I’m a gay man in a small town working at a gas station. So?

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Cary’s classic column Tuesday, Mar 18, 2008

I have a feeling maybe I should move to the city, but I like my job, I like my town and I like my family.

Dear Cary,

I have several concurrent problems for you. Bet you can’t wait. Firstly, my job … I work in a small gas station as a cashier. My job is like a pair of slippers. It’s comfortable. The pay’s peanuts, it’s easy, the hours suit me and it’s totally unchallenging. Frankly, a monkey could do it. I get on with my boss, I like the banter I have with the customers, and sometimes it’s quiet enough that I can just read a book. But is this reason to stay? I have had some terrible jobs in the past. In fact, virtually all of my previous jobs were awful. I have had so many terrible jobs in fact that I am scared of getting a new one.

Added to that, at 26 I still have no clue what I want to do. In fact I got so tired of thinking about it that I consciously stopped thinking about it altogether about 12 months ago. I got the simplest job I could find and vowed to give myself a break. During that time, I’ve become a different person. I appreciate little things now (like chatting to many different people who pass through while I’m working) and take time to go for walks, write, drive around without having a destination. I get by on little, I am no longer materialistic, and I’ve learned how to live simply. In fact, I enjoy the simple life. It humbles you. I definitely don’t envy my friends in high-stress jobs. However, financially, I probably need to earn more money. That’s if I ever want to clear my debts and find a halfway nice place to live. Somehow, though, I can’t make myself do it. I don’t have a clue what to do next. I can’t think of a single career that I’d be right for. Added to which, I have had a pretty checkered career history, consisting almost entirely of dead-end jobs/career gaps.

OK, wakey-wakey! Problem two. I moved back to my hometown a few years ago, due to financial pressure. However, the longer I’m around, the more I want to stay. This is odd, because I was always so desperate to get away when I was younger. However, as I get older, my family is more important to me, and whereas I was once crying out to get the hell away from them all, now I don’t think I want to be hundreds of miles away. I’m pretty close to them now actually. The only problem with this is that I am gay and this isn’t really the sort of place where you meet any guys. But I just hate the idea of moving to a big city because my sexuality dictates that I must. I’ve never been defined by my sexuality and I ain’t a city person either. I like calm places, nature, landscapes, and I feel at home when I’m close to that.

I realize the answer is simple: Either go or stay and live with the decision. But it’s hard to actually decide. And just to make it all a little more interesting, I’ve fallen for a gardener who fills up where I work. I used to know him a little when we were younger, but it’s not always easy for a guy to ask another guy out, especially in this sort of a place. I have no idea if he’s gay. It all gets me to thinking, is there ever any end to our problems, or do we just replace every one solved with a new one. Goddamnit!



Dear Clueless,

There’s something wonderful about your letter. Partly it’s the tone. It is so quiet. You are not screaming about the uselessness and unsuitability of your life. You are just thinking out loud about the possibilities. You have that same vague unsettledness that many of us have, the quiet restlessness and curiosity. But your nature has brought you to this place. It is not unsuitable. It is your place. There is much about it that suits you. That is what is attractive. You know what you like and much of what you like is here in this town. That is attractive.

There is also the presence, within this balanced situation, of one thing that makes you out of place; there is this one issue, this gardener, and the fact that you are gay.

So we like the setup: an orderly existence with a modicum of tension and a mystery at the center: Who is the gardener? What will he say?

The scene you suggest has a cinematic quality. People drive in slowly and stop by the pump. They get out and pump the gas. They come in to pay or to buy a quart of oil or some gum, or they pay by credit card at the pump and drive off. Life proceeds by repetition. Maybe there is a lull after each fill-up, or maybe the fill-ups go on constantly with a lull now and then. It gets busy and it gets slow. When it gets slow you are behind the counter reading “Madame Bovary,” or some old Tarzan pulp, or a French detective novel.

Now I am adding things. It is your story but I am adding things — because imagining you in the gas station makes us remember things.

As children on a long trip in a car we experience the gas station as a place of peculiar power and mystery.

We have been sleeping; we wake up and look out; the car has slowed down; we are coming into somewhere strange and different; a tattooed young man in tight jeans, a greaser from a small town, comes out to pump the gas. He grinds his cigarette butt into the concrete floor of the garage with his boot heel, walks slowly to the driver’s side window and ask if you’d like him to fill it up; he pumps your gas, cleans your windshield with a spray bottle and a blue paper towel, pops your hood (it makes a squawk because the hinges need grease), checks your water and checks your oil. He says you’re a quart low. You say, go ahead and add a quart of 10W-40.

Sometimes you pull in and run over the bell switch and the gas station attendant does not come out. You sit there in the heat wondering where he is. He might be on the john. He might be eating a sandwich. Eventually he will emerge from behind the garage. Once when I was a child traveling through the South with my parents on a hot Saturday afternoon we drove over the bell switch and sat for many minutes. Finally the mechanic emerged from behind the garage, grinning, and his girlfriend peeked out from the side of the white gas station building as he hitched up his pants, buckled his belt and pumped the gas. In the front seat, my mother looked at my father. The girlfriend’s hair was tousled. Her eyes were bright. The mechanic looked down at the ground as he pumped the gas and raised the hood and checked the oil and water. We were a quart low. He poured in a quart of 10W-40. He did not need to use a funnel. He poured it straight into the crankcase with a steady, grease-blackened hand.

So we have memories of gas stations. Those of us lucky enough to have traveled by road when gas stations were still on small roads in small towns remember the mystery and the quiet.

Imagine, by contrast, if you were to think to yourself, Well, I’m a gay man, so I guess I’d better move to San Francisco and sign up for all the activities.

Imagine giving up your family and the land you love; imagine giving up this life where you enjoy casual conversations with people as they drift through the gas station; imagine taking a new job in a big city and being unable to read because there are all these things that have to be done right now because it’s a big city and it’s an important job. Imagine trying to play a role that doesn’t feel right for you — and imagine choosing to do that when you don’t have to!

I think you summed up the situation nicely when you asked, Is there not ever any end to our problems? We do replace every one solved with a new one. But I must say your problems sound fine. Your problems are manageable and contained, and you basically have an enviable situation.

Sure, you are in some conflict. You cannot know the future or see inside other people’s heads. So you cannot know if you are going to get to know the gardener better; you don’t know if he will turn out to be also gay, and interested in you; you cannot know that. All you can do is get to know the gardener. Get to know him as a friend. Detain him in some conversation long enough to determine what his interests are and so forth.

Basically, I’d just say, don’t muck it up. Stick around. I was watching the waves the other day at the ocean and I thought to myself, stick around for the credits. Let’s stay and see how this turns out. Let the wave wash completely up on shore, and watch how it slowly retreats. Watch it the whole way. Notice the details — the foam, the ripples, the reflections. Here’s another wave. Watch it develop. Watch it unfold. Stick around for the credits.

Enjoy this. Maybe you can stretch it out. Maybe you can be one of those people who actually has an OK life for a while. Change will come. There’s no need to rush it.


My boyfriend’s climbing partner let him fall

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Cary’s classic column from Apr 20, 2007

Accidents happen. He was inexperienced. But he’s not owning up. In fact he’s sort of acting like a dick!


My longtime boyfriend and I went on a holiday in Colorado with a bunch of others, which included ice-climbing practice. My boyfriend was tied as a safety measure to his friend, attached by a fail-safe machine, which requires that you put your hand away from the apparatus to lock the person in place. The apparatus is foolproof according to physics and has become popular among climbers of all sorts. In any case, when my boyfriend was showing the friend, let’s call him Joe, how the apparatus worked, Joe was joking and looked relatively comfortable. When my boyfriend was climbing on an easy wall, because it is not as high and children learn on it, he came down faster than Joe had expected. Then suddenly I saw my boyfriend falling and soon thereafter he was on the ground, bloody and barely conscious.

Before I left for the hospital with the ambulance, I saw that Joe was in the side, packing up things. I knew that he must have felt a tremendous sense of guilt because we had no idea of the extent of my boyfriend’s injuries. I looked at him in the eye and said that no one blamed him. Accidents happen, even when we don’t want them to. Joe did all the right things at first. He helped us. I was very conscious of not wanting to blame him, because it was a systemic failure at multiple levels. Yes, he held the rope (you can see the burn marks on his hand) and he pulled the machine open when he should have put his hands away (which was why the rope went through). But he was a newbie and newbies need more supervision than what he received. But he also failed to register any discomfort about taking on that role. So it was a systemic failure.

Then three things happened. Before Joe and I were to go visit the boyfriend at the hospital, he confided in me that he did not remember what he did wrong, subtly implying that the machine might have failed. And he talked about how everything else contributed to the accident. He is right, of course, but it seems almost unseemly to shirk responsibility in such a quick fashion when someone’s life was almost taken. Second, Joe never apologized to the boyfriend, even as much as “I am so sorry that I panicked,” creating an opportunity for the boyfriend to say, “I am sorry too, for not providing enough supervision.” Third, Joe sent us a bill for the trip, which included gasoline for the car: We rode back in the ambulance, but he took our things. (Our original intention was to share costs.)

Now I am very angry, not about the accident but about Joe’s refusal to acknowledge his part in the accident. I don’t care about the money, but I am surprised by the ferociousness of my response. I do not want this man in my life, for refusing to acknowledge that something serious happened. He wants to pretend that nothing happened, but something did. Things change when we do not acknowledge our part. The boyfriend is mostly OK. He had a severe concussion and that may cause some unforeseen problems. He has other problems from the accident, but ones that time will most likely heal. However, what is happening here? Am I being a mean person, or is this behavior wrong? I am having a hard time digesting this behavior.

I want to be fair and kind. Yet, I find this behavior unacceptable. I know that we react to accidents in various ways. I also know that Joe is not entirely responsible for what happened. But he is partly responsible. I will not pretend that I am not angry, although I usually am a people-pleasing magnet. They are old school friends. What is the right thing to do here?

Troubled With Ethical Responses


Dear Troubled,

I’m not going to get into trying to resolve the ethical matter, which if examined in detail may be a little complicated. But I will tell you as simply one person to another that I don’t like this guy! He’s not giving you what you need, and he’s not giving me what I need either! I want him to say that while he maybe doesn’t know precisely how his failings contributed to your boyfriend’s injuries, he knows that he contributed and that he feels deeply sorry for his part and takes complete responsibility for his part. I want him not just to say that but to show that, too, by picking up the tab, by taking care of stuff, by making other people’s lives easier, rather than thinking of himself and his own convenience. I want this guy to not send you a bill. Sure, life goes on. But take the high road! I wish he had thought about it and said to himself, They’ve been through a lot, I can afford to let the bill slide.

A guy nearly died here. You want a person, when something like that happens, when he has played a part in it, to be generous and helpful, to be humble and self-effacing. That would mean paying for stuff. That would mean showing up and being there and trying to help out. That would mean not acting like a weasel.

To say he should have been given better training and supervision sounds weaselly. Climbing is a dangerous sport. Whose responsibility is it? It’s his! No matter how much supervision we are given, the final responsibility rests with us; we must accept responsibility for assessing the danger we face and the risks we take. He chose to climb the wall. He had a responsibility for his friend’s well-being. Something went wrong and everyone around him is being gracious in not blaming him outright. The least he could do is show humility and respect. It galls me to think that he would even hint at placing any blame on others, any blame at all.

You are uncertain on what logical or ethical basis you feel this anger. Well, what you feel is what you feel. I think you sense in your heart that he’s being a weasel. He’s not rising to the occasion. He’s not even doing the minimum. We feel it when people aren’t pulling their weight. We feel the extra weight on our backs.

What we love in people is when they do more than the minimum, when they rise to the occasion and shoulder more of the load than they have to. That is when things work best, when every person shoulders more than he or she has to and does more than is necessary. That gives everyone strength in a bad situation.

It is also a practical necessity for everyone to do more than their share because, as a practical matter, “your share” is never enough. There is always more to do than you think. If we all think only of our own share, certain people will always end up doing more. We must all do more than our share.

So when even one person does less, it’s really annoying!

So his behavior sounds selfish and immature. We could let him off the hook and say he’s acting like a dick because of how he was raised, because he’s spoiled and afraid of a lawsuit. We could say that. But we don’t want to.

We like people who own up. We like people who shoulder the load. That’s the kind of behavior that we like.

This guy’s behavior isn’t even close to that.

So what’s the right thing to do? You could try telling him. But something tells me he’s not going to get it. We don’t get this stuff by being told. We get it when experience teaches us, or because discomfort teaches us, or because a desire for genuine understanding leads us to it. We don’t get it because people tell us we’re acting like dicks.

So you can tell him whatever you want. I’d just write him off.

Don’t let him hold your purse. Don’t let him hold your baby.

Don’t fly with him. Don’t drive with him. Don’t even walk with him.

And don’t ever, ever go climbing with him!



He’s sober but he steals hotel towels!


I’m dating a man but I’m uncomfortable with some of his behaviors. He is about eight years sober and attends Alcoholics Anonymous regularly. He and I dated about four years ago and I adored him but couldn’t tolerate some of his bad behavior so the relationship ended. He seems to have grown a lot in the last four years and I was excited and hopeful to give the relationship another chance.

However, he still doesn’t follow the same rules of society that I do. Here are some examples of things he’s done in the last couple of months: He’s tried to sneak into places that he should be paying to enter; he’s takes the towels from hotel rooms; and he outright lifted a towel off of the maintenance cart and took it home.

He knows I’m uncomfortable with his behavior. He jokingly asked if I would feel better if he returned the towels to the hotels (and I said yes).

He occasionally will tell me things he did before he was sober. For example, he said he flooded a vacant house on purpose. I hear no remorse from him when he tells these stories and it seems unlikely to me that he ever worked the Step 8 the way it was intended to be worked.

When I reentered a relationship with him this time I went in with the attitude of keeping things light and taking things day by day. But now he is asking more of me and I’m losing interest in him.

I don’t know if I should just ease out of the relationship or if I should let him know why I’m cooling off. It seems only fair to tell him why I’m backing away, but I don’t want to create a scene either. I would want to stay in the relationship if he was working on changing this behavior but I know I can’t change him.

Your advice sure would be appreciated.


Cary Tennis Writing Retreat in France

Dear Sunshine,

You can’t change him. But you can place before him the opportunity to keep going out with you, and let him choose. You can say to him, I like you a lot but I won’t go out with you if you keep stealing towels.

Then it’s up to him. I’d choose you over hotel towels and I don’t even know you that well. But you’ll just have to find out what he wants to do.

Maybe he has a different definition of stealing. When people are drinking sometimes they have a different definition of drinking. Like beer is not drinking. Or one glass of wine is not drinking. So maybe to him taking a towel is not stealing. Maybe it would have to be fifty towels for it to be stealing.

If there is a definitional problem at the heart of this, Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, may help.

I get what you mean when you say you can’t control his behavior. You’re powerless over that. But he’s not. He is capable of making choices. So put the choice before him. He may be motivated to change his behavior when he contemplates the benefits to be obtained.

There is, of course, an apparent contradiction between his attendance at AA meetings and his attitude toward stealing towels and sneaking in places. Maybe he hasn’t read the AA literature on stealing towels and sneaking in to places. (Just kidding. I don’t think the literature expressly contemplates such activity; one is left to make such connections on one’s own.)

But let’s not go there. His membership in AA is his business. The thing that properly concerns you—and it is a proper concern—is that he acts dishonestly in front of you. That troubles you. It should. So just tell him it’s a deal breaker. And then stick to it.

Now, you’re not his AA sponsor, and neither am I, and it’s none of our business, but I am a writer and writers are curious and like to create hypothetical scenarios for sheer amusement. So personally I would find it amusing if, say, his sponsor were to recommend that he take a rigorous textile inventory of himself.

Or of his house. How many towels has he got in there? And how could he make amends? Should he visit each hotel and walk around the halls until he finds a housekeeping team hard at work, and just casually throw in the towel? (Speaking of which, maybe his resistance has to do with a resistance to surrender, i.e., he refuses to throw in the towel.) (Groan.)

Anyway, I like the comic possibilities. It could be his quest. Like “My Name is Earl.” You could film it and put it on YouTube.

My creepy dad emails too much

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Cary’s classic column fromWednesday, Nov 21, 2012

He was a terrible father and I want him out of my life

Hi, Cary,

Growing up, my dad was verbally and emotionally abusive.  He became physically abusive toward my brother but stuck to mind games with my mother and me.  In eighth grade, my mom finally got up the courage to leave (thank that great spaghetti monster in the sky) and take my brother and me out of that hostile situation.

In the time between my mother kicking him out of the house and us leaving for a new town, my dad would spend our visits sobbing  and playing sappy love songs (forever ruined for me: Harry Nilsson’s “All by Myself”). He’d say, “Were you kids really afraid of me? I would never want you to be afraid of your own father.” Even at 13 I understood his behavior to be completely lacking in sincerity. I knew my fear of him was a tool he used to keep us subservient and was kind of insulted that he’d think I was too dumb to realize it.

After he refused to pay child support for my brother and me, lobbed ridiculous allegations of adultery at my mother (she is a saint), and dragged us all through a five-year, financially draining divorce, I told him I’d had enough.

At 18 I wrote him a letter (via snail mail) asking him to stop contacting me. I explained that his role in my life was not positive, healthy or beneficial to me and, until he could acknowledge his previous poor behavior and become a positive force, I had no room for his negativity in my life.

He wrote back immediately saying how sad it was my mother had brainwashed me into hating him (it is to laugh) and included a photograph of him with his girlfriend’s kids. He explained that it was OK that I didn’t want him around anymore — he had a new family that loved him. That letter, though painful, was proof to me that my father is not capable of healthy, adult, even human emotion and that I’d done the right thing.

Over the last 10 years he has mostly obliged my request to not contact me, though he still sends the occasional Christmas/ birthday/ national disaster email or card. After Sandy hit he emailed to ask if I’d made it through the storm OK. My first thought was, How do you know I live in New York? The tone of these messages is always manipulative and incredibly self-centered, i.e., “I don’t know what I’d do if you were in those twin towers. How would I go on?”

Frankly, his ability to co-opt a national tragedy and turn it into a pity party for himself is quite amazing. 

A friend asked recently: If my dad died, would I be able to feel a sense of closure? Would I regret not speaking to him? My answer is no. I don’t believe he is capable of apologizing in a way I’d find acceptable and I don’t believe, going forward, we can have any kind of relationship. The letter with the new family photo is just one example of the many inappropriate things that have transpired since the split.  I could tell you about his abusive relationship with my brother who became a homeless heroin addict, or the history of mental illness in his family that no one will acknowledge or treat, but really I just need to know what to do with the emails.

Though I’m OK with the idea of never speaking to or seeing him again, every message in my inbox from him still sends me back to that angry, teenage, fatherless space. It makes me question my relationship with my great boyfriend, angry at my mom again for not being able to protect my brother and me when we were young, and frustrated that, after all these years, he still can ruin my day. I guess I don’t know what to do. Set up a way to send the emails directly to the trash/spam folder? Again ask that he stop contacting me? If I reach out again and ask for no contact should I explain that I’ve forgiven him, in as much as I can, and that our relationship is forever over?

I would like to live in a black-and-white world, but I understand there are gray areas. I feel like this is holding me back in my personal relationships and would love any insight you can offer.

Fatherless Child


Dear Fatherless Child,

Basically you have to shrink your dad down to the size of a green pea. There are ways to do that.

One way is to always call a friend. Never read his letters alone or he will grow. Call a friend. Point to the screen and say to your friend, “There is an email from my dad and I don’t want to open it!” Maybe opening it with a friend and reading it aloud will work. Or maybe you will want your friend to read it and delete it for you. Just don’t be alone with it. If you are alone with an email from your dad, he will grow to the size of a zebra. You don’t want that. You want your dad to be the size of a pea, and somewhat shriveled.

Your dad is far away. You have a big world full of friends who are close by; you have a family you have created for yourself. That family is big. Your dad might come into that world, but your dad is small.

Your dad will try to make himself big like a zebra because he’s so narcissistic and self-involved, but if he ever gets that big, then you have to make yourself even bigger, like a whale or an elephant. You are big when you are with the people who love and support you. You are big when you are with your chosen family. And mainly you have to keep your dad shrunk down to the size of a pea.

Also, work in a group or one-on-one with a therapist, not just a little bit but a lot. You have to do it a lot, like lifting weights or studying anthropology. So make shrinking your dad a major focus and involve others in the project. Don’t pretend you can handle it on your own. You can’t. If you could, you wouldn’t be writing to me.

Talking helps. Being with others helps. Just say out loud that you are concentrating on shrinking your dad down to the size of a green pea. The smaller he gets, the less afraid you will be of him.

So those are the two things I suggest: 1) Never read an email from your father while you’re alone. 2) Get a program together where you are continually making yourself big and making your dad small. You have to do it all the time, because you make your dad small one day and he gets big the next day. That means sharing with people every day what’s going on with your dad, what size he is, where he is in your world, if he is present or absent, if you are fearing him or dreading him. Let people help you. They will.

One day your dad will be so small, you can barely see him. Then you will be surprised because even at that tiny size he can still scare you. That’s the weird thing. That’s why you have to shrink your dad every day, and never alone. Never “All by Myself.” (And now, thanks to you, I’m going to have that song in my head, and so are a lot of other people. Oh, well. We can do the same thing with that song that we are doing with your dad: Just concentrate on shrinking it down until it is very, very small.)




My parents owe me money

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Cary’s classic column fromWednesday, Nov 10, 2010

I loaned them a large sum and they haven’t paid me back. Should I demand payment?

Dear Cary,

I am struggling with whether to ask my parents to repay a loan I made to them several years ago.

I am a 40-year-old professional, living on a coast while my parents still live in the Midwest city where I grew up. I make a good living, although I have many obligations (kids approaching college age, a house that we are not living in on the market over a year, etc.). Several years ago, my parents were in a financial crisis. My mother, a professional who had been the breadwinner of the family for some time, was having some health issues and her income was down. They ran up a great deal of credit card debt and were on the point of declaring bankruptcy. They asked me for a loan.

I was quite conflicted at the time about whether to give them money. I love my parents a great deal, and they provided for me very well, sending me to college and setting me up to move forward independently in life. (I put myself through professional school and am still paying off loans from it.) My parents have never been good with money. For most of their adult lives both have had very good incomes, but they have spent their money, and more, as soon as they got it. They had very little savings (less than $10,000). My father, for a variety of reasons of his choosing, had not worked full-time for several years. When they asked for money, I really wanted to help them, but I wasn’t at all sure what would be the best thing to do. I was concerned that if I loaned them money, it would simply delay the inevitable for a little while.

Finally, after they explained their plan to refinance their house, restructure their debt and change their spending habits, I decided that I would lend them the money. The amount was large, but not unduly painful for me to part with. My dad said to me at the time, “You will see this money back.” I replied, “Thank you. I do want it back someday, but I am doing this to help you, and I don’t want you to be stressed more about when you pay me back. Get through your situation.” They did, and to their credit, were able to right the ship to a degree and make it through.

A couple of years after that, my wife (now ex) of 10 years and I were separating and I was financially stretched. She had moved out and the kids and I were living in our house with about half the furniture we needed and a 15-year-old TV. I was dipping into retirement savings to pay the mortgage, etc. At that time, I took the kids on a long-planned trip to visit my parents. When I got to their house, I discovered that they had, thanks to the housing bubble, refinanced their house again and were in the process of entirely redoing their kitchen and family room. Their brand-new gourmet appliances, flat-screen TV and an entire family room of expensive, stylish furniture were in their garage while the work was being done.

No mention was made of the money I had lent them. I probably should have said something at the time, but I was, frankly, stunned. I also did not want to ruin the visit for my kids.

Several more years have passed now. During that time, my parents inherited several hundred thousand dollars from a family member. They are retired and living comfortably, although both of them have chronic health issues. Fortunately for me, I have done well in the interim, and am in no dire need of the money that I lent them. Nevertheless, the issue eats at me. I was very hurt that my parents, after I had helped them, did not step up when their fortunes had risen and it would have really helped me. Now, the money doesn’t really matter, but I live with this feeling of hurt and resentment.

Am I being petty and ungrateful to the people who raised me? Or should I confront them about my feelings?

Conflicted Son


Dear Conflicted Son,

I know how it is. These issues can hang over you but you think, well, I don’t really need it.

But the issue hangs over you.

I wouldn’t confront them about your feelings. I would confront them about the money.

And it’s not about whether you need the money. It’s about honoring the agreement. It sounds like it was one of those agreements that are open-ended. That’s a shame. Agreements need dates in them when things are supposed to happen.

But with family, well, I know how it is.

Here is one way you might approach it. Consult a financial planner and look at the tax implications for both you and for your parents, and talk about investment strategies, and broach the subject from that angle. If there are, for instance, advantages to receiving the money in increments over a few years rather than as a lump sum, you might propose that as the reason for broaching it now. Or if now is a good time to invest it in something, propose that as the reason. You might say that as long as it’s going to be paid off, the proper way is to pay it off in smaller amounts, for tax purposes. You could say that you want to avoid a situation in which your parents pay it back all at once, or a situation in which you might need it and they might not have it.

Your parents probably have feelings about this money as well. They may feel a bit ashamed at having to ask their son for money. They probably want to pay it back but are having trouble mustering the willingness to do so. In fact, that is one sign of people who do not handle money well. They do not willingly pay their obligations. Sometimes this is because they do not feel secure that more money will come. They live in fear about money. They binge and purge. They gloat and then they starve.

It’s possible that your parents are actually quite dysfunctional about money, and so this will also be an opportunity for you to go over their situation and plan for the future. As their health problems and age increase, they may start to do dumb things with money. Perhaps you can start now to become involved with their finances, you can monitor things and avert catastrophe.

The matter of your feelings of hurt, that’s a separate thing. It was a hard time, I’m sure. You were getting divorced and probably felt somewhat alone and vulnerable. It’s likely that you did not know how to talk to your parents at the time and tell them how you were feeling. Perhaps they had feelings about it, too. But you stayed away from emotional topics. You left much unsaid, not just about money but about the divorce.

There are ways you can heal the relationship with your parents, and taking care of this outstanding loan is a good beginning. Maybe after you work this out, you can start talking to your parents about your life in a way that is a little bit more open than you have in the past.

Asking for money is hard. But it’s your job. It’s what money requires.

Money requires that people ask for it. If nobody asks for the money, then the money doesn’t move. It just sits there. Money doesn’t want to just sit there. It wants to move around. It wants to be shown that it’s needed, that it’s important. So don’t ignore the money. You can’t anyway. You’re thinking about it. Of course you are. Because it’s money. Money is great. It deserves to be thought about.

So asking for it is part of the process of getting paid back. It’s necessary. You might consider it a service to the debt, or a duty to the debt. That is, it’s not about you wanting the money back. It’s about completing the transaction.

What will you do if your mother or father says, Well, we didn’t think you really wanted us to repay you, or, We think you’re doing well enough and don’t see that you need the money.

It would be good to have something in mind if they say this. You might say, well, let me talk to my accountant again … which would buy you time.

It isn’t about whether you need the money. It’s an agreement that was made. It’s about honoring the agreement.

One thing is certain. The debt is not going to go away. It’s not going to pay itself back.

Cary's Writing Retreat in Chester, CT


My reading is private–so why start reviewing novels?

Into my awareness a few weeks ago came this strange, unbidden thought: My reading is private. I don’t really want to talk with you about the books I love. I just want to love them in my own way. I mean, I like you and you’re interesting to me, but the reading I do is mine, all mine, and I don’t even all that much want to share it.

Is that bad of me?

The truth is full of paradox, of course. Because in practically the same breath I’m going to say: I’ve decided to start writing about books.

People expect you to want to talk about the books you’re reading. Why is that? Is it because books are supposed to be important? Is it because of a presumed duty, as a citizen, to sharpen your perceptions, to make sure you’re not misguided, or to share your insights with others for their enlightenment? That takes the fun out of it. Reading novels and poetry and short stories is one of the few pleasures left in which I do not incur an obligation. All I have to do is read. What a glorious pleasure! Why mess that up with a duty to discuss, analyze, explain a viewpoint and defend it? Aagh!

And yet. And yet I am interested in my own thoughts about why books do what they do, and how. And writing is a nice way to explore one’s own thoughts.

But here’s the real impetus behind my decision to start “reviewing” books. I want to be a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

It has to do with my longing to belong. I may not want to talk to you, but I want to belong to your club. So I was sitting in Java Beach writing my weekly Wednesday advice column this morning when, because I got on the mailing list for the NBCC at the AWP Conference (I can see the more I get involved, the more the acronyms are going to pile up), an email came from the National Book Critics Circle and I read it and suddenly I wanted to know who all these writers were that I had never heard of. I mean, I’ve heard of the ones that it’s obvious I’ve heard of and you’ve heard of them too, but the other ones I haven’t heard of and it made me curious and even a little excited. Of course, I’m used to massive disappointment, too, so it’s a guarded interest.

I’ve been on a kick lately, see, to find books I really like, and writers I can meet and talk to. Mostly it started when I read a San Francisco Magazine piece on Litquake and it was so disgustingly clubby and mutually congratulatory. This bothered me. But rather than simply make a face and take an attitude like a high schooler, I decided to embark on a project. I decided to be an adult and read all the novels by San Francisco Bay Area writers that I could stand, and be really, really honest about my own reactions, and see if I could find some that I really, really liked.

So far I’ve only found two novels. Well, three actually. To be honest. I read some interesting things but I only found three novels, lately, from the Bay Area, that I really could say I loved. Oh, and I found one short story collection that I really liked. Then I went up to the author of that short story collection after a reading and told him one story made me think of John Cheever and he said kind of dismissively—but also maybe self-protectively, as it’s a drag to hear the same old dumb first impression, when your work is much deeper and more complex than that—that he’d heard that before.

I’m still looking for more. I’m checking books out of the library all the time, whenever I hear of something I might like. I don’t like much. And I’m only going to write about novels and short story collections that I like. I mean really like. Like when I was a kid, when I read just because I liked it. I might mention books of poetry too but I don’t know if I can really write about poetry.

I guess writing only about books I like would make me not an official critic. That’s fine with me. I don’t want to be a critic. I’m not out to enforce my standards or influence the world’s taste and judgment. I just want to join the NBCC and get their magazine discounts.

I’m not really all that interested in having a dialog with you, either, about the books that I like. I say what I say and you read it in private and that’s that. That’s how it used to be. Your enthusiasms are probably different from mine, anyway. Mine are strange but also at times very quotidian. I don’t know if you’ll enjoy what I have to say about the books I like. I’m not doing it for that. I’m doing it so I can have three reviewer’s clips and then maybe they’ll let me into the National Book Critics Circle as a charter member sort of. And then I can get those magazine discounts.

Like I say, to tell the truth, I’m just one of those people who just wants to belong. I want to be in the club. You can be in the club with me. I’d like that. I just don’t want to have to explain and agree and disagree and all that. It’s like, the cool thing is, I’m not getting paid for this, so I can do it however I want! Isn’t that great! No more pretending!

Oh, and also I figure it’ll show book editors and agents that I know a little bit about how novels achieve their effects. Since I’m writing one myself, I ought to know. I think I kind of do.  I think I kind of know how to do it, I think. So I’ll enjoy talking about that.

Soon I’ll do my first one. I hope it’s not too hard, like a test, or an assignment in school. I don’t think it will be. I’m not trying to prove how smart I am or anything. I already know where I stand with that whole business.

How do I show her I’m serious?



Write for Advice


Dear Cary,

I have been reading your column, particularly your relationship advice for so long that sometimes the stories mirror my own hopelessly romantic life with such accuracy I’m convinced a significant other wrote it. Thank you for sharing your insight in these instances;  I can rest a little easier knowing I’m not alone in my quest to understand the complexities of relationships and the abundance of feelings that come with it .

I’d like to take the moment to tell you a story. There’s a woman I’ve known for some time. A few months ago I decided to pull the trigger and be more than friends with her. She is everything that I would look for in a long-term relationship: intelligent, success-driven, affectionate and genuine about her feelings. We connect on many levels, share many similar interests and aspire to the same goals. When we’re together, I feel like the luckiest guy on earth.

But that’s not to say it’s all perfect. There is also a side of her often leaves me anxious and frustrated. I’m no angel and being friends for so long, she’s well aware of my past misgivings. Her trust issues and insecurities over my willingness to commit to one woman have put me in a limbo between just dating and a committed relationship. The other “main” reasons she gives are: not knowing exactly what she wants in the long run, a former love interest she can’t seem to get over and her fear of falling in love and experiencing heartbreak again.

This has led me to wild emotional goose chase to prove myself to her. I have repeatedly attempted to put her fears to rest. I’ve told her my intentions, opened myself honestly to her questions about my past and have been patient through it all. Still, no dice. Her insecurities have damaged some of my friendships and are constantly putting a strain on our relationship.  Combined with her family’s constant involvement (they actually love me, which makes her even more anxious), I’m beginning to doubt if this is what I want.

Cary, what should I do? I’m in no rush to settle, but there is a strong desire for some stability at this point in my life. I genuinely like her and I might even be in love with her (that’s a whole other story). How do I explain that holding off on me while holding unto the past only makes me more apprehensive about our future? How else can I show her I’m “for real, for real” about what we have? How can I get her to let me in and trust me just enough to continue to grow and build our relationship? Or should I just move on? I feel that taking a laid-back approach forces me to just settle with whatever I’m given, and for me that’s a deal breaker. I’d hate to walk away from it all, but I’d even more hate to know I’m wasting my time.

In Limbo


Dear In Limbo,

The traditional—and quite effective—solution to the kind of limbo you describe is to ask her to marry you.

That is how you say you’re for real for real, you’re in it for the long haul, you’re not the man you used to be. That is how you say you’re not kidding around and you’re willing to risk not only that unendurable moment after you ask her when she sits back in her chair and gets a cloudy look in her eyes and the thought crosses your mind that she’s about to say no and you’re about to be humiliated, but also the following however many umpteen millions of years that represent the rest of your life.

It’s also how you get her to let you in and trust you enough to continue and grow and build the relationship. You may be thinking that if the relationship would only grow and build then you would be ready for commitment. But it’s the other way around. The relationship grows and builds because you make the conscious choice of commitment. Trust develops because you consciously create the conditions for trust. You don’t wait for the relationship to build. You build it.

Asking her to marry you is also a test for you. If you find that you’re not willing to ask her to marry you, it means she’s not crazy for having her doubts. Certainty doesn’t always come. You have to live with uncertainty and risk something dear to you. You have to take a chance.


Allergies can be deadly

Write for Advice

Cary’s classic column from Aug 24, 2004

My husband keeps poisoning our son … and then he says, Whoops, I forgot!

Dear Cary,

I am very happily married, with three wonderful children my husband and I are both besotted with. My husband and I treat each other with genuine respect and love, and we rarely fight. Except …

My oldest child, N, has a severe allergy to nuts and peanuts. This didn’t come as a big surprise to me, since my sister has a life-threatening peanut allergy, and I’m allergic to cashews and shellfish and lots of other stuff. It doesn’t cramp my style all that much, but it does mean I’ve grown up understanding what food allergies feel like, and why it’s important to take them seriously.

The way we learned about N’s problem was when the two of them went camping when N was about 18 months old. I was home, too pregnant to sleep in a tent, but it was the first time I’d been away from him that long. I had not yet let him eat nuts. We had agreed, I thought, to wait until he was at least 2, and then introduce them at home where I could monitor him. (We knew at that point he was allergic to dairy and eggs.) Well, my husband gave him a peanut butter sandwich which he almost immediately threw up in the tent.

When he told me what had happened, I got Epi-pens in case of another exposure, and had my husband read some material about how a first reaction that severe was really bad news. I thought he understood.

Now N is almost 8. Two or three times a year since that first time, my husband has slipped up and let him eat nuts. It’s always when I’m not there, since I am always on the alert. It’s always dessert, because for my husband eating sweets is like a religious experience, or at snack time after church, which, ditto. Last night it happened while I was taking the baby for a walk while the three of them finished up at a restaurant. There were nuts in a chocolate chip cookie. What a concept! N instantly knew from a feeling he gets in his throat and intense nausea. These are symptoms of impending anaphylactic shock, but this time, again, it didn’t cascade. Next time — who knows?

I was and am infuriated. I let him have it, and he told me I am never to speak to him that way. So now, and every other time, in his eyes this is less a life and death issue, and more a matter of my dissing him.

Any sensible person would tell me to wait until the air had cleared, be grateful that N had dodged another bullet, and later discuss the matter with my husband dispassionately, since he’s obviously feeling ashamed and attacked. And I do bring it up later — it never stays dispassionate for long, but it always ends with my being persuaded that, this time, I’ve gotten through to him. Then it all happens again three or four months later.

I know that if the worst should happen, and from my research I have to say it’s really not all that remote a possibility, it would ruin our lives forever.

So how do I handle this?

Going Nuts in a Life-or-Death Way


Dear Going Nuts,

So let me get this straight. Every now and then your husband poisons your son and then he says, whoops, sorry, I forgot not to poison my son. And then you yell at him and he tells you not to get so angry about it.

So, if you’re Medea in the bath, mourning her children, what are you supposed to do, just calmly call the morgue? Whatever tone of voice you talked to him in was probably understandable. He’s endangering your kid. Does he not understand that?

I think this is really serious. This isn’t like your husband tossing the child up in the air or letting him sit on his lap and take the wheel of the car, which are seemingly dangerous things fathers like to do with their sons that drive mothers crazy but don’t necessarily endanger their sons’ lives. This borders on abuse, it seems to me. This could kill your son.

You have to stop your husband from ever giving the child anything with peanuts in it. The question is: How? I would say you’re going to need a combination of strict new rules and behavioral insight. I would lay down some strict, unequivocal rules right away, and also consult a behavioral psychologist to get at the long-term issues involved. The rules: No store-bought cookies at all, ever, not even one. No cookies in restaurants ever, not even a bite. Only cookies you bake yourself. No peanut butter in the house, ever. Eliminate all chances for error. Be unrelenting and thorough.

Then, for the long term, get some help from a behavioral psychologist or the equivalent. Clearly, your husband does not consciously want to endanger your son. Yet I find it hard to imagine that these omissions are simply random. He’s probably doing it for reasons he doesn’t see or can’t admit. By working with a psychologist, you and he could gain some insight into why this is happening.

Perhaps he’s doing it to get back at you for shaming him. Or perhaps he’s trying to prove to himself that his son does not really have a life-threatening peanut allergy at all. See, he doesn’t really have a life-threatening peanut allergy! See, he’s still breathing!


My wife and I were talking yesterday about how every now and then someone locks a baby in a car with the windows rolled up and the baby dies from the heat. If you were a father who did that, she said, how would you go on living with yourself? And I said, grimly, only half-joking, that you’d pretty much have to kill yourself. Perhaps your husband would see the situation in a fresh light if he were to compare the infinitesimal pleasure he derives from ignoring his son’s allergy against the lifelong horror of being responsible for his death.


Cary's Writing Retreat in Chester, CT


Where are all the journalists now that we need them?

Journalists are like firemen. They aren’t needed all the time. But when they’re needed, they’re needed fast and you need a lot of them. They have to do a lot of things all at once. And it helps if they know each other too, so they don’t fall all over each other and make a mess.

I think the San Francisco City College closure threat makes it clear what happens when a city gets rid of most of its journalists.

Now, let me say right up front that I am writing from ignorance. I am writing as a non-expert, as just a joe. A guy that lives here. And that’s the point. I shouldn’t have to dig like a journalist. Journalists should dig for me. The news should be all over me. It should be on front pages on buses and on blogs and everywhere. I haven’t been paying attention. I’m like most everybody else. I don’t have time to pay attention to everything. That’s the job of journalists. So when something happens that’s complicated and potentially calamitous, they’re supposed to get on their fire trucks and see what’s happening. They’re supposed to swarm.

The question is simple: Who are all these assholes who are trying to close down City College. Who are they really? You need a bunch of journalists all at once to start interviewing their families and friends and colleagues, and looking at the things they’ve written and where they grew up. Right now. Because what they’re doing is insane. But apparently there aren’t enough journalists around when we need them. I guess if you were to ask the Guardian and the Weekly and the Chronicle and the Examiner they’d say there’s too much to do and not enough people to do it with.

What we need to know is this: How did this set of institutions reach the point where an ostensibly sane, rational process is heading toward a calamitous result?

And how are we to understand this? Are we to understand it, as I initially did, as a trivial bureaucratic fight that will be resolved one way or another without major harm? Still? Are we to understand it as a clash of ideologies? Is it a clash between right wing and left wing? Are there elements of resentment toward San Francisco in it? Is there a business mentality clashing with a liberal arts mentality? Are there elements of racism involved? How does it relate to the overall class divide being experienced in San Francisco? Where is the tech community positioned in this? What are the opinions of our recent arrivals, the technical workers about whom there is so much surface agitation?

What are the local roots of the struggle?

Especially when something crazy is happening in an apparently rational way, journalists have to get to the craziness of it. Most of what’s happening is just reporting. Reporting is boring. It just tells us what happened. We need to understand who the players are and what they have to gain from doing what they’re doing. As in a movie script: What are the stakes? We know what the stakes are for us as a public: We stand to lose City College. But what is the motivation of the players? That’s what we don’t understand.

It’s not just a boring public service thing either. It would be really, really fun to find out who these assholes really are. I hate them already and I don’t even know anything about them. Finding out enough about the players to really hate them is part of the fun.

Where are the education beat reporters for the San Francisco Chronicle? Where is Jill Tucker and where is Nanette Asimov?  Is there some other, more important, education story right now that merits their full attention? Is there something we don’t understand about this that makes the threat of losing City College less important than, say, any other story? Is there any other education story that is more important right now, more important to understand in depth? And by the way why are the Chronicle stories walled off to non-paying people?

And what is the SF Examiner doing? Joshua Sabatini, Jessica Kwong and Jonah Owen Lamb have all posted stories over the last month (were they all born in the Year of J Names, by the way?) but none has done the kind of digging that the public needs to see done. They are just reporting on what happens. They aren’t helping us understand what happens.

Here is what we need to know: Who are these crazy people? Who is Barbara Beno, really? Who is Arthur Tyler, really? Who’s side is everyone on?

What’s the story?


This is what happens when you get rid of all the journalists. Stuff burns out of control until it’s too late.

What a tragedy it would be if City College were to close

On Thursday nights I play music with some friends while my wife, Norma, takes a singing class at City College. Norma has taken classes there for years. She has studied painting, Russian, Italian and other things. City College has been a great life-enriching place for her. She is smart. She knows the value of a community college in a city as rich and varied as San Francisco. She has taken full advantage of it. Our lives have been better because of it.

So on Thursday, March 13, I picked Norma up about 9:30 p.m. at the Ocean Avenue campus and she told me that her singing class had gotten a late start because the police had broken the bones of some singing students earlier. Her instructor was talking with another instructor before class about the beatings and that delayed the class. Students had occupied a building and police had come in and bones had been broken and students had gone to the hospital. These were voice students. It’s oddly poetic, isn’t it, that in a fight for free speech and access to low-cost education it should be the voice students whose bones are broken by police?

Since July 2013 I had watched this controversy out of the corner of my eye. I now endeavored to learn what I could. I began to look into it. It didn’t take long to form a clear and passionate impression. It boils down to this: The ACCJC sucks. That is, in quickly reading the available information about its requirements and the current legal process and the correspondence sent to schools that have been sanctioned, and its own account of its purpose and its methods, and some legislative testimony and the various lawsuits pending, I came to see that the ACCJC is a troubled institution granted wide powers to act in secret and capable therefor of wreaking great harm. Their approach appears philistine and heavy-handed and inappropriate to an educational institution.

In other words, the ACCJC sucks.

More could be said and no doubt will be. More reporting must be done to expose the true long-term strategy of the people behind this move. The true story will no doubt involve power and money. It will involve ideology and infighting. It will involve public vs. private education. It will involve capitalism vs. democracy. It will be seen that some ACCJC’s rulings seem to favor private for-profit colleges at the expense of publicly run ones. A full, detailed picture will no doubt reveal our current cultural battle at its most venal and ugly.

Lest we forget: No fight about money and power and politics in San Francisco can be without real estate money. Wherever there is land, someone stands to make a fortune. There must be real estate money somewhere in this tale. And there must be clueless zealots and venal operators and ideological nitwits and the settling of old scores and backbiting and striving and all the great human passions that make life in California so interesting and so maddening.

Such is the ongoing carnival of human folly. If it were not dangerous, one would like to just let such folly play out. One would just like to watch with a mixture of horror and glee. I was content to do so until it appeared that the ACCJC’s actions may not be harmless at all. Now it appears urgent that the public become informed and take action. The loss of City College would be a tragedy for the city of San Francisco.

See These Links:

ACCJC: A Troubled Institution. An illuminating piece by independent journalist Rick Sterling (rsterling1@gmail.com) about deficiencies in the accrediting organization itself.

For a chilling look at the mindset of the people doing the accrediting, there is no better example than their own prose. I don’t know about you, but I am quite sensitive to how the quality of a person’s mind shows in the style of  prose he or she uses. ‘Nuf said. Just take a look at the PDF.  If you aren’t howling in laughter you will be howling in pain.

Accreditation Watch. Again: ‘Nuf said. This comprehensive site will give you a quick sense of the magnitude of the ACCJC’s shortcomings, and there is enough depth here for days of reading.

Hashtags on Twitter are #ACCJC and #CCSF.

Thought you’d like to know. Trying to remain civil about it, the breaking of voice students’ bones notwithstanding.