Vibrators and the man

Write for Advice

Cary’s classic column WEDNESDAY, JAN 22, 2003 12:05 PM PST

My husband “goes at it” with porn and sex toys right in front of me!


Dear Cary,

Lately, my husband of 10 years has developed a fascination (obsession?) with video porn and vibrating sex toys. He says he’s sick of hiding it, so after the kids go to sleep, he pops in a tape and commences to “go at it” whether I’m in the room or not. His purported reason is that since I have no interest in him and he doesn’t want to cheat on me, he will resort to his own devices, so to speak. I find this behavior shocking, disrespectful, morally bankrupt and frankly repulsive.

There is nothing wrong with me, biologically, that I so consistently fail to meet his needs. But in truth, I would rather read a book. And this spectacle makes me want to run screaming from the house, which I would do were it not for my kids.

I should say that when we are intimate, it is mutually satisfying, and while I’m set for at least a week, it sets in motion a campaign-like effort of his to get me to do it all the time (like every night). Sure, there is a bit of a mismatch in our frequency preference (which is normal, isn’t it?), but I find myself literally avoiding him so as to duck the pressure. He doesn’t hug me, he grinds me. He doesn’t kiss me, he gropes me. Get the picture? He wants me to wear uncomfortable, skimpy things when I am cold, tired or just plain bloated. I am no lingerie model — more like an overweight, middle-aged soccer mom, albeit with high cheekbones and good hair (just so you know I’m not depressed and self-loathing).

I am no prude and enjoy the above-mentioned entertainments, in small doses (as a “spice,” not the main ingredient) on especially romantic occasions (which are so rare as to be nonexistent). I fear that this pastime of his is becoming a lifestyle, and it’s one I deplore and cannot abide, never mind share. Emotionally and sexually, it’s driving me further and further away from him, which is supposedly what started it all in the first place!

As an aside, could worry about one’s wife’s health (say, if she had a life-threatening but treatable illness) cause or exacerbate such extreme and objectionable impulses/behavior, with no apparent regard for said wife’s response?

Tired and Dejected

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Dear Tired and Dejected,

Yikes! That’s disgusting! He can’t do that! Make him stop!

That’s my gut reaction. In a moment, after I shake it off, I’m going to try to make some coherent and useful suggestions in a cool, empathic and measured manner, as is my job and my native bent. But first I just have to say, one more time, yuck. Please, so we all can stop cringing and groaning, as a first step, tell him to stop doing that.

Thank you. That’s better.

Now, here’s the thing. Theoretically, just for the record, this could be perfectly OK. There’s nothing wrong with two people doing what you describe if they both want to do it. But if only one of you wants to do it, and the other finds the behavior shocking, disrespectful, morally bankrupt and frankly repulsive, then it’s like the polar opposite of mutually pleasing behavior between consenting adults. It’s more like some weird creepy kind of psychic rape. He’s not even touching you but he’s transgressing a sacred boundary, making it clear in symbolic terms that you are defenseless. It’s like his libido has come unmoored from domesticity and, drunk on commercialized sexual imagery, is running wild. It’s a little bizarre and kind of frightening.

So I don’t care how you do it, but first just make him stop. This may involve some argument, but it really has to be nonnegotiable. His argument — that he doesn’t want to cheat on you and he doesn’t want to hide — may sound almost reasonable on its surface, but it’s not a reasonable argument. It’s shallow and childish. He should be given to understand that after he agrees to stop, there are lots of options to discuss. But, as in diplomacy, the open hostilities must cease before talks can begin.

Once he’s put away the toys and turned off the video, you two have to really come to terms. You’ve obviously grown far apart sexually. And he, I would guess, is very angry at you. Yes, he is angry. Perhaps he feels sexually rejected. Perhaps he feels unwanted. I don’t think, even for a very stupid man, that this could be an innocent act; it is a naked provocation. He must want to hurt you.

This is going to take some work, and probably somebody smarter than all of us in these matters will need to step in and translate for you, so that you can make yourselves understood to each other. He is not only trying to hurt you but also trying to get your attention; he wants to say something to you. That he’s chosen this way indicates an alarming lack of discretion and a shocking disregard for your feelings, but nonetheless I don’t think he’s just an angry idiot innocently consumed with pornography. There is something he wants to say. It could be that he wants out of the marriage. It could be that he is incredibly hurt. It could be that he feels monstrously guilty. It could be that he just needs some privacy and needs to exercise some discretion.

If he has worries about your health, he needs to verbalize them. And if they bear some connection to his behavior, that must be made explicit somehow. He’s the only one who can tell you what he feels about your state of health. Whatever the underlying feelings are, you need to get them out in the open. But getting them out in the open is not therapeutic in itself. That’s just the beginning. You need to understand their implications. Maybe he needs to go jerk off twice a day. Maybe he needs to go to strip clubs or watch naked lesbian mud wrestling. Maybe you two need to split up.

I would think that if you love him and you two can accept that while well-matched in some ways you are comically mismatched in others, and just get over it, you could live together and not have to freak out the kids. If you could grant him a private sexual life with agreed-upon boundaries and just not have it shoved in your face, perhaps you two could stop hurting each other and call a truce.

Or perhaps the marriage is over and it would be best for you and for the kids if you split up. If underneath all this is just a bottomless pit of anger and recrimination, you could spend the rest of your life trying to get to the bottom of it for little benefit to either of you. That’s what you have to decide. You have to take your discussion all the way. It might take a while, a year perhaps, to work through it all. But you can’t keep going like this. There’s too much being acted out here and not enough being said.

Connecticut_SlightlySmaller

Newsletter_NEW_Dec13

I can’t get home to see my mom before she dies

Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, JUL 25, 2007

 


By the time you read this, she’ll probably be gone. Why couldn’t I be by her side?

 


Dear Cary,

I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed and need advice. So here I am. I’ll cut to the point: My 63-year-old mother will most likely be deceased by the time you receive this. After a number of years battling multiple sclerosis, the drugs she had to take for that left her susceptible to an opportunistic cancer which, though that was easily zapped away, had spread in the meantime to her liver, where they couldn’t use radiotherapy. All they could use was chemo, and after the very first round, my already weakened mother got so knocked flat by her reaction to that — having to go into the hospital and barely even able to talk — that she refused any further.

This was not an ill-informed decision. My mom is a nurse and a quite experienced one. It’s that she knew too well what it would amount to. It probably wouldn’t get rid of the cancer, so she merely would have spent her last remaining days in horrible suffering. My mom has had a very hard life and only the past 10 years, after she remarried, to a very nice man 13 years her junior, has she found peace. He’s a contractor and had just built her a house that had taken him years to finish after she retired, up in the mountains near Asheville, N.C., her favorite place in the world. She did not want to spend what would have been little time anyway as an invalid.

As our family is medical, all the talk has been oddly matter-of-fact. I couldn’t talk her out of it because I respect her wishes and knew she knew what she was doing. I wanted to. The last time I talked to her it was the always-macabre My Will conversation, which is not what I would have wanted our last conversation to be about. Today she suddenly slipped into a coma, and her liver and kidneys have gone. They say it’s any time now. She’s at peace and unconscious. I guess it could be worse. But it’s horrible. My father killed himself when I was 17 and now, 21 years later, my mother, who did nothing but good for people her whole life, gets killed by a cancer another treatment brought on. My parents will now both be gone, for good. I’m frightened, though I’m not sure why. I never thought of that as a usual reaction to this.

And the worst of it: Because of intense economic difficulties for the past five years (having to do with a move from California to Chicago and a divorce, and a number of other rather strange misfortunes I can’t detail here), I have not had the money, nor the time when I had the money, to visit her since my wedding in 2000. (Actually, she came out to California, so not even then.) I always assumed there’d be time. Being unemployed prevented me from getting the money to go down and see her before she went. I’m lucky right now in Chicago to be getting the occasional temp job just to keep me from being evicted. If I left, I would have nothing to come back to. Now the only way I’ll be able to get down there is for the funeral. If I were to leave right now, she’d already be dead when I got there. That would be too much.

And though my family has understood and though it hasn’t been my fault I couldn’t see her, I feel like the worst son on earth. I feel horrible. I can’t stand myself. She loved me, dearly, and I love her, and I feel like I should have found a way, any way, no matter how poor I am.

She hasn’t been alone. There’s my stepfather and my sister, who still lives down there. But I should have seen her. I wish I’d seen her.

Am I right or wrong about my guilt?

Rotten Son

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Dear Rotten Son,

You know, it is very hard to make life turn out the way we want it to. This is especially true with parents, about whom we care so much but about whose fortunes we can do so little. And it is especially true in the manner of our parents’ dying.

So when in the stillness of the summer night your failures mount up before you like a flock of screaming raptors with harsh cries and sharp talons and cold, yellow eyes, you may find it necessary to take out a piece of paper and a pen and under the light of a solitary lamp make a list of your little victories. Write them down and make them concrete and celebrate them, rare as they are.

The list may be alarmingly short, and it may be largely in the negative. For instance in my case I can say with certainty that never once did I lock my parents in the basement shackled to a water pipe and let them starve to death. Maybe I haven’t provided for them in their old age as well as I would if I were the good, heroic son. Maybe my calling has not brought me the fortune that would allow me to set them up in a condo in Hawaii. Maybe I am not a master of worldly matters. But I did not shackle them to a water pipe in the basement and let them starve to death. That I did not do. And neither did you.

It may seem cold comfort but we take what we can get.

You have had some victories. Count them. You have a mother who loved you dearly. You have a family that knows you and understands your situation. But chief among these victories, it seems to me, is your simple awareness of what is happening, and your ability to feel it. You may wish to stop feeling this, because it feels like guilt and insufficiency. It is emotional pain. But it is the tragic truth. It hurts but it also ennobles. This is no small thing. Look around you. Look at the many people who pass through life obsessed with their tiny troubles, barely noticing the great, life-changing events occurring around them, arriving at the loved one’s deathbed still fuming about a rude ticket agent or a misplaced paycheck, still perceiving life through some glasses that were cracked to begin with and never fixed. The fact that you know what is happening and have written it down, the simplest of true observations, is impossibly rare. You observe that your mother is dying and you wish you could be there but you cannot. At least you can say this. At least you are honoring this. You are not missing it. You are right here. That is enough for now.

And of course you feel afraid at the specter of your parents’ dying.

We all feel afraid at the specter of our parents’ dying, because pure and simple their dying is what we face. Our parents are our protectors and the givers of our lives, so when they die we realize there is no more life to be given to us. When they die we know absolutely that we also will die.

This is both a terrible thing and a comfort. After all, much of the pain of life comes from how we compare ourselves to each other and don’t measure up. You, for instance, in having overcome your various obstacles, find yourself now comparing yourself to some ideal son and not measuring up. It is this way all over the world. And all over the world we sons and brothers follow the same tragic path: We scheme to be better, faster, stronger and righter. We scheme to be the good son, the powerful son, the son who righted the failures of the father. I am thinking of George Bush here. I am thinking of a man not blessed with talent in the usual sense but cursed with a vile genius to surpass his brothers and his father. Look at the death he has brought to others. And look at all those religious fanatics he is obsessed with killing, who in seeking their own religious destiny deal death to others in wholesale quantity without remorse! What craziness!

Why not simply accept that death will come to us all, and let it come when it comes? Why not recognize death as the one merciful thing that will bring us finally together. Why not see death as the final antidote to our crippling feeling of insufficiency. Finally, if we feel we have not been good enough for anything in life, at least we are good enough to die. At least death will embrace us as it embraces your mother and my uncle and my father-in-law and every other soul who has ever lived and ever will live.

As to your mother’s feelings: She will have died knowing that you love her. She will have understood the terms of her going. She will have seen many die and will understand that death does not always come at a convenient time.

Of course that outrages us, but that is the way it is. Death, that most final, magisterial end, yet arrives with an insouciant randomness that outrages us. This one event, we think, of all events, ought to signal the presence of a just, even-handed God! But no, that is not how death comes at all. It comes with casual insouciance, like a child picking wildflowers, this one and that one and the other one, whatever catches its eye.

We just have to accept it, without reservation. Death picks a handful and carries them off.

So let your mother die and then go to the funeral, where the living make meaning out of death and fortify ourselves against the bleak terror of nonexistence … until the next time, when death comes again and takes a few more for its strange, invisible bouquet.

Connecticut_SlightlySmaller

 

Newsletter_NEW_Dec13

The wisdom of the system

I just had a weird thought. Weird but lucid. More like a vision.

I just thought, what if we are producing a generation of people who are going to solve the planetary problems we have created? What if the whole system, not just the human race but the planetary system itself, the biosphere, is producing the cure for its ills, in the form of a generation of humans agile enough to use technology to solve our problems, to produce unheard-of and undreamed-of new solutions to global climate change, etc.? What if the strangely nonlinear and collectivist sensibilities of the young are a direct planetary response to its own ills? Like a generation of planet healers? Like an organism producing its own medicine?

What if Gaia knows what medicine it needs?

Is that a preposterous idea? Why is that such a preposterous idea?

I rather like the idea myself: a generation of young people so well-adapted to the machine mind and the collective, networked global consciousness that out of this networked consciousness will emerge technological and social solutions that we can’t see now. We can’t see them because they haven’t been invented yet. But when they are invented they will be so astounding, and yet in retrospect so obvious, that they will take their place among the greatest discoveries of mankind. So far.

Throughout human history, it must have seemed like the end of the world lots of times. Think of what humans have gone through! So maybe scientific progress and technological advancement are a kind of planetary medicine. Of course it’s messy right now. It’s hard to see how it’s all going to work out.

And then my wife Norma said what she doesn’t like is how large tech companies like Apple keep making us buy new things. And I said, yep, they’re making consumers fund their R&D. And maybe it is like that, that we have to do this, for the R&D we’re funding by our global adoption of technological advances is R&D that will eventually save the planet. I don’t mean your iPhone is going to save the planet, or Apple is going to save the planet. But the collective intelligence and problem-solving and visionary genius that all our stupid little technological purchases funds may just be the thing that saves us. That some genius or collection of geniuses, wired into the collective and speedy problem-solving network of computers and agile, imaginative minds, will hit on something unforeseen.

When it happens, if it happens, it probably won’t look like that. The strands of connection will be thin and nearly undetectable, because we will have funded this thing in such a cloud way, such a nonlinear way. But in a sense, every time we buy something we are “throwing money at the problem.” And I don’t see why that should be such a dumb idea. Let’s throw more money at the problem. Let’s throw enough money at the problem that the problem at least notices.

It’s just an idea. It’s the kind of idea that sustains an optimism that some might find foolish. I just think that it’s normal and sensible to expect miracles.

 

Only later did I find out he was cheating

 

Write for Advice

 

Dear Cary –

My ex and I divorced 7 years ago.  He instigated it. Although I knew he was dissatisfied with where he was at in life, it completely took me by surprise that he was unhappy enough in the relationship to want out. After he said he wanted to split, I went into fix-it mode, asking him for couples counseling (he went to two sessions and dismissed it), tried to get him to explain what, exactly, he was unhappy with, and tried to work with him to figure out what we as couple could do to change things.  After 14 years together, it seemed unthinkable that he would just throw in the towel. It became clear that all he wanted was out, so I acquiesced, and we split up. I kept the drama to a minimum, figuring that if he really didn’t want to be with me, I’d be better off without him. I never understood why he became so unhappy in the relationship, and spent a considerable amount of time and energy trying to understand what I had done — or not done — to let my marriage get “that bad”.  Several months after the divorce was negotiated, my ex got together with a woman he had been friends with while he and I were together.  He later married her.  We both moved on.

Fast forward to the summer before last.  My ex’s best friend (with whom I remained on good terms with) found out that his own wife had been cheating. This unhappy situation compelled him to tell me that my ex had, in fact, been cheating on me with the woman my ex subsequently married.  Apparently, this affair had been going on for “years” before my ex and I separated.  The best friend “just thought I should know what really went on”.   And then he requested that my ex not know that he revealed this secret.

Well.

This information explains a lot of my ex’s behavior during the divorce — why he was so dead set on leaving, why he never could give me an explanation I could understand for his dissatisfaction, and why there seemed to be no solution he was willing to try. It wasn’t a total shock to me — I had wondered if something like that was going on after I learned this woman and my ex had gotten together — although at the time he broke our relationship off, I had no reason to think that he was having an affair at all, much less with her (she lived in another country where my ex occasionally went on business, and was married herself).  When I asked at the time if there was anyone else, he flatly stated that there wasn’t. I believed him.

So, Cary, it’s been a year and a half, and the information continues to eat at me.  I feel betrayed, hurt, angry … but there is no recourse, nowhere for that anger to go.  I haven’t spoken to my ex in five years. (I wanted nothing further to do with him after the divorce was final, even before this revelation). Our lives are completely separate, and most of my friends and family aren’t in contact with him anymore. I can’t go back to him now and call him on his behavior.  Had I known at the time, I would have done the divorce much differently — not legally, but emotionally. I would have had no qualms whatsoever about it. Friends and family would have known that this was why we were splitting. As it is, he cheated and lied and got away with it — there were no repercussions for him, and he got exactly what he wanted.  This makes me seethe, and there is nothing I can do about it.

I’ve boxed it up as best I can, just tried not to go there lest I be consumed with all the negative emotion. The anger and hurt is still there, though, popping into my consciousness when it’s not wanted, like a slow-acting poison that builds up to the point where it causes harm, and I have to actively contain it again. I don’t know how to get rid of it. I don’t want it to be there a year, five years, ten years from now.  I just want to come to terms with it, somehow, and move on — this time for good.

How do I deal with his affair, now that the deed has long since been done?

Found Out Too Late

P.S. I can’t tell you how much your writing has meant to me — I’ve been reading your wisdom for years.  You’ve helped so many. Thank you, for all you do.

Cary Tennis' Finishing School

Dear Found Out Too Late,

When I used to write an advice column five days a week for a salary I would sit down at the desk and I would spend hours thinking about other people’s lives. I would pour my heart into it. That was the difference between the column I wrote and many other advice columns that were written more from an practical, problem-solving position. My aesthetic and moral challenge during that time was to full enter into a person’s situation emotionally, morally and spiritually. And the writing you refer to resulted from that. I did it that way because I knew that what I had been offered was a rare opportunity for a writer of some rather strange but sincere tastes and drives to work in a popular format on a large stage.

That has changed. I do not want to enter into the grinding outrage you must feel. I do not want to go there. To tell the truth, there were many times writing the column in the past when I didn’t want to go there either, but I did go there because it was my job and my commitment to a vast audience; I could sense the audience out there beyond the footlights and I suited up and Salon paid my salary and for that time it made sense. Now I am back to scrambling for an income and thinking about what I will do without savings, without a pension, without a job. I am back to hustling.

So why am I involving my own life in this reply? Because things have changed for me, too, and I have decided that I must write this column differently, that I must face the fact that things have changed, and because your letter is about change. Things are always changing. That sounds really banal. The disturbing and difficult truth I actually wish to convey is that having lost the job at Salon I no longer have the motivation I would once have felt, to go deeply into your emotional state, as I would have before, in order to come up with the things I used to come up with. Indeed, I am relating to you as a person, as a flawed person, as a person who has lost some things too, not that what I have lost is at all comparable to what you have lost, but while relating to you as a person I am also resisting, and I wonder if readers will sense that.I am resisting the kind of exhausting emotional commitment I used to make on a daily basis. I am also resisting the shallow platitudes that might result if I did not level with you. This column is going to be different now.

Also, I am trying something new: I am not trying so hard to be a saint. When I was writing the column I got a bit of a saint complex. I was always trying so hard to be good! Did you sense it? Did you sense this person—me—sort of trying to be a saint, as though if I did a good enough job I would be absolved of my sins or I would receive the attention I desire or as though that gaping spiritual wound I carry would heal? I know that certain wise people would sense that, would sense that I was using the writing as a kind of therapy or spiritual solution when other more sensible and pertinent solutions were more readily available and more effective (pay attention to the people in my life, exercise, pray, meditate). And I myself sensed it. I sensed that sometimes the column was neither important writing nor sound spiritual practice but a kind of pretend world, because I was relating to people I would never meet on the front porch or at a taco stand, would never see smile, would never talk to, and so I was not getting what I really needed, which was to be in an actual community of people, on the street, under the sun, breathing the same air.

I was also aware that the relationship between me and writers of letters, though I worked against this consciously, sometimes took on the air of a kind of false therapy; I was aware at times that I would pretend to be a therapist, when I was nothing of the kind. Of course I always protested that this was just writing. And it still is. In fact, more than ever, this is just a writer finding a way to work out his own thoughts and emotions in a certain literary form.

I sense that even saying this is a kind of transgression, and that people may leave, may abandon me or say that what I am doing in replying in this way is bullshit. But this is my new program.

OK. Enough of that. You wrote for advice. I can give you some very practical advice, which I feel wholeheartedly is correct and useful: Get into a regular program of psychotherapy with someone who is really, really good and intuitive. Don’t just get some bullshit therapist who gives you platitudes. That won’t help. Here’s a good test. Go to a therapist for an initial consultation for free, you know, that 20-minute conversation or phone conversation or something that they will usually do before the “mutual decision” is made to have a client-therapist relationship. I mean, they usually do that, don’t they? That’s how I usually have found therapists. So, in this initial conversation, what I’m suggesting is—and I wish at times that I had done this—ask yourself if this therapist is telling you anything you didn’t already know. Because some therapists are amazingly intuitive and also sort of vibe with you, recognize you, see you. That doesn’t mean they’re necessarily better than others: They’re just right for you. They’re able to see you. They get your Zeitgeist. Others will not get you, and you will spend fruitless weeks going over the same stuff and not getting anywhere. So make your search for the right therapist your journey. Talk to at least five.

If you do that, if you find one who can tell you some things you didn’t know, then you can burrow into this grinding resentment and start to take it apart and see how it relates to other experiences of abandonment and betrayal and you can begin to untangle things.

That’s a very simple solution. It boils down to “Get a good therapist.” But it is also about me writing about my life and my own difficulties, which I have determined to do now, in this new phase of my life.

In the process of being newly honest in this column I am learning things. I am learning that I am afraid of offending people. I am afraid of offending you. I do not want to offend you. I want to get to a place where the normal social niceties do not apply, where we are communicating strictly from an honest perspective. Yet I am afraid of hurting your feelings and I feel this urge to reassure you. So I am seeing how that has worked in the rest of my life, too, how I have been afraid to offend people and so have not really listened for the truth, sometimes, or wanted to believe their facile lies because I did not want to really dig for the truth. And also I have learned that really bad things do happen, and they do bring us down to our knees, that it is amazing and surprising just how fully we can be stopped, stunned, whatever you want to call it, and I don’t want to get into clichéd metaphors to suggest the intensity of emotional experiences, but you know what I mean. I’m saying Yes, this is the human experience: We get shit on and it takes a long time to get over it.

So you must find reassurance in your own life, by finding the help of the right therapist. And I could go into all the millions of reasons it should be a therapist but that would just be saying thing I’ve said over and over. If people say Well, therapy doesn’t work sometimes I would say, What else is there? What else is there, what other comfort, whatever other process of searching is there. Sure, there are others. There are churches and ashrams and all kinds of things. But this is the secular West. This is what we have. If there is something else, then throw yourself into it. Maybe there is something else. Maybe there is a God. Maybe there is a regular support group. I just think that the kind of concentrated, ongoing encounter with your deepest feelings and memories good therapy provides, and the conscious search for meaning and patterns in your past experiences, is the way to go.

I wish you luck. I feel for you. I feel the same anger and disappointment you feel. That’s another reason, I guess, that I initially resist fully entering into the spirit of your experience. I don’t want to feel it. It certainly doesn’t feel good. I certainly feel certain things about how he was able to lie to you all that time. I do think that such things are damaging, and that he was damaging you, and that it was wrong, that you deserved to know the truth and that if there is some kind of justice for such transgressions that it should be done. I do feel that, on your behalf and also on behalf of society in general: That we do not need to know everything all the time and that secrets are occasionally necessary, but when it comes right down to it, as it did in this case, and you needed to know, he should have told you. So I get why you are upset.

Maybe you want revenge, too. That wouldn’t be surprising. The actual taking of revenge is problematic, but maybe you will hear of some disappointment or misfortune he has had, and maybe you will feel a little satisfaction. Good for you. He fucked you over. Nothing wrong with a little schadenfreude, to remind you that there is some justice in the universe.

So look what happened. I got into the spirit of it anyway. I’m glad you stuck with me. Journalistic practice teaches us to do away with the throat-clearing and get immediately to the substance. But in my new process I am going to leave the throat-clearing in; I am going to be honest about my initial feelings and let us see, together, how those feelings change as we move through the subject together. So now I am outraged and I am feeling some of what you must be feeling. But I can’t stay with that. I’m working on a book. I have to go now.

Get some help. Treat this as a real issue. Don’t expect it to just go away. Treat this as an opportunity to explore your past, to really find some wisdom. Your life will go better if you do. You’ll see how this experience fits in your life and you’ll learn from it and you’ll be stronger and will feel better.

That’s my advice, for what it’s worth.

 

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Thanks to Amherst Writers and Artists Folks in the Northeast!

A super-big thanks! to all the Amherst Writers and Artists workshop leaders, friends and fans who have spread the word about our upcoming four-day AWA workshop/retreat at the Guest House in Chester, Connecticut! (And if you know somebody who might like to know, please feel free to pass this along.)

Big thanks go to Jan Nielsen of the  Universalist Church in West Hartford, Ct., Patricia Bender of Rutgers University, author, teacher and workshop leader Annecy Baez, author and teacher Grace Farrell who can be found at the Carolina Fiber and Fiction Center, and Beth Goren, practitioner of Body-Mind Centering, and Marcia Gomes, and Maureen Ciara, and Jill Quist, and  Robert Haydon Jones, and the Westport Writers’ Workshop and Valerie Ann Leff.

Guesthouse_smaller

And a special thanks to Patricia Chaffee for alerting Connecticut writer Sherri Daley of Moffly Media, whose May 1 roundup will highlight not just my Chester retreat but Sandi Shelton’s “Words at Play” workshops, Lisa Saunders and the Mystic Writers Colony,  and mystery writer Roberta Isleib’s Seascape “Escape to Write” Writers Retreat taking place at the Guest House in September. And of course Pat Schneider, Maureen Buchanan Jones and all those who make Amherst Writers and Artists the amazing organization that it is today. You are all making my upcoming visit to Connecticut a special treat!

Did I leave anyone out? If so, contact me. Just wanted to say thanks. With your help this thing will come off and we’ll be able to come back in 2015.–CT

withdogsoncouch

Cary on the Ponte Vecchio in Florence

Cary on the Ponte Vecchio in Florence

Cary Tennis

415 308-5685

www.carytennis.com

https://www.facebook.com/cary.tennis

 

My abusive husband is dying and I have a lover. How good do I have to be?

Write for Advice

Cary’s classic column Tuesday, JUL 21, 2003

What do I owe him?


Dear Cary,

Last year I went to visit a divorce lawyer, having finally got up the nerve to end a 29-year marriage (I’m 49) to a physically and emotionally abusive man. I had been seeing a wonderful man for some time, and we wanted to make our relationship public and formalize things. My only child was grown and launched, I have a satisfying job, and I ceased to love my husband many years ago. Just a few days after my initial visit to the lawyer, however, my husband was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer, with brain metastases. The doctors have refused to speculate on his remaining time, but my research says he will likely have anywhere from another six months to five years.

I have continued to see my lover, but he and I are both tired of “sneaking around.” My husband continues to be abusive, though in his weakened state I think I could outrun him. My question is, how long must I stay with him and how saintly must I be? My job is the one that carries the medical insurance, which he would lose. And what would happen to my good name if I abandoned a dying man? Thanks for any advice you can give.

Adulterous, but I Have Several Excellent Excuses

Connecticut_SlightlySmaller

Dear Adulterous,

Painful and ill-timed as your husband’s illness is, it’s also an opportunity to put your life on a new footing. It is no time to give in to vengefulness or impatience. The life of the man you married is nearing its end; your child’s father is dying; the man you once loved and spent a lifetime with is leaving this world. Take the high road.

If there is any time in a person’s life when he ought to know the unvarnished truth about how he has conducted himself, how he has affected the lives of others, now seems to be the time. It’s a chance for you to be frank with him but also to forgive him. Tell your husband the truth, both the good and the bad. Seek some kind of reconciliation with him. If you have a minister, rabbi, priest, therapist, spiritual counselor or trusted confidant, talk this over with him or her. Struggle to understand what his death means. If he has tormented you, be grateful that the torment will soon be over. As he approaches death, he may become reconciled to his wrongs, and he may want to make peace with you. Be ready to make peace with him.

But the peace you make with your husband should be kept private. If you start parading around with your lover while your husband is gasping on morphine, others in your community will be outraged and feel that he’s being tragically mistreated. They will suffer for him by proxy. They will feel the pain and outrage that they imagine he feels or would feel if he knew. Your actions will cause gossip and scorn. People love a drama. It might be none of their business, but they’ll make it their business if you give them the chance. Don’t give it to them. Don’t pretend it’s just about your life. This is about your husband’s life too, and the lives of those who have loved him. Hold your head up and do the right thing.

Why divorce a dying man? For one thing, cutting off his health insurance would cause problems for the doctors and nurses who are trying to care for him. Your child might find it unforgivably heartless. And his uninsured medical costs might eat into his estate, leaving less for you and your son or daughter to inherit. Divorce would also mean possibly acrimonious dealings with him. If he were near death or heavily sedated, questions might arise about his competence. If he wanted to contest the divorce, he might simply wait it out until the end, and then you’d have a complicated situation where you had filed for divorce but it wasn’t finalized, and that might affect aspects of the execution of the will. I don’t know, I’m not giving you a legal opinion; I’m just using common sense to imagine the ways in which trying to divorce a dying man could complicate things. At the very least: Why spend the money? Why not just make sure the will is in order and let nature take its course?

It may seem that your years of suffering are being neglected in this, and that is the privilege of the dying: They do get all the attention. At the same time, I think you deserve some support of your own. It’s not right what happened to you. You deserve some help. Why don’t you seek out a psychotherapist you can unburden yourself to while you go through this? It’s going to be pretty tough on you. You ought to have somebody in your corner while you fight the last rounds.France_Ad_fix

The ballad of Jack and Oksana

Write for Advice

Cary’s classic column WEDNESDAY, JUL 2, 2003

My friend is married to a beautiful Russian woman, but I see a train wreck in their future.


Dear Cary,

A friend of mine has a problem, and I am not sure how to help him. I recently returned to the United States from two years in Russia. While there, I became close to another American, Jack, who lived in my same small city. Soon after we became friends, Jack met and fell in love with a Russian woman, Oksana, who was unfortunately married with a young son. They had a tumultuous affair — passionate letters, clandestine meetings, moments of high tension with the husband — and after a year of this Oksana (persuaded in part by Jack) got a divorce. After excessive drama, her ex-husband moved out of the apartment Oksana has shared with her mother and grandmother since birth.

Then their no-longer-secret relationship changed. Jack is very sensitive and needs constant affection and reassurance. Oksana became distant and was less interested in providing the sort of romantic gestures Jack seems to require. Jack began to feel the relationship was becoming one-sided. He often said things like, “I just wish she would pay more attention to me.” Jack and Oksana are both young (25) and a little naive about things. Oksana has never had to be the primary caretaker of her son or had to learn to live on her own. She has never traveled much beyond the small town where she grew up. Both Jack and Oksana are prone to romantic fantasy. I sometimes get the feeling Jack fell in love with the idea of a relationship with a beautiful Russian woman as much as Oksana herself, and that Oksana fell in love with the idea of a secret affair with an American as much as Jack himself. However, their relationship continued with the usual ups and downs (I think cross-cultural relationships have more than most) and, to their credit, it is clear that they truly love each other.

Six months ago, I left Russia with the understanding that soon Jack, Oksana and her son would move together to a larger city. Jack thought that living together in a new place, away from Oksana’s overbearing mother and ex-husband, would help them as a couple. Jack was excited to be a daddy to the son and to be a live-in boyfriend. Oksana seemed happy with this plan. Months passed, and they didn’t move.

In April, Jack suddenly called me. He asked Oksana to marry him and she said yes! He was thrilled, and although I was skeptical, I tried to be supportive. They married in May. Jack wrote to say that adjusting to married life was difficult (Oksana refused leave her mother’s apartment and was still balking on the move to a larger city), but the commitment of marriage helped smooth over their constant cultural clashes. I was glad for Jack, but couldn’t shake the sort of impending train-wreck feeling I got whenever I thought of their marriage.

Last night Jack called in tears. He is miserable, he said. Oksana is more distant than ever and is spending a lot of time with her ex-husband. She is uninterested in sex. Jack said something like, “I thought marriage would be all my hopes and dreams coming true, and it isn’t like that at all.” I didn’t know what to say to him. I tried to reassure him that everything will be fine, but I don’t believe that and I’m not sure that is what he should hear. What advice should I give him? Is it really not my place to say, “Yes, maybe you did make a huge mistake. Now run for your life”?

Nosy Friend

Connecticut_SlightlySmaller

Dear Nosy Friend,

It has been said that love conquers all. Amor omnia vincit, to be precise. But sometimes love just makes things worse: It emboldens the dull; it tempts the weak; it gives strength to those with no judgment; it floods the deservedly timid with the confidence to sally forth with extravagant imprudence.

I prefer another saying: Love makes fools of us all.

If you feel, as I do, that your friend has behaved like an ass, I think you should tell him so. That’s what friends are for. He broke up a marriage. He took a son away from his father. And now he’s trying to take a young, inexperienced mother away from her family and hometown. Why? He wants them all to go live in some strange new city. Why? What is going on in his mind? What is he trying to accomplish?

His thinking that marriage “would be all my hopes and dreams coming true” explains a lot. He sounds immature, ignorant and selfish. That would be fine if his whereabouts were confined to whatever Connecticut village or California beach town he grew up in. But no, he’s got to go to Russia and nail some hottie named Oksana. It makes one nostalgic for Cold War travel restrictions.

His emotional needs are not really the most important thing right now, you know what I mean? This is no time for him to sulk because his new Russian bride isn’t doting enough. It’s typically American: Roar into town, tear social bonds asunder, and then start whining when the results are not nearly as peachy keen as initial forecasts had projected. No wonder Americans have to travel in convoys of Humvees. It would be nice if he would give some consideration to the changes he has wreaked in the lives of others — the husband, the child, the wife’s family.

So what is our dear fumbling cowboy to do with his new in-laws, his vanquished rival making a comeback, his inattentive bride and former mistress, his priceless little Mishka? Three words: Minimize the wreckage. Whatever is best for the people around him is what he should do. If he could get out of there cleanly and not leave them stranded, that might be best. Is he, by any chance, a rich kid? Might there be some good old American bonds lying around his parents’ house not being used? A generous cash settlement would be nice. After all, she’s now divorced from the father of her child and perhaps alienated from her family. The central question is, Does he do more harm if he stays or if he goes? I tend to think, based on what he’s accomplished already, that he’ll do more damage the longer he stays. (If only the Cold War were still on — he could work for the CIA destabilizing the country.)

Who knows what will happen if he stays. Maybe he’ll fight a duel with the husband. Let’s hope Oksana has no sisters. But if he does stay, he’s got to promise to try to do whatever is best for the rest of them — and that means whatever they think is best for them, not what he thinks is best for them. If it’s customary for the husband to live with his wife and her overbearing mother and that’s what his wife wants, then he should do that. He shouldn’t assume, just because American families casually scatter thousands of miles apart, that people in other countries should do so. If moving to the larger city really means a better life for them all (what does that mean? more American-style nightclubs?), and if that’s what she really wants, and the kid will be OK there, then maybe he should do that. And if she wants to come to America with him, then maybe he should bring her and the child to America.

None of the options sound all that great.

Love has done it again.

France_Ad_fix

In which Cary Tennis attempts to revive the spirit of the questing, searching essay form while maintaining token loyalty to the old, reliable advice column

 

Am I doing it right?

 

Write for Advice
 

Dear Reader,

When I was writing the Since You Asked advice column for Salon.com, I often would meander from the “given” form in ways that some readers found aesthetically displeasing. They were experiencing genre shock. (As though they had walked into a movie theater expecting Love Story and got Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Or, more contemporary, expecting Spiderman 2 and getting … Oh, take your pick, what do I know of modern movies anyway? I scarcely leave the house these days unless it is to walk to the mailbox and remark on the men building the brick wall around the new preschool to take the place of the old captain’s cottage at 48th and Pacheco.) I took some heat for my perambulations at the time, but now that I have been unceremoniously released from my 12-year stint of service I look back and wonder why I didn’t take even more liberties with the form.

This is the kind of digression I would try to avoid when I was drawing a salary from Salon.com—even though I did it often enough anyway! It seemed like bad form. It may still seem like bad form.

But I am free to do what I wish now! I would probably be fired for writing like this if I were employed but I’m not employed, and very few people read this anyway, a diminishing number if our observations are correct, so: I am free! I am free! 

Furthermore, my spirits have been enlivened by reading Philip Lopate’s thoughts on William Hazlitt and Montaigne. I am realizing now that some of my periodic odd thoughts and zig-zags were part of a hazily remembered tradition but one deeply planted in my bones, a tradition that my father also was a part of. His craziness was not just craziness but part of a certain literary tradition and cast of mind that allowed for the mind to wander where it would, kicking at this tin can and that old master and this tree limb and that dog and child and garden gate and snail and rabbit and lost locket of a mistress or a temptress or a goddess wherever such were encountered. That is . . . It was a tradition of making sentences go wherever they would go, trusting the net of syntax to hold us together even if the strands grew thin, testing the mind to hold it together too, testing the mind to hold together the sense of a sentence even as it meandered, as long as it held to certain rules and maintained its tensile strength.

I didn’t take things far enough. Though some thought I went too far, think I did not go nearly far enough! Sure, I occasionally would write a column in the form of an imagined scene, with dialog and setting. And I would occasionally rant on. But I was trying to remain within the bounds of the journalistic trade I had learned.

No longer. There is no longer any reason for me to try to remain within any journalistic boundaries, for I am no longer doing journalism. That is quite freeing to realize. I have been wondering, in fact, how to make the transition to the new frontier that I am facing as a writer. Nothing could be simpler: Just jump over the fence!

And it has been enlightening to read Lopate, actually, and also Gornick, and I’m going to read Burroway when I can get my hands on her, and also Hazlitt and Montaigne, to see what the roots of this current craze are, and I’m not going to worry about much. Like am I doing it right?

Say that you have a problem and you have written to me.

There are many scenes this can evoke. Say you have come to me trusting me to think carefully about your problem and I instead seem intent on my own. You write to me expecting that your letter will be read carefully and considered, that I will weigh your problem with the same gravity with which you yourself weigh it. You don’t expect me to say, Hey, that’s not a problem, you selfish, privileged person! You don’t expect me to malign your motives. That’s part of the bargain.

But breaking the bargain is interesting, too, as long as it happens in an interesting way. So for instance say you have a desire to be punished. How can I know that? I can’t. But I can guess, in the interests of drama—which immediately is breaking the presumed bond of my promise to be helpful and kind. But might the column fulfill your wishes in that way, if your wishes only were known? Why must the advice columnist always play the nurturing role? That is the role I play all the time. But it is simply a role, as I have insisted all these years, when people would ask me, how can you be so compassionate, so wise? Because I am playing a role! Because I am at heart a spinner of tales, a writer of fiction, a prevaricator of the first order! I play a good man on the Internet but I am not really a good man all the time any more than you are a good person all the time. So I have to fight through, in the moment, my various unsavory impulses, in order to fulfill my mandate. But my mandate is gone!

As my wife and I were sitting down to a lunch of delicious stuffed cabbage yesterday, I remarked to her, You know, the roots of civilization are in not saying the first thing that comes to mind, in having some restraint.

Now at the word “restraint” if you were of the guilty, masochistic type, you might think of physical restraint. In fact we might explore the extent to which the erotic interest in physical restraints is a speaking-out of civilization’s need for metaphysical and spiritual restraint: A way of acting out our need to develop a way of living within society; the restraints, or bonds, might be considered our superego, doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves.

Anyway, after long consideration, I have decided that if this new column on my site is going to have any value at all, its value will lie in my commitment to follow my mind where it may lead, and to attempt to bring some order and clarity to my flitting thoughts, while also answering your letter in some form or other. It will be far more interesting to me and perhaps to you as well. For after all the mind is a crazy and barely tamed thing, full of associations that are at first puzzling but which can be made clear once all their dimensions are sorted out and brought to light.

It will be rough going, there’s no doubt. I won’t be cleaning it up like I used to at Salon. (You should see the many thousands and thousands of words that I removed from my columns over the years. In fact, I may begin posting them just for the sheer strangeness of it, to say, this is the mind’s detritus, this is what is left over, these are all the stray thoughts that in a perfect world, would be loved as much as their well-groomed brothers and sisters who were allowed to go to the fair.)

For this style to work it must not seem random. There must be a hidden rigor to it. I must leap off the cliff and then improvise on the way down, making it look easy, making it look like I knew exactly what I was doing when I jumped off the cliff!  I must reveal my thoughts as they arise but also to make some sense of them, to string them together so that you can see that I am not just putting out random thoughts without any effort to connect them. You must see that I am struggling to do something that is hard—as I was when I was working at Salon, only now with fewer restraints. There’s that word “restraint” again. I do wish to be tied. I do wish to have my freedom taken from me. I do wish to meld into a oneness, to merge, to leave my separate self, and being restrained is a part of that, too. But, being a writer, I take the route of thinking. OK, so maybe I tie my hands together and try to type. That would be funny. Maybe I make a video of me typing with my hands tied together and blindfolded, with a gag in my mouth. That is the writer at work in some settings, is it not? And we think of writers in repressive regimes and wonder if in some way they did not welcome the silencing of their thoughts, for our thoughts are not angels; our thoughts are devils. Our thoughts are malevolent beings that attempt to take control of us. I remember my first visit to the Jung Institute in San Francisco, my interviewer asked me, do I hear voices? and I said of course I do, and he asked, do they tell you to do things? And that was a harder question. For if they told me to do things I still retained the dispassionate interest in them to regard their instructions with haughty disdain or contempt. But our thoughts do not have to be telling us to do things in order to be devils and distractions and sources of discomfort. Their mere presence, like the presence of a jack hammer outside the window, or a dog barking, or a Harley going up the street (p.s. how do they get to be so loud? How can anything be that loud? How is it legal?) is a distraction.

So we might say, too, that journalistic restraints are a way of recognizing the essential unruliness of our own minds, as well as of our society. I’m of at least two minds about this. (ha ha) Because I tell you, in a sober, adult voice, journalism—disciplined, traditional, “objective” journalism—is a wonderful thing. It’s super valuable! It’s how we can know something. It’s how we attain the meager certainty that we can attain, given the uncertainty of our universe. It’s like science. It’s a way of knowing something pretty surely, as surely as we can know, given the uncertainties of time and, to be sure, the uncertainties of knowing itself, of the universe itself as we conceive it. It’s the best we can do. And for that it is of immense value.

But the fact that we attain some degree of knowledge and certainty does not mean that we are civilized and in control. To the contrary, the sheer difficulty with which we attain even the most meager knowledge and certainty, the rarity of such certainty, the number of years and the training it takes to learn to do it—to learn to have several sources and to tease out the implications of a piece of reporting, to see it from all angles, to discuss it with other editors and reporters, to compare notes—all this only indicates how truly slippery reality is and how essentially crazy the world is.

If the world weren’t crazy, we wouldn’t have to work so hard to make sense of it. So maybe we are working too hard to make too much sense of it. Maybe, rather than remove all that is nonsensical—which is what we are up to when we are doing careful journalism—right now I prefer the model of admitting all that is nonsensical and random into the discourse, but then following each random and nonsensical item to its source, and searching out its relations, until it becomes clear in some kind of context. Like for instance why I am thinking about restraint and all its implications, both in the world of sadomasochism and in the world of journalism, and in our day-to-day attempts to live civilized, decent lives in which we do not bring harm to those around us.

I do not want to be reductive. I want to include everything. It will get exhausting but that is the price of occasional insight.

So on to the letter and we will see where this leads us.

(You see, it has taken a few months for me to find my footing.)

Here is the letter.

France_Ad_fix

Hi Cary,

For the past four years, I’ve enjoyed your advice column. I’ve always found something in your responses that I could take away and apply to my own life. Sometimes it was made me aware of how people affect me, sometimes how I have been affecting people.

Here is some context for myself – I am a creative practitioner in my late twenties. My field of work is a very… labour and hours intensive one. It is not uncommon for me to work into the night, and through weekends. This might sound anti-social, but I work as much as I do because it is what I love most. I’ve always found people really difficult to understand because of my childhood circumstances (hence why your column was so enlightening to me), so I feel like the solitary nature of my work is the perfect partner to my personality.

This is partly the reason why I quit my stable job 2 years ago and begin working for myself. That situation has been up and down, but I’ve been able to keep my head above water, and the massive upside is that I get to choose what I work on. I’m able to have an amount of passion for everything that I take on – and clients don’t mind if I’m crazy about work and socially awkward as long I’m pumping out the work they like. This whole venture has meant I have to drink cheap coffee, make my own food to last weeks, and not have new clothes, but it’s been worth it!

Late last year I entered a period of financial stability, which coincided with meeting someone I felt I connected with.

She’s an artist, older than me, works in a cafe, and has had a lot more experience in anything about everything. She is also up front about her past of substance abuse, even though she is clean now. A lot about her partying past scares me – the types of people, the types of things they did… I’ve been close to someone that was into that type of existence, and I still get painful feelings thinking about it. She was so completely different to me in every way, but I could stop myself from liking her.

We would have talks – she would come around to where I lived so we could work on a special creative project together. I gave her bits of work from my own jobs, because I knew that she was good. When her living situation imploded, she spent a month on my couch. I felt like I had found someone that was going to go on creative adventures with me.

The possibility of renting a cottage together came up – she needed a place to live, I needed a place to work. We applied and were successful, I moved my office into the place while she was away visiting her family. When she came back, we moved all her stuff in. Since then, a lot has happened. I could go on about lots of little things, but that would be a bit granular so I’ll try and summarise.

I have the habit of emotionally exploding. One time, I went around to the office to pick up something I’d left there and forgotten the day before. It was our arranged ‘day off’ where she has the house to herself, but I needed this item to do work. I knocked on the door, and she was very angry for almost a week. Her anger at this, really shook me. 3 months later, I am not allowed to be in the house at night-time. That in itself is really hard for me, since being separated from my equipment is painful and means I can’t work. She made a specific meeting to tell me that we should stop hanging out and having dinner together. Recently, I emotionally snapped, because I couldn’t take the tension of not being on speaking terms with someone I share a floor with.

After this, I tried to dial back, however I was told that she can’t have me in the house. A summary of her words were, she really likes the work and the jobs we do together, but she didn’t sign up to deal with all the emotions I’ve been exhibiting. I proposed that if we tried to talk more I wouldn’t be so uncomfortable around her – her response was that she’s not going to change anything to deal with my problems. So I moved out my equipment, and into a garage someone has kindly let me occupy. As I was packing up my stuff that afternoon, she told me it’s not like we aren’t going to communicate, after all we still have jobs to complete. Then her friend picked her up to drive her to her yoga class.

I had contracted her to work on some jobs that I had sourced, well before things got so bad. Within a few days I received some emails with one line sentences and phone pictures of sketches she had done. When I critiqued one and asked for further clarification of design details, I got a curt response with an exclamation point. Because she doesn’t have time to work on them any further, I have to pick up the remaining work and finish it in a couple of days.

This is really affecting me. I can’t get out of bed, I don’t want to answer the phone. This garage is horrible, and I’m still on the lease at the house even though I can’t go there anymore. I’ve been treated for depression before, and I thought I was doing well these past few years but now I don’t know what to do. I have no idea. All these work deadlines are hitting me and I can’t work. I feel like a fool, because if I’d just been able to control my emotional reactions maybe I wouldn’t be in this pain.

Sincerely,
Creatively dumped

Connecticut_SlightlySmaller

Dear Creatively Dumped,

There has been a breakdown in your work relationship with this person that is affecting your ability to deliver the work you’ve promised. For the time being, you need to put aside attempts to make the personal relationship work and just finish the jobs you’re doing with her.

If you can finish the work without her involvement, do so. If you can find another collaborator to finish the work with, do so. If you end up owing her a kill fee, pay her the kill fee and be done with it. If you must continue with her, then continue with her until the jobs you’ve currently agreed to perform together are concluded. Then end your relationship with this person.

Your mistake was to mix personal space with work space. It’s always risky. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Just recognize that you have to be careful mixing work and friendship.

Can I just say something, though? Why don’t you say you are a painter, or sculptor, or filmmaker, or clothing designer, or whatever you are? Why are you so circumspect about what it is you actually do? I have wondered this about letter writers for a long time and I’m finally going to just start asking: Why are people so vague about what they are actually doing? It would be extremely helpful to know exactly what kind of work you do.

I am curious, too, about what this reticence means culturally. What is the “social space” in which this reticence occurs? Is that social space in some way the problem? That is, we have a problem that is very much about material circumstances. Material circumstances are very concrete. Space, time, money, objects, equipment, contracts, labor, hours: These are all very concrete things about which agreements can be made that eliminate later confusion. Clearly, the reason you have a problem with this person is that you did not negotiate in enough detail, in a concrete enough way.

Perhaps it seemed silly or rude to talk about exact hours and spaces and times of day and so forth, in the context of your personal relationship. And yet now we see the problems that result. You are in a garage.

Here’s another thing. She has her share of problems. We don’t know what they are, precisely, but we know she has her share of problems. It’s possible that she has screwed you over. But you’ve let her screw you over. So we’re back to the question of restraint. If we let someone screw us over, are they to blame? Well, yes, of course they are. And are we to blame for letting them screw us over? Yes, of course we are. It takes two. Either party could prevent this. In the “real world,” people screw you over if they can.

So don’t get screwed over. Accept that people will screw you over if you let them. Don’t let them.

What does that mean?Here’s an idea that’s very concrete: Take some self-defense courses. Seriously. You may be able to get to the psychological thing you need through the body. Try it. Try getting into battle in a physical way and see if that doesn’t tell you something about your vulnerable posture in the world.

And that’s it from me.

So this has been rather rough and not at all the type of column I used to write for Salon. In a sense, I am reinventing my practice once again—now that the restraints are off. Increasingly, as the weeks go by, you will see a shift from a straight advice column to something else, whose outlines will remain fuzzy, but which will take more chances, be more rhetorical, more questioning, more immediate, and perhaps, on certain days, crazier. People will hate it or love it. That’s nothing new. What’s new is that I’m currying favor neither with readers nor with an employer. I’m back in the business of confronting my own soul, which has ever been the only business a writer can be in.

Newsletter_NEW_Dec13

Doctor in love

Write for Advice

Cary’s classic column Tuesday,  NOV 4, 2003 10:29 AM PST

I had a crush on a colleague, and now she wants to be friends, but I don’t. How do I get rid of her?


Dear Cary,

I’m a Salon reader from Mexico and I enjoy reading your column very much. Now I need your advice.

I am a medical doctor and there is a colleague of mine I had a big crush on, but circumstances have not been appropriate for me to try to “advance” the relationship (she had a boyfriend at first, then she was out of the country for some time).

When I finally started — rather softly — to make a move, she started working with another doctor, 10 years her senior. Obviously he snatched her. Now, I am not really hurt nor do I have any remorse or hatred. It was just a crush. I was not in love or anything. It was not meant to be, and I am over it already. But she wants to keep being my friend. She seems to be completely clueless about my feelings. I don’t want to keep being her friend. I don’t loathe her; I just don’t want to be around her anymore. But I don’t want to hurt her. I don’t want to face her because I know I would end up saying more things than I would rationally think convenient.

I have tried to be evasive, tried to drive her away in a “passive way.” But she is still there. What should I do? How do I get rid of her (in a smooth way)?

Tired of Being Nice

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Dear Tired,

When beings are denied privileges solely because of attributes over which they have no control, such as whether they are women or men, or white or black, or human or animal, it is sometimes called “objectification.” What that means, I think, is that the one who has the power is free to act as though no bona fide relationship exists with the other, as though there is no bond of reciprocity, as though the other were a piece of furniture or a magazine, to be used without regard for its feelings or mental processes.

That sort of objectification is what your letter hints at, and it is that habit of being that you need to address. The tragedy of such a habit is that it walls off a rich and rewarding realm of human bonds, in which we trade some of our power and autonomy for a sense of community and trust.

“Obviously he snatched her,” you say. That makes it sound as though women are routinely handed around from doctor to doctor like so many copies of Playboy, to be privately enjoyed and then passed on. If so, there is a certain ethical inequality in your workplace, a kind of gender discrimination. I’m not saying it’s the kind of thing you can fix, but it’s the kind of thing you, as a doctor, should recognize as poison and avoid in your personal dealings.

I think you really did have feelings for her. You say you were not hurt, that it was just a crush. Regardless, you do not have the right to smooth this over and make it go away just because it is inconvenient for you.

You have probably spent most of your youth studying the medical sciences, looking for ways to control disease and analyze chemical and biological processes. So you may not have had much time to study how human communities function. But I think you will be much happier in life once you understand this: You have entered into a relationship with this woman already. In a moral sense, you do not have the right to simply, “in a smooth way,” get rid of her. You owe her the truth: That you were interested in her not as a friend but as an amorous companion, and now that the possibility of such a relationship seems remote, you are disappointed and it is painful to be around her.

What she then does with this truth is her concern, not yours. The reason we tell each other the truth is that we want to maximize personal freedom: The more truth someone knows, the better she can make the best decisions for herself. It’s true in medicine, and it’s true in relationships.

If it helps in preparing your speech, conceptualize it this way: You have some bad news to deliver to her. Deliver it like a doctor. Tell her the facts. Tell her what her likelihood of recovery is and explain her treatment options. Tell her the condition is curable and not fatal.

But please do not tell her that simply because it sounds good. Tell her the truth. And if you should say more things than you would “rationally think convenient,” there’s no shame in that. There’s no shame in having strong feelings for someone, or in feeling disappointed or spurned. It’s part of being a man.

Connecticut_SlightlySmaller

The bride kept the money!

Write for Advice

Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, JUN 20, 2005

A snafu on bridesmaids dresses resulted in a refund to the bride — but she never passed it on to the bridesmaids and the groomsmen.


Dear Cary,

A little over a month ago, I was one of eight bridesmaids in my brother’s wedding. The bridesmaids’ dresses kept not arriving at the new dates the store kept giving us, until it was three days before the wedding and the store (I’ll call it Acme Bridal) admitted there was no way the gowns could get there in time. The bride and I spent a good eight hours scouring every other clothing store within a 30-mile radius, and I finally found one that could get us all dresses in the right colors, and still do some alterations in time. The bridesmaids got their dresses, the vows were exchanged, the wedding bouquet was thrown, the couple rode off into the sunset, everything was a happy ending … or so it seemed, and still seems, to everyone but me.

In a reasonable effort to make up for their extreme screw-up, Acme Bridal refunded the bridesmaids’ money for the AWOL dresses, and then the bridesmaids used that refund to pay for the new dresses. A few days after the wedding, I got a phone call from Acme Bridal, just offering another apology and best wishes, and hoping that their compensation was adequate and no hard feelings. Through that conversation I learned that not only had the store refunded the original bridesmaid dress money, they had refunded the price of the tuxedoes for the eight groomsmen (which were also bought through Acme Bridal, and had arrived on time with no problems) and given the bride a check to pay for the cumulative cost of the new dresses we found at their competitors. So, they not only refunded the bridesmaids’ money, and refunded the men’s money, but paid for the new dresses, all before the wedding even took place.

OK, I figured, “Linda” the bride had a lot on her mind at the time, she just forgot to distribute the check to the bridesmaids. My boyfriend was one of the groomsmen, and I know for a fact that he never received compensation for his tux, though I haven’t told him about all the vanished funds. I haven’t told anyone about them, including the other bridesmaids or the groomsmen, because I’m not sure what to do (that’s where you come in, I hope).

A few days after the Acme Bridal phone call, I asked my brother about it (they didn’t take a honeymoon after the wedding). He got very defensive and said that money was Linda’s monetary compensation for all the headaches this store caused her, and that none of the bridesmaids deserved the money (it’s $165 each) because none of them helped find new dresses. That got me all riled up because, like I said, I was running around, cellphone in hand, spending two tanks of gasoline and talking to more store owners than I can remember in trying to help Linda. When I reminded my brother “Ryan” of that fact, he admitted I had been very helpful. But he said they were still paying off the wedding and they needed that money, and he would talk to Linda about it, but the fact of it was none of the groomsmen or the bridesmaids needed the money as badly as they did.

I was flabbergasted, to say the least. First, it doesn’t matter who needs it more — that money came from a source, it should go back to that same source. Let alone that by keeping this a secret, my brother and sister-in-law are doing what’s tantamount (in my opinion) to stealing from people who are their family and best friends! I brought it up with Ryan once more a few days later (despite having been in the wedding, Linda and I aren’t close. I was there as the groom’s sister more than as a friend), and was chided for being so selfish and basically told to drop it.

Like I said before, I haven’t told anyone else, in my family or otherwise, about the non-compensated compensation. I don’t want to turn this into some huge scandal over money, especially right after a wedding. Acme Bridal paid for the costs of the new dresses and tuxes and made the check out to Linda — but is it her right to keep it? I need an unbiased opinion on that, and on where I should go from here.

Bitter Bridesmaid

Connecticut_SlightlySmaller

Dear Bitter Bridesmaid,

It seems reasonable that the bride should pass the money on to the people who paid for the dresses and the tuxes. I think that would be the right thing to do. I don’t think very highly of the idea expressed by the groom that the wedding was expensive and they need the money more, so they’re keeping it. The money was intended, presumably, to be passed on to all the parties who were inconvenienced. It wasn’t intended to enrich the bride or compensate her for wedding costs in general. It was a goodwill gesture made by a business intended partly, no doubt, to protect the firm’s reputation and help it secure future business. Ideally the store would have reimbursed each buyer individually, but for one reason or another that didn’t happen. So if the store were now to contact each person in a further gesture of “goodwill,” telling them why the refund was made and asking for their future business, that would make sense. It would also put the bride in hot water. Perhaps the store thought it was more discreet to simply send the money to the bride and stay out of whatever squabbles may result.

A little more detail on the transaction would be helpful in saying exactly what should be done, but it’s not necessary to see what’s basically right and wrong here. It’s pretty clear that the bride should distribute the money. Instead, the bride and your brother seem to be doing something small-minded and selfish. Assuming the eight tuxes cost roughly what the dresses cost, we’re talking about substantial money — over $2,600. While the bride may have no strict legal obligation to pass the money on, the legal concept of “conversion” does spring to mind; she’s taking money meant for one purpose and converting it to another. I suggest you talk to an attorney, not so much because you have a legal cause of action but because your legal position will inform your ethical and moral position. A legal perspective can bring clarity to highly emotional issues. The more aspects of the situation you understand, the better you can deal with it.

There’s one other thing I would do. I would talk to the store owner again. It’s the store owner’s money. If the store owner wanted to just make a gift to the bride and groom, then fine. But if the store owner wanted that money to go to the people who purchased clothes and were inconvenienced, then I think the store owner has a right to know that the money hasn’t gotten to its intended recipients. And there are certainly things the store owner can choose to do. Maybe an owner would not want to take it further, but I do think a conversation is in order.

Ultimately it’s up to you if you want to fight about it or put it behind you. So far, I must say, you’ve shown admirable restraint. One word of this could ignite a wildfire of outrage among the other members of the wedding party. To your credit, in spite of your personal feeling of being wronged, you haven’t bad-mouthed the bride. I think you’re wise not to. In deciding what to do, it might also help to take a step back and contemplate why you participated in the wedding in the first place. You wanted to support them in their commitment, right? You wanted to step up and do your part. You wanted to take actions that would cement long-term bonds with your brother’s new family. So you did all that. You did a great job. You performed admirably. But was your heart in it? Or was it a cynical gesture? I’m not saying your attitude is relevant to the bride’s behavior. But it seems useful to review your motives for participating in the wedding, because if you take action it could have long-term implications for your relationship with your brother and his new family.

So if I were you … what would I do? I would talk to the store owner and talk to a lawyer. See what they say. If we’re correct in assuming there’s no legal obligation on the part of the bride, and the store owner doesn’t care what happens to the money, then it’s a question of personal ethics. In that regard I think principle is on your side, so I would make the case one more time to your brother, and perhaps to the bride herself if she will hear you out. Stress that news of this will probably leak out eventually. It always does. When that happens, reputations and relationships can be severely damaged. But if they still refuse to distribute the money, it may be more practical, and perhaps wiser, to let the matter drop.

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