want a perfect wedding, but my in-laws are trashy


Cary’s archival column from FRIDAY, SEP 28, 2007


My future husband’s 38-year-old brother and his pregnant 20-year-old girlfriend: Yikes!

Dear Cary,

I am thrilled to be getting married this spring to a wonderful man. My fiancé proposed last winter, and we have been planning our wedding for over a year. This is a big deal for us. We started dating in 1999, and have lived together since 2001. We have struggled financially in the past, dealt with harrowing layoffs, college loans, illnesses and the loss of our beloved dog to cancer. Now we are finally in a place where we can have a nice wedding and share our commitment with our family and closest friends.

This should be the happiest time of my relationship, but I am struggling with an issue. My fiancé’s 38-year-old brother and best man has shacked up with a 20-year-old single mother who grates on my nerves. His brother met her through his ex-girlfriend’s daughter’s GED program. Seriously.

But it gets odder. She has just informed us that she is pregnant again, and will have the baby in time to bring him to our wedding. Now they are getting married too, possibly before the baby or immediately after. Translation: around the same time as our wedding. She keeps saying things like, “I’m not trying to upstage you guys, but we’re so excited!” She is beside herself with joy. She’s also leaving her job to go on government assistance. And she expects her new in-laws to help pay for everything.

The best man has children from his first marriage whom he has no relationship with, and is “really trying to make a go of this one.” He is very open about the pregnancy’s being an accident but wanting to do the right thing. I commend him for that; however, I am saddened and cannot process why people feel the personal need to populate the world with more children than they can obviously handle. I’m pretty sure it was intentional on her part, and she’s just a kid looking to “play house” or get a “meal ticket.”

I am also appalled that the pregnant girlfriend is so determined to interfere with our little wedding. I have been very positive and congratulatory to them, but their conduct is very hurtful to me. I know my fiancé loves his brother and will embrace his new nephew with love. We both will, but neither of us can understand their relationship. I also try to be respectful of them for my fiancé, even though it is often very difficult. Now I feel like I am involved in a “Jerry Springer” episode against my will. I just want to have a nice wedding. Does that make me a selfish Bridezilla?

Ultimately, I am not sure how to get past this. Do I have to be the bigger person at my own wedding? We weren’t planning on inviting kids, but she has made it clear the new baby will come, invited or not. I waited a long time to get married to the right person for all the right reasons. I cannot help being critical of my new sister-in-law, but I don’t want to be pushed around by a pathetic, attention-seeking 20-year-old, either. How do I deal with her without being a sucker or seeming like a total bitch by being honest and direct with her?

Baffled Bride-to-Be


Dear Baffled Bride,

I must admit to you, honestly, I am very sensitive to the implications of family condemnation, of the looking-down-upon that happens in families, of “white trash” implications. I am sensitive to these things because of where I come from and what I have been through. Think of it as though I were a screw-up-type person and you were writing to me telling me that there is a screw-up-type person who wants to come to your wedding, and bring her child, and you are upset and angry about this and you want my opinion. I would say, well, as kind of a screw-up-type person myself, uh, I kind of identify with these folks!

No offense to recovering screw-ups. But I am, in my heart, that screw-up, that outsider, a person who has struggled mightily to gain respect, to live a good life, not always doing it with great grace or dignity or skill, often messing up and finding myself shamed and wanting. And yet I want to be at your wedding, too, if I am in your family. I want to be considered equal with others.

We are the scruffy ones you see at weddings off in the corners, scandalously ill-dressed, smoking or taking drugs to deal with the feeling of exclusion, trying to maintain bravado but feeling the clean and well-scrubbed scorn of the in crowd, feeling as usual not good enough, relegated to the margins. I identify with these people you would like to exclude. And in my happy little wedding movie, they get some love too. They get to feel as if they count, as if they are a part of the family too, screwed up as they might be.

That’s the happy little movie I play in my head when things get dark and tough. I’m not asking for your sympathy. I’m doing OK now. I know it’s just a happy little movie in my head, and a sentimental one at that, filled with patriotic hogwash about diversity and welcoming the stranger to the table. I’m just saying that you don’t ever really know who you’re talking to. You know, how the king goes out into the countryside disguised as a beggar. You can’t tell. So to be a virtuous bride, a princess, if you will, what you do is you welcome everybody with a big, generous heart and a bride’s beautiful, radiant love.

That’s what makes for a joyful wedding, that spirit. And it comes from you. You set the tone.

A joyful wedding is a celebration of family. This future brother-in-law of yours, and this future sister-in-law, they are family. As such, they want to be welcomed to your wedding and to be treated with love. That is what we expect from family.

From the standpoint of those of us who may not live up to the standards of other more prosperous and well-behaved members of the family, that is great. At least we can be a part of something. At least we can be accepted. It means a great deal to us. You cannot know what we have been through, how sharply we ache to be a part of this family, how keenly we burn with rejection, how deep the knife cuts. You cannot know what this young woman has been through. You cannot know. All you can do is love these people and welcome them to your wedding.

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Breaking Board

Walking up to the cafe on Thursday morning the day before the Mavericks surf contest down the road at Pillar Point, remembering last night’s weather news about the buoys going off along the coast, watching the big surf, and I see a guy walking up the beach with half his board under each arm. “That’s not a good sign,” I say.

“I’m just glad I got to shore,” he says.

At the Judah Street break in the berm where I usually trudge up to Java Beach I turn. For a big surf day there are few surfers out. I watch the lone surfer out paddle for a big, fast-breaking wave. He gets up and comes down the face and then it is as if he is an unwary pedestrian on a street of tall white houses that have just toppled onto him, becoming huge white foam and dazzling mist.

In a few days will be the fourth anniversary of my father’s death. He would appreciate this: the broken board, the huge waves, the sunny morning with a chilly northeast wind.

Our person of the week: Terry Sue Harms

Back in 2008, I had the good fortune to be introduced to Cary Tennis.  I was trying to make sense of a novel length story I had been working on for two years.  I was self-conscious and insecure about what I had produced, and those insecurities were all but squeezing the life out of my creativity.  I didn’t believe I qualified as a writer, but a story came to me with such compelling force that I couldn’t not write it.  Without having any grand plan for what I was doing, I followed the story that played out in my mind like a movie; I wrote down what I saw, what the characters were saying, and how they felt.  The words just kept coming until I had the working draft that I gave to Cary for editorial assistance.

While he was reading my novel, he suggested that I acquaint myself with Pat Schneider and The Amherst Writers and Artist Method.  As soon as I read Schneider’s “Five Essential Affirmations,” I knew Cary could be trusted with my writing.  The Amherst Method’s philosophy affirms that all writers have a creative voice that cannot be silenced by social standing or academic status, and mentoring can be done without stifling the writer’s unique voice or creative inclinations.  It boldly proclaims that if one writes, then that one is a writer!  Hallelujah!  The writer in me broke out in a happy dance.  I didn’t have to somehow prove that I was worthy of the title; my thoughts on the printed page proved I was a writer.

PearlsCover_smallWith Cary’s trained eye, ear, and supportive input, I began to hear and validate my own creative impulses; I stopped doubting my right to say what I needed to say, and I was able to move forward and write the novel, Pearls My Mother Wore, to a satisfying conclusion.  It was during the first Creative Getaway at Marconi Center that I was able to go off by myself and complete a critical chapter in the novel.  The experience of writing by myself while among such a strong and supportive writing community and in such a relaxing and gorgeous setting was magical.

With assistance from Cary and Norma Tennis, I self-published Pearls My Mother Wore at the end of 2009.  Once the manuscript was as polished as I could make it, I hired Norma to put a professional touch on the book’s layout.  My husband and I designed the cover.  I got to set the selling price and pick the publication date.  It was such an all-around positive experience that I’m now working on a second book.  This next one is a memoir about my absent father, a man I’ve never met or spoken to, how I found him, and how I let him go.

Is my boyfriend the enemy?

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Dear Cary,

I am writing to you because I feel like I have landed myself in a situation where it is impossible for me to maintain either my happiness or my integrity, and I am hoping that you will be able to give some firm yet sympathetic advice.  I have often read your column when it was in Salon and I feel like if anyone has the right perspective on both matters of the heart and the movement, it is you.

For the last two years I have been an apprentice labor organizer with a union that represents hospitality workers, organizing the hotel that I currently work at as a restaurant host.  Although the work is extremely rewarding, it is also emotionally taxing.  For a long time I learned to deal with the pressures of the job on my own, relying on my network of friends and my own capability for self-renewal.  However, approximately three months ago I started dating a man who used to be a very well-liked cook at my hotel but was fired nine months ago because the chef felt threatened by his popularity — really.  In fact, I have organized a lot of my co-workers in part by retelling my boyfriend’s story. In the time since my now-boyfriend left the hotel we continued seeing each other at parties and went from work acquaintances to friends to lovers.  

Maybe this sounds naive, but I have never been in love like this before.  My boyfriend is a generous, creative, brilliant, charismatic, loving person, who challenges me, listens to me, supports me, and respects me.  He makes me feel safe and valued, and I hope I make him feel the same way.  We have already talked tentatively about a future together.  Something just feels right, and to be honest, I want to marry this man.

After we got together he started looking for a better job, saying he wanted to start saving more money for a house.  His English is not perfect, so I helped write a résumé and he got a call-back to be a head chef at a local nursing home.  We were ecstatic.

The evening after his interview he talked to me about the job, his soon-to-be boss, and everything that had happened that day for hours like a little kid after the first day of school.  Then he took out his interviewer’s business card and I saw the name of the company that was to be his direct employer: a sub-contractor that is public enemy #1 of the union.  

My boyfriend is going to be THE head chef in a kitchen for a non-union company that we might organize against in the near future!  It is my personal goal to eventually leave the hotel and become a staff organizer in my city — I love organizing workers and it’s what I want to do for the rest of my life.  Although it is extremely unlikely, I might have to organize against him some day! Is this a definite deal breaker?  Am I overreacting?  Do I have to tell my lead organizer about my boyfriend’s new job?  She will go crazy.  Do they have a right to shut me out?  Should I stop organizing for love?  Should I try to get hired at a different union?

Part of me feels like I am obligated to leave him, but I also feel like I have a right to my own happiness and being with him is integral to that.  He and I kind of laughed off the situation and have made jokes about how we are enemies, but I have downplayed how much the situation is a serious conflict for me. I am so happy for my boyfriend but so sad for myself and the future of our relationship. My heart is broken.  What do I do?

Fight or Flight


Dear Fight or Flight,

Your boyfriend is not your enemy. Your boyfriend is just another worker trying to get by. He is a worker pursuing his livelihood in an unregulated labor market. What is he to do? Regulate the labor market himself? Absent himself from this job? His refusal to take this job would have no effect on the central reality. All it would do is put some other schmuck in the job.

What is needed in union work is profound respect for the choices each worker faces. So for now, sit tight. And think. Think about what this means. Working through hard contradictions like this will make you a better organizer.

What is integrity? Integrity is what you maintain in contradiction and complexity. Cops, teachers, lawyers, organizers, workers, artists all face contradictions. The ability to face them and work through them is integrity. The ability not to make black-and-white decisions is integrity. Think of somebody like Martin Luther King, Jr. Was his world simple? Was Walter Reuther’s world simple?

The way to progress is by respecting workers’ rights as independent people. We workers are not pawns to be pushed around either by management or by unions. We are individuals. Our passions are our own. Our passions are holy. Our likes and dislikes, our sexual interests and pleasures, our preferences in food and clothing, our private intellectual interests, our taste in music and architecture, our favorite names for each other, our jokes, the things we dream, these are the realm of the sacred human. No state, no union, boss or government has any business there. The business of business and government is to secure the concrete conditions for life so that life can be lived freely. That is all. They have no business in our personal lives.

The union exists to give workers power in negotiating material conditions. Wages, working hours, benefits, grievance procedures, hiring policies and the like are material matters. They are material and thus can be adjudicated and negotiated.

Romantic relationships are different. They are in the realm of the sacred and the ineffably human, that realm not reducible to work hours and wages, nor to political beliefs.

So as a practical matter and also as a matter of conscience, I suggest you do not tell your superiors in the union or anyone else about your boyfriend’s economic relationships. Where he gets his money is his business, not theirs. Questions of whether they might benefit from knowing, or whether the union might benefit from knowing, are moot. It is none of their business. It is his private life and your relationship with him is your private life.

Should they find out and believe it is relevant to your union work, then you may have a serious difference of opinion with your union boss, serious enough to warrant making a break with him or her and, if her views reflect union policy, a break with that union.

Living with integrity means risking your reputation. Unthinking, unreflective people will jump to conclusions. True believers will jump to conclusions. It may help you clarify your ideas by writing out a workable set of principles regarding your personal friendships and your union activism. Think it through. Test your ideas and your ideals and your feelings against each other.

Here is one thought-test: What if the union had a rule that no union members may have private friendships with non-union workers? What would that say about the union? It would say the union had usurped authority in an area of life that is not its proper concern, making it quasi-totalitarian.

As Hannah Arendt said, “For Nazism, all history is the history of race struggle; and, for Marxism, all history is the history of class struggle.” For some union workers, one might add, all history is the history of labor.

So I think you are on solid ground arguing that, in the first place, your boyfriend’s place of work is his private concern and, in the second place, all union workers must respect individual rights and learn to manage complexity and contradiction.

Life is holy. Life is mysterious. Life is non-ideological.

Screw ’em if they can’t take a joke.

Write for Advice

Cary Tennis' Finishing SchoolNewsletter_NEW_Dec13


Of demented parents and my brother’s pants


My father died. My mom has Alzheimer’s. My brother wears his trousers too high.


Cary’s archival column from MAY 1, 2011


Dear Cary,

I love my brother dearly. We’re 13 months apart, but I feel like he’s my twin. We survived our parents’ horrible marriage. We’ve both been very successful and have accumulated quite a bit of wealth, so we live comfy lives.

I left my birth state to get away from our parents, especially my mother. For 25 years my brother stayed near them and took care of them — tuned up their cars, cleaned out rain gutters, replaced hot water heaters and dishwashers, while I only dropped by for a rare lunch or dinner.

When our parents could no longer live independently, they suddenly moved 1,000 miles away from their home of 50 years. This was an irrational move, and they failed miserably.

My brother and I intervened, and I offered to move them to my state, where assisted living is quite affordable. After they had gotten the medical and dental care that they truly needed, my father was diagnosed with vascular dementia and mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

Their irrational behaviors grew worse. I petitioned the court for conservatorship and guardianship of both of them. Mother blew through a $70,000 checking account, spending the money on pure junk. Her hoarding was overwhelming.

And their relationship grew more contentious. While we waited for the legal wheels to move in our favor so that I could have the means to fully protect these two people, my mother severely harmed my father and he died.

Mother became more irrational than ever, and she fought back, hiring her own attorney. Both of them tried their best to discredit me by accusing me of stealing all of my mother’s assets. Mother insisted that only my brother could be her conservator. I dropped my petition for guardianship, as a conservatorship would offer more protection. With my brother controlling mother’s every cent, she could not hire moving companies to help her run away to Australia or Florida or Idaho, wherever her extreme paranoia directed her.

My brother wholeheartedly agreed to step into the role as our mother’s court-appointed conservator, not for her, but as a huge favor to me so I could end this legal nightmare. And after waiting for over a year for this legal mess to settle out, we were finally granted the legal means to protect her from herself — and from a potentially predatory world, should she succeed in her attempts to live independently.

She is now in a memory-loss care facility that is near my house so I can oversee her care. With my brother’s help our mother is well cared for.

I owe my brother quite a bit but feel like I’m failing him. He’s now 66, never been married, no children and no live-together lovers. He’s retired from a very successful career, owns a huge house that he built, is an excellent athlete and has the energy to be out there in the world still possessing the joy and wonder of life.

He would like to find a lady friend, but most women give him one look, smile and turn away. For some strange reason he wears his pants up close to his armpits, making him look like a little old man. And from hiking his trousers so high, his private parts are quite visible. My daughters have asked me to say something to him. After all, they don’t want to see their uncle’s junk, and they feel that the ladies who smile at him are quietly making fun of him.

How do I have this conversation with him, not make him feel like a fool, and encourage him to go shopping? He’s quite sensitive. And we can talk about private subjects, but I just never want him to feel like he’s been smirked at by the ladies he would like to get to know.

Want the Best for My Bro

Cary's Writing Retreat in Chester, CT

Dear Want the Best,

You have been through a horrendous ordeal. You and your brother have worked together to bring stability to a situation that is among the most terrifying and difficult for adults to endure. I, too, have worked with a brother and other family members to manage the unpredictable and often tragic behavior of parents with dementia. So my heart goes out to you.

Your letter resonates with a nearly surreal combination of the tragic and the absurd.

Here is how your story comes across to the unconscious mind: Your mother murdered your father, and your brother wears his pants too high. That’s the gist of it. That’s how it comes across. Not maybe to the rational mind. But to the body, the kid, the psyche.

Your careful language is spooky. You say, “My mother severely harmed my father and he died.” It may be that in the world of law and evidence she did not murder him. But when we deal with our own parents, we are often dealing with them in an emotional way, with our dreaming mind, the child’s mind. To that mind, it does sound like your mother killed your father.

Even if that were not the case, the mere sight of parents acting crazy alarms the dreaming mind and sets us off on a panicked mission to solve what cannot be solved. After such an ordeal, you may feel off balance, and you may find yourself focusing on items that are superficially trivial but have deeper significance. For instance, it now seems important that your brother find a mate and wear his pants the right way. Why would that be? Is there some kind of emotional repair going on? Have you perhaps transferred your lifelong hopes for a peaceful and happy family life to your brother? I’m not saying you have, but I am saying it’s time, after such a wrenching emotional experience, to watch for the ways that our psyches seek to repair and find balance.

Having lost your father, you may feel some emptiness. You may be wishing that you could re-create something. Or your brother may be standing in for your dad: Since you could not save your dad, you may be motivated in some way to save your brother, by finding a wife for him.

Who wears the pants in the family? Pants are about power and also about sexuality. Maybe your brother is signaling that he does not want a mate. Or maybe he is conflicted; maybe he wants a mate but wants to be accepted as someone who wears his pants up around his armpits. He could be signaling many things by this behavior. But we don’t need to get inside your brother’s head to do him some good. We can just take him shopping.

The humor of the pants situation also says something about the family. You and he have both done well. You’ve weathered the storm. You survived the most terrifying thing for a child, which is to see the parents go mad. So maybe also you now deserve some harmless fun.

My suggestion would be to go shopping with your brother. Since you’ve both done well financially, you could frame this shopping trip as a well-deserved reward and splurge. The reason I say to splurge is that what you will be spending money on in a high-end place is the sensitivity and expertise of the sales staff. Your brother needs to be fitted with pants that make him look good. That’s what expert clothing salespeople know how to do. If gentle criticism about his current style comes from a salesperson, he may be able to hear it. The salesperson will know how to guide him to the right pants.

You might even call and explain to a salesperson in advance that you are bringing in your brother and you want to find him some pants that fit right, and that it’s a delicate situation.

Also, this shopping trip can be a good bonding experience. Go shopping, get him some excellent-looking outfits, and then go have a good lunch or dinner. Thank him for everything he’s done. Go boating. Jump out of airplanes. Book a hunting trip. Hang out. Breathe a sigh of relief. Things are stable for now.

I keep coming back to that paragraph where you say that your mother severely harmed your father and he died. I can’t quite get over that. It contains such intensity of feeling and strange distance! “Severely harmed him and he died.”

If the severe harm she did to him caused his death, then she killed him. And if that is the case, then you are walking around with a heavy psychic burden and I suggest that you seek to unpack this awful truth with the help of a professional. In fact, even if your mother did not kill your father, what you have been through is likely to be the kind of thing from which the sensitive psyche tries to hide in one way or another, and when the psyche tries to hide, we find ourselves doing strange things for reasons that are hidden from us. We have hidden those reasons. Our psyches are trying to restore balance. So maybe we do very nourishing things, like start gardens or spend time in nature. And maybe we find important emotional support in helping others or working in groups to bring good things into the world. But we may also find ourselves turning to strange or destructive behavior, and the connection between our behavior and what we have survived may be hidden from us.

So either way, and especially since you can afford it, I would do yourself a favor and find a really great psychotherapist. Not that you sound crazy. That’s not it at all, and I wish that seeking therapy in such situations were more broadly supported as just a normal thing to do. To have someone just compassionately witness what you have been through can be a great help.

And then get your brother some good pants.

Write for Advice

Let the revolutionary self speak

by Kyoko Ide

Revolution. I feel such resistance towards it. Why?

I feel fear, I get tense, I feel like I have to find the right, proper words and expressions that wouldn’t offend anybody, so that my revolutionary self wouldn’t get criticized. But that’s not revolutionary at all. How come I feel like I have to protect myself and guard myself when I try to let my revolutionary self speak?

I have been always cautious not to offend anybody: Don’t offend anybody. Read the air. Read the atmosphere. Read other people’s minds. Keep the harmony. Don’t stick out. Tie your hair. Wear your uniform. (The ruler in the teacher’s hand that measured the length of the hem of my skirt.)

Keep your head down. Don’t speak up when your grandma speaks; she doesn’t want to be bothered by little kids; you have no right to speak up at the dinner table, you should just listen and nod quietly.

My mom told me she regretted that she didn’t let me speak up at the dinner table.

“Why didn’t I let you speak up? You were little and you had so many original, creative, incredible things to say, and I forced you to shut yourself up, because I feared your grandmother. I didn’t want to upset her. But who cares? Why didn’t I let you speak up? I should’ve let you speak up. I should’ve told your grandmother, ‘Excuse me, but now my daughter is speaking, could you shut your mouth and listen to her, please?'”

Why have I been silent? Why did I not say anything? What for? What was I afraid of? Where has been my revolutionary self? Why has she been so silent? Why has she been hiding? Why was she smiling, when she wasn’t smiling at all inside? Why did I keep silent?

My grandma’s dead. Then my mom’s dead. The teachers are gone. My father is old. What am I afraid of? Why do I have to keep my head down?

Where’s my revolutionary self — that wants to scream? That wants to stand up. That wants to walk ahead. That wants to turn the light on. That wants to pour the water and wash it all out. That wants to swipe it all. That wants to open her eyes and look them straight into the eyes.

Where is she? She is here. She has been hiding way too long. And she says: “Basta. I’ve had enough.” I’ve been listening and listening and listening and not saying anything. Nodding. Smiling. “Yes, yes.” “Sì, sì.” “Ho capito.” “Hai ragione.” “Sugoi desune.”

How wonderful! Basta, basta. I have something to say, too. I have a lot to say. I want to speak up. In any language. In Japanese. In my dialect. In English. In Italiano. Whatever.

I learned and learned and learned the languages; now I should actually use them. Stop nodding. Say something. Just say it. Say it loud. Don’t be silent.

I’m alive now. I won’t be alive forever. Death is certain, but the time of death is uncertain. I’ve got to say something.

Let us speak. Let us all speak. Let my sister speak, who is so afraid to speak. Let my friend speak, with her voice that is so free when she’s speaking to me. We have been speaking behind the walls. In the tiny Skype windows. In the car, when we were sure nobody was listening. In the kitchen, when the kids and the husband were not there. Behind the closed door, after we made sure it was locked, looking at the clock.

Let us be free from the darkness, the dense air that doesn’t circulate, the bad lighting, and the cold floor. Let us open the windows, unlock the door, turn the knob and open wide the door, let the air come in, let us swim in the sunshine. Let us say it all out loud. Let us show who we are.

[Note: This Voices from the Workshop World first-draft text was produced live in Cary Tennis’s Online International writing workshop. The goal of this Voices series is to showcase the literary productions that arise from these online Amherst Writers and Artists workshops, which are designed to maximize verbal creativity in order to free the expressive energy of all the world’s people.–Cary Tennis]

Let the revolutionary self speak

The world turns, and as it turns, people who could once keep to their feet and balance their weight against the motion, who learned to drink and dance and cook a meal while effortlessly poised against the turning of the world, these people suddenly found themselves thrown down to the ground, their plates and cups dashed from their hands, their feet hopelessly tangled, their heads broken and their limbs crushed. And those who lived began to ask themselves, as they fought to hang on to the violently-turning world, what has happened to the Earth’s rotation? Why do nights and days now flash by at such a speed? Why must we live with this awful perpetual motion, and why must we feel nauseous, and nurse injuries, and constantly risk our lives to cling onto the world by the very tips of our fingers?
They had little time to think about this problem, as daily life had become such a struggle for existence, and it was as much as they could do to keep body and soul together, let alone ponder big philosophical questions about the turning of the Earth. But they still did think about them, whenever they could gain a little rest and relief from their battle to hang on to the spinning world, for such is the nature of people. So one of their number said: “The rotation of the Earth has become so much faster because it suits the needs of a few rich men that it should be so. Never mind the fact that most of us are caused such discomfort, and that our friends and family and our neighbours have fallen off altogether, or become so sick and dizzy that they despaired and let go, or perished under the weight of heavy objects that have been displaced.”
Another said: “The trees are being uprooted and the atmosphere stripped away and the tides are too high and the land is flooded. The rich men do not care, for they can afford to live in special compounds that are protected from all the ill effects. But there are few of them and many of us. Why do we not demand that the Earth is slowed down to rotate once in 24 hours again? Then we can think of ways to repair the damage the rich men have done.” But one poor citizen who had suffered grave losses, and who was deeply scarred with old injuries from rolling objects, said: “Perhaps it is much better that the Earth should turn quickly. It is progress and progress cannot be argued with. And the wealthy men must surely be wise, or why would they have been blessed with wealth?”
Another spoke up: “If we do not accept that the Earth must spin nearly out of control, the rich men will give us no work, and if they cannot earn such vast wealth then surely we will all be poor. And if we do not hurtle through space at this frantic rate then we will be overtaken by other, faster planets who will rush around the sun much more quickly than we can, and they will steal our rightful warmth and light. And the rich men will label us ‘anti-revolutionists’ and all the world’s ills will be laid at our door. No, comrades, it is better that we should suffer in silence and continue to try to hang on until our luck changes and, perhaps by some miracle, we can join the ranks of the rich men.”
And so they did not try to right the wrong that had been done to the Earth and all its people. They lowered their heads and continued with their daily struggles as best they might. Until one day the Earth began to spin so fast that nothing could stop it. The last trees were uprooted, and the seas overran the land, and the atmosphere was stripped away, and the planet hurtled headlong out of the solar system and rolled away into deepest outer space.

[Note: This Voices from the Workshop World first-draft text was produced live in Cary Tennis’s Online International writing workshop. The goal of this Voices series is to showcase the literary productions that arise from these online Amherst Writers and Artists workshops, which are designed to maximize verbal creativity in order to free the expressive energy of all the world’s people.–Cary Tennis]