During the blizzard, I refused to shelter my friend


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Classic column from Tuesday, March 14, 2006

During the blizzard, I refused to shelter my friend

There were other places he could go, and I wanted to be alone with my boyfriend.


Dear Cary,

At 8 a.m. on Sunday, during the height of the recent snowstorm, my significant other and I were lying in bed when I received a text message from a friend who lives a half-hour away, asking if I had power. Yes, I unthinkingly replied, and went back to sleep. An hour later he called, asking if he could come over to my apartment because he had no power in his and it was starting to get cold. I hemmed and hawed, but eventually refused, because I had not seen my significant other since Wednesday and was looking forward to spending the day with just him; he works from 7 to 7 on Saturdays, so Sundays are our only unrestricted time together. I figured at 9 a.m., it couldn’t possibly be that cold given that most power outages had happened some time during the night, and I knew my friend had other options, some of which were much closer than I was. I also considered the fact that once he arrived at around 10, he would likely stay most of the day. He hung up in a huff and, although he found shelter by noon at someone else’s apartment (I called him to check), he has since refused to talk to me unless I first sincerely apologize to him.

Of course, he has been asking all of our common friends (and my roommate) what they think, because it is quite easy to frame the situation in un-nuanced, obvious terms (I asked her if I could come over because I had no power and she said no). I think I am looking at it more accurately: not as a visceral “Callous bitch, you didn’t let your friend in when he had no power in his apartment?” but as a scenario in which he had other options and his coming to my place would have ruined my day. It is true that I placed my own comfort above his, but it was not anything close to an emergency, and he could have gone back to sleep or found some other way to pass the time until a more civil hour of the day. I also think that for him to be so angry with me is akin to him thinking we can enter each other’s homes at any time, without invitation. I like to feel secure in my solitude and that my privacy is respected by my friends. What do you think?

Warm and Cozy in the Lifeboat


Cary Tennis' Finishing School


Dear Warm and Cozy,

First off, I should admit my bias. I would have let the friend come over. My significant other might have been mad at me for doing so, but that’s the way I am.

I’m not saying you were wrong. I think you acted in accordance with your views of friendship and hospitality and what they entail. But those norms differ widely.

I’m trying to see it from your point of view. What kind of a person, you may be asking yourself, makes such a pest of himself and then blames others when they object? What kind of a person obtrudes on another’s privacy like that?

Well, perhaps where he grew up it was normal to expect friends to take you in at the drop of a hat; perhaps his family always took in people and he was taught that that’s what good people do: They put their own comfort aside for the comfort of others. So for him it might be inconceivable, and the height of incivility, to refuse your hospitality to someone during a storm.

There is a corresponding notion that says people living in a city leave each other alone so they can live their lives the way they see fit, and that in a city we naturally place our comfort above the comfort of others because to do otherwise is to invite others to invade our privacy and take up our time. If everybody understands one or the other of the norms, then harmony reigns.

But you and he seem to have competing notions of what is proper and right. So let’s get away from right or wrong for a moment and look at what the situation may mean psychologically or emotionally. Warmth. Electricity. Fire. A blackout. A blizzard. Cold. The snow. Sunday morning. Alone. There you are, you’re warm, you’re with your lover, and this friend is far away, alone in the cold. He’s reaching out to you — not just for your apartment and your electricity but for you; it’s you he wants to spend the day with.

Possibly also he is a person who is a little needy and childish, perhaps overly emotional by some standards — but who was never taught that that was such a bad thing to be a little needy. In fact, he might have learned that such neediness is what holds communities together, that if everyone was perfectly self-sufficient, a culture of cold isolation would result. He may have jumped at the chance, in this mild little pseudo-emergency, to feel as though his community was going to come together over it!

Ha ha. Welcome to the real world, right? You’ve got plans for the day. What’s a little chilly indoor air, for heaven’s sake, right? Buck up! I am guessing that what he was really asking for was not just warmth in Fahrenheit degrees, but human warmth, and reassurance of his place in your world. By declining his request, you redefined your friendship as one with very specific boundaries and limitations. You perhaps also, in a sense, put him in his place, or shamed him. So what he is demanding is to get his respect back.

To regain his friendship and respect, if you want to regain it, you might not have to apologize, exactly, but to somehow reassure him that he holds an important place in your world. For someone who believes that friendship and community mean not having to call first and make an appointment, it can be tough to realize that for others, distance itself provides a foundation for closeness. To do what he did, in a way, indicates that he considers you like family. You might have to get across that you did not know he felt this way about you. You might tell him that you are honored that he considered you like family, and you just did not know that, and to you, even family keep their distance.

While trying to understand his view of hospitality and friendship, you also want to try to get him to understand your view. Maybe you need to use the Jell-o metaphor: To you, members of your family and community are like fruit pieces and grapes suspended in Jell-o. For it to be good, each piece has to be in its own place; it has to have some room around it; if they were all jammed together in the center, then there’d be all that Jell-o with no fruit, and then all the fruit with no Jell-o. So everybody has to keep the right distance or you’re all like a badly made Jell-o dessert.

And the other thing is this: What can you take away from this incident that will be useful to you in the future? You are likely to encounter other people who have different conceptions of friendship, hospitality and personal boundaries. Some of these people may have power over your life; they may be bosses or competitors or clients, whose behavior, although not up to your standards, nevertheless must be dealt with as it is, not as it should be. So I think it would be useful for you to think of ways you can be flexible with your boundaries when necessary, without letting people walk all over you. Otherwise, as you are finding out, there may be hell to pay.

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Cary’s column for the new year: The world is a beggar rooting in your backpack

Dear reader,

The following column first appeared Tuesday, February 15, 2011. As always, if you would like advice, please write to advice@carytennis.com. Happy New Year!

Dear Cary,

I feel somewhat guilty even writing to you; you seem to have excellent insight into many people’s problems, and should you choose to answer my letter, would someone more desperately in need not have their letter answered? I am probably writing this (as I suspect many who write to you are) more to get my thoughts down than anything. In any event, I think that your thoughts would be incredibly valuable to me.

I’m 25, I have a master’s degree, a fantastic job (in an albeit less than fantastic geographic area) and I’m doing work that I like with people I enjoy. On top of that, I’ve a family that supports me in everything I do. I am single, though I’m mostly OK with that at this point in my life.

The problem is that I’m terrified of getting stuck. I don’t want this job to be my career. I don’t want this town to be my home. I don’t want to wake up and realize I’m 40 years old and haven’t really done anything.

I feel a fierce sense of urgency calling me to create something, to do or make something meaningful, to the point where I can’t sleep. I just can’t seem to find the outlet.

I’m not an artist. I have never felt (nor do I now) compelled by the visual arts. I used to be a musician, but I haven’t touched my instrument in years.

I feel like writing could be the trick. I’m not one for fiction. Though I do read it, I don’t believe I understand people well enough to have any idea where to begin creating a character.

I could write nonfiction (I suppose anyone can write nonfiction), but I have no idea how one gets a start in that racket. And even then, I have no idea if that’s the outlet I’m looking for, it’s just the most plausible one so far.

I just feel like something is bottled up inside of me. The phrase that comes first to mind is “creative energy” though I fear it’s been there so long it is turning into something more noxious.

It’s affecting my life in negative ways. I used to be an incredibly jovial person … I haven’t been for some time now. I have less interest in other people. I just want to figure out what it is I need to do.

Thanks for listening,

Hoping for Insight


Dear Hoping for Insight,

Change the way you listen to this urge. Try to hear it as a request, not as a desire. It is a request from outside you for something you may be carrying. The world doesn’t know what you are carrying. Or maybe it doesn’t know quite how to ask for it. But it wants something from you.

Consider this: The world approaches you like an ugly beggar and begins pawing through your backpack. So you resist. The world wants something. It just doesn’t have a very nice way of going about it. It grabs for things you think are sacred. You resist. It grabs for things you think are worthless. You resist. You say, that’s worthless, you don’t want that. But the world keeps pawing through your backpack.

You may or may not have what the world is asking for. So you say, Back off, world. Here, let me produce in an orderly fashion the things that are in my backpack and let’s find out which thing you want.

You start producing what is in your backpack. Is it this that you want? That?

The world does not speak your language. It makes gestures.

You have to understand the world. It might not want what you think it should want. In my case, for instance, I persist in believing that I know what the world should want but what the world has asked me to do is to be a good copy editor so I have been a good copy editor. For a while the world asked me to be a rock journalist and before that a musician, but then the world got tired of seeing me do those things. I was only mildly interesting to the world in those roles. Then it turns out there is an opening for something unexpected. The world says here, be an advice columnist. I’m like, WTF? But I have learned to be of service. I could say I’d been wasting my life. Or I could say I’d been preparing.

We wait for openings. We spend our lives in the wings. But if we make ourselves available, we are sometimes shoved out onto the stage.

We make ourselves available. We learn the skills we may need if an opening occurs. We cannot force the world to open. We wait our turn. Sometimes we think we are ready but we don’t look ready to the world. It says, I don’t think you’re ready yet. We say, You have no idea how ready I am but the world already is not even listening to us; it has turned its attention elsewhere and the moment is gone so we go back to our endless preparations.

The world can be fickle and hard to understand. We’re like that, too, are we not? We think we will be interested in something but when we get it home it isn’t as interesting as we expected it to be. We try things. The world tries things. It takes us to the store and says, here, try this on. No, that’s not it. How about that? It can get tiring but we’re not the one with the credit card.

The world may not want what you think is your greatest talent. So we learn that we are not the best judge of what we have to offer. We learn that if we simply adopt a posture of service, the world will let us know. It will let us know by hiring or firing us, by injuring us or instilling us with energy, by dropping us off on desolate roads, by throwing us in with vagabonds and truckers, by arranging for us to attend Harvard, by managing the weather to delay the flight to Cincinnati so we meet someone pretty and unexpectedly candid who guides us to a lepidopterist. Or to a chiropractor. Who knows.

Shift your perspective. You’re not running the show.

What we express does not originate inside us. What we express we pass on. We borrow. We are conduits. This yearning, this is not from inside you. It is your response to an invitation. Or you might say it is a pressure differential rooted externally. The world is trying to pull something out of you. Let the world pull this thing out of you. Let the world act on you.

The future is unknowable. If it’s in the right direction, that’s often good enough.

If there are lights on the horizon that attract you, start walking toward them.

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