Time to ban “love locks” on Paris bridges

When I first saw “love locks” on the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, they seemed like a charming folk expression. The metaphor of a lock on a bridge! Symbolizing lovers’ devotion! It spoke to the heart and the mind: transition, a liminal state, a gap between two certainties; a thing as ephemeral as love held firm in the cold steel of a lock. And an ordinary lock like from the hardware store. Lovers write their message of mutual devotion on the lock (initials, names, a pledge forever), attach the lock to the bridge, and throw the key in the water. Is that not beautiful?

This modest jumble of inscribed padlocks hung on an iron ring on the Ponte Vecchio in July 2014.

This modest jumble of inscribed padlocks hung on an iron ring on the Ponte Vecchio in July 2014.

And what of bridges? Bridges span two states — as love does. Bridges enable transition. They  allow one to exist for a time apart, in that liminal zone, belonging to neither side. For certain types of people, or people in certain situations feeling hemmed in by society or by geography, being on a bridge can bring peace. It can be the only place one feels at home. Artists know this well. We gravitate toward the in-between. Lovers too.

A bridge isn’t a place but a movement between spaces, an occasion of strange freedom.

So I was moved by the sight of these emblems of devotion placed in such a charged space.

But then the practice of placing love locks on bridges went viral; vendors on Paris bridges began selling the locks; they proliferated like cancer cells; their sheer weight collapsed a railing on the Pont des Arts. The lovely virus, when it took physical form, became a cancer that destroys its host.

So let’s say goodbye to this charming practice for now.

We all want to visit beautiful places, and Paris is certainly beautiful, and we all want to leave something of ourselves behind, and we all want to inscribe on the world our fleeting love.

But let’s not destroy stuff in the process.

Much might be said about the tourist culture, another kind of metastisis that thinks everything in sight is something to be consumed or interacted with, that assumes everywhere is Disneyland, and all culture is for sale, and the culture of imitation and “trends” …

But let’s not start any fights.

I am in favor of a ban on placing love locks on urban bridges. Vendors can switch to sunglasses or T-shirts.

You can sign a petition here.

p.s. Join us at le Château du Pin in the Loire Valley in September for our week-long writing retreat.

 

I’m going for it

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Cary’s classic column from

I’m in a passionless marriage and I’m going to have an affair — just thought I’d let you know in case you have some advice.


Dear Cary,

My husband and I have been married for more than 30 years. We love each other more as friends than lovers, although our relationship is also based on respect and on a commitment to our grown children.

When we first married, I was running away from a very abusive first marriage and my husband wanted a wife to further his career. We learned to love each other over the years, but our relationship was never one of equals with the same goals.

He doesn’t like to do anything outside the home and doesn’t care to socialize except with the people he worked with before he retired. He never showed any interest in my work and he didn’t see any need to talk about our marriage or to do anything to help it grow into something other than a pleasant convenience. I was so grateful for the safety net he provided that I didn’t really push for more. He also lost interest in sex about 10 years ago, leaving me stranded with a vibrant libido. We have never been unfaithful to each other.

It took me a long time to let go of my fears and to start to assert myself as an equal, finally realizing that I’m worthy of more than a breadwinner. Now that our children are grown, I am wondering what it would be like to experience a relationship with a man in which we both care for each other as individual human beings, respecting each other’s differences and finding companionship and joy in the things we have in common.

I met a man last year while visiting family in another state. We have continued to correspond through e-mail and have developed a friendship and love that we both treasure.

I don’t know what to do. I care for my husband and wouldn’t want to hurt him; yet I know that if I leave, he would be devastated, not understanding what I’ve been trying to tell him for all these years. The man I’m in love with has asked me to marry him but knows that I’m not ready to go that far, at least not yet.

This is something so new and foreign to me that I can’t find an answer with which I’m comfortable. I do feel that I will go ahead and have an affair. I suppose I’m just asking if anyone else has had an experience like this and how it turned out.

Married

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Dear Married,

Good for you. Although I can’t speak specifically of a story like yours, it has a certain universal ring to it, a certain kind of large, inevitable truth, so that it must be something many women have undergone. I applaud you. Life is not to be wasted or dribbled away. I understand your need for safety, how that can motivate you — but you’re safe now, aren’t you? There’s no threat to you except the grief and incomprehension of your husband when you tell him that you’ve got to do this.

So you’ve tried to tell him how the lack of passion is killing you and he hasn’t understood? Or perhaps he has understood, but he’s too frightened to confront it. Perhaps he just pretends not to understand what you’ve been saying. Or perhaps you haven’t said it in a way that he really understands. Either way, it sounds like it’s too late now. You seem to have made up your mind.

Go and have your affair. Well, you don’t need my permission, do you? But I encourage you to go and do it. And read. Well, you don’t want to necessarily read “Madame Bovary” as a case study, but read about women like yourself, trapped in the kind of safe but suffocating bourgeois bargain that men and women all too easily make in difficult, frightening times.

Oh, I wish we could help your husband, too. I feel worst for the husbands in this country, because after the manly power of the muscles begins to fade, what have they got but wealth and clothes? A man can live his 70 years and never learn to speak a single feeling, and a wife can leave him and he’s like a dog set loose in the wilderness that never learned to hunt. They are such weak creatures sometimes; they are so dependent on their wives. And they think all the while that they’re doing the right, sacrificial thing, staying by their wives even when it’s icy between them. And all the while nobody’s doing anybody any favors. It’s so sad.

Does your husband have a best friend? I hope so. I hope he has a buddy and they can go fishing and get drunk and curse their wives bitterly. It’s good for men to express their feelings. We can’t always expect them to express their feelings in a lovely and mature way; sometimes the only way for them to do it is by being ugly. It might be healing. It might do them good.

WhatHappenedNextCall

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I’m in love with a mama’s boy

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Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, DEC 10, 2002

She not only lives with us but also comes in and lies on our bed and watches TV with us.


Dear Cary,

I’m in a great relationship with a good man. We have been together for a year now and he is good to me, he treats me with so much respect, and he’s kind to everyone he meets and knows. I’ve never had a better relationship than now. He is a hard worker and has a great job. Never been married or has any children. So that eliminates a lot of drama in our lives. We have the greatest sex life ever! But … he’s a mama’s boy!

It’s just the two of them. The brother died a few years ago and the father has been out of the picture for many years. These two act like they are in love with each other. It’s not your typical mother-son relationship. She is absolutely possessed with him. She’s made the comment to me that whatever is hers, is his. And whatever is his, is hers. And that has included this relationship.

When I met him I lived alone with my two children in a rented house. He began to spend the night, then it turned out to be every night, until he eventually moved in. Things were perfect and life was just great, until about six months ago, when the homeowners sold the house that I was renting. I had to move and it was a great opportunity to move into a place together and split the bills and rent with him.

The weekend of moving into our new house, his mother decides she isn’t happy with her relationship with her boyfriend whom she has been living with for the past two years. So of course the loving man I have invites her to come and stay with us. He lets me know his mother will be staying with us. And I was fine with it, thinking it would only be for a few weeks. Well, those few weeks have turned into the past six months of hell!!

At first she was very helpful. She was out of work because she became sick and was too weak to work. That was the main reason I was OK with her staying with us. She would clean the house every day and have dinner ready when we came home from work and school. We never asked her for any money for rent or bills. She was receiving Social Security at the time and we told her to just save her money and get into her own place.

Now, six months later, she is back to work and has absolutely no intention of moving out. The house cleaning and dinner came to an end. She has even loaned all of her furniture to friends so that she won’t have to pay storage fees each month. She sleeps on my couches and stores her clothing in boxes in a closet. And she has not contributed one dime to the rent, bills, or food for our home. She has never bought a roll of toilet paper, a bottle of shampoo, or a box of laundry detergent. But she does manage to wipe her ass, wash her hair and body, and wash her clothes.

She’s even become so comfortable that she wants to spend more time with us in the bedroom. She comes in and lies on our bed and watches TV with us and smokes her cigs in my room. When I tell him how much it takes my privacy from me, he thinks I’m just bitching and having a bad day and want to take it out on her.

Anytime I bring the subject up to him he gets his feelings hurt, defends his mother, and tells me not to talk about his mama like that. I ask him how can she not have any shame. And it causes problems between us.

I’m not a cold person, but people like her don’t even want to help themselves, so why should I? I won’t kick her out before Christmas, but how do I make her leave without hurting his feelings and keep the flame between us going?

I realize she will always be in our lives. I’m not asking him to choose between me and his mommy. I’m just asking to live in my own home without her always being right there taking care of him. What it has come down to is that she can’t have him all to herself, so she sure the hell isn’t going to let me have him to myself.

How do I get rid of the in-law without being an outlaw?

In love with a mama’s boy

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Dear Reluctant Daughter-in-law,

I think you have to throw them both out. But let’s explore the option of just getting her to leave. First, you would have to speak to her directly. You could not ask your boyfriend to do it. You would have to sit her down and evict her. And no explanation could possibly make it seem just in her eyes. Any explanation you give her would only give her a basis for a counter-argument. If you say it’s for financial reasons, she’ll offer to contribute money. If you say it’s because she doesn’t do housework, she’ll promise to do housework. If you say she’s interfering with your relationship with her son, she’ll promise not to interfere. And then where are you? Then the burden is on you to prove the truth of your accusations. So I don’t think reasoning with her or giving her a long explanation is the way to go. I think you just have to throw her out.

But if you just throw her out, you place your boyfriend in an untenable position. He’s already demonstrated that he has an emotional blind spot when it comes to his mother. He can’t hear criticism of her. He has no judgment in this matter. So if you throw her out, he will see you as the villain who threw his mother out. I think it will destroy any happiness you might have in living with him.

So, strange as it sounds, I think to save your relationship with him, and his relationship with his mother, you have to throw them both out. If he lives separately from you, he can still be your boyfriend and salvage some pride in telling himself he’s simply being mistreated by his woman. He can tell himself that you’re a hard, hard woman, but since he’s taking the hit, he needn’t feel like he’s being a bad son; in fact, it gives him the opportunity to do what he not so secretly wishes to do anyway: to live with his mother and take care of her.

I have a feeling, however, that evicting them might put you in a tough spot financially. Your house probably had lower rent; it would have been reasonable to trade up when you knew your boyfriend would be helping out. So now you may not be able to afford the rent on your new place all by yourself. That is a sticking point. But if you relied on your boyfriend’s income in renting your new place, and he has now broken your tacit rental agreement by inviting his mother in, I don’t think it would be out of line to expect him, who has a great job, to at least help you financially, with first and last months’ rent, or a little monthly assistance for a few months, so you can find a place you can afford by yourself.

It’s much easier for a man to live with the burden of supporting two women than it is for him to live with the guilt of having abandoned his mother. It’s not like the choices are pretty, but I think you have a better chance of keeping him as a boyfriend if you throw the two of them out.

Caring for the writing self

I have learned a lot in the last seven years about caring for the writing self and the creative soul. Some of the things I have learned have helped other people, too.

Doing the Amherst Writers and Artists method has become a way of life. Many people I have met while doing this have become dear friends whose occasional appearances are now cherished events in the week.

The role of teacher is one I take reluctantly. I never liked teachers much; I was kind of rebellious I guess, and independent, resistant to being led. Yet I believe fervently in the effectiveness of people coming together to write and read aloud in a structured way. The part of being a teacher that I take reluctantly is the authority part, the part that implies that you should do things my way.

What I have to impart is is a way of being. That is what I share.

Many of us have been conditioned in childhood to denigrate our creative selves. I was lucky not to have this conditioning from my parents. My parents valued my creative spirit, so I am not damaged in that way, and I can therefore share with others a fresh delight in creative exploration.

Like everyone else, I do have a shadow side related to my creative work. But it mainly comes out when I cannot be as free and creative as I was meant to be.

The AWA workshop is the ideal setting for me to help others reach their creative potential. One thing I know from long experience is that artistic success and accomplishment take unexpected forms and involve unexpected difficulties. One aspect of creative endeavor we can control is the regularity and quality of our practice. We cannot control our level of genius or our talent but we can control our level of commitment, and we can consciously acquire knowledge about techniques and markets. We can choose what books to read. We can read books that acquaint us with current forms and techniques. We can to some extent control the amount of time we give to the endeavor, and we can find ways to build it into our lives. We can make conscious sacrifices that give more time to creative work.

This is why I keep doing the AWA method, because it is one conscious choice I can make to continually feed the creative spirit. Each time we come together to write, it strengthens us a little more. However uncertain the future may appear, however distant we may feel from having a completed book and an agent and a publishing deal and a movie option and syndication and residuals and book tours and awards and wide publication and fame, however distant these things may seem, we can always make day-to-day choices that keep our creative practice alive. We can always keep writing. And we can enjoy it.

That is why I keep providing these workshops and urge people to attend. Because the creative spark, the spirit, needs to be fed.

Another part of the creative journey is the practical realm: gaining recognition, acceptance, publication, monetary rewards, etc. Learning about this is like learning about any set of institutions and practices; it is a little like learning about how to get into a school, or how to get a job. There is an application process. So we have to ask, What are the requirements? Who are these people who work in publishing for a living and how does one, in essence, get a job with them? When we publish something we enter into a kind of employment. We don’t like to think of creative endeavors in this way, perhaps, but when we offer our work for sale we are economic actors. It may be called “cultural” activity but it is in fact economic. At the fringes of the literary economy are magazines supported by grants of money from funding organizations, universities, philanthropists and so forth, which take only minimal ir any advertising and keep their shelf prices low. But it is all economic activity. It is all the trading of labor and materials. The rewards are sometimes emotional, having to do with status and self-worth. But these too are economic drivers.

It is important to understand this in order to protect the creative spirit. For if we fail to get published we must understand it is probably because we did not gauge the economics of it; we did not understand that we were in a role of selling our work, and selling our work means tailoring it to the market. Certain segments of that market may be hungry for extremely unusual, idiosyncratic, nearly unintelligible work that seems to come from a primitive or intensely intellectual source; a small number of people hunger for work that is wild and  strange and disjointed; they hunger for surrealism or dadaism or impenetrable intellectual prose; they do constitute a market but it is a small market because they are rare, unusual people. The masses tend to enjoy writing of a more pedestrian sort. I tend to be of the more rare sort who likes extremely strange work but paradoxically I want to write for a large audience so I try to write in forms that are widely accessible.

If we are to nuture and protect our creative selves we must be practical and realize that not everything we produce is going to be met with love and approval; a lot of what we produce will have to be adjusted for a market if it is going to be published. So another purpose of the workshops is to strengthen artistic self-esteem so that we do not fall apart when we realize we have to revise or rethink our work for a particular market, so that we know we are keeping our creative spirits alive and fresh even though we need to go through cycles of revision and critique for the market.

The workshops keep it fun, and enliven our sense of self-worth, and keep it separate from the sometimes slow, grinding and unpleasant tasks necessary to get our work published.

That’s also why I am always trying to learn about literary agents, publishing and markets. I want my work to be read; I want to be a part of the conversation. I don’t just write for myself. Writing helps me stay psychologically healthy but I don’t write for therapy. I write to be a part of the larger world, to connect. So if you are trying to find an agent, or get your work published in small magazines, or make a living as a freelancer, I am interested in hearing from you. This is the world that I know and love. I have mostly made my living by writing, and that world makes sense to me — more sense than the other main repository of writers, which is the educational world. I have mostly done journalism and am coming late to the world of literary book publishing, which does seem to be more closely allied with universities and less with what I consider the more street-level activities of journalism, activism and performance.

Anyway, there are many ways to feed the creative spirit and my workshops are just one way. I hope you will find as many ways as you can to feed this vital part of your self. I am doing my small part to keep the world a creative, vibrant, interesting place for us all. I hope to see you often and to always lend a helping hand to help you find new avenues of expression.
— Cary T.

 

My wife is mean to me

Hi Cary,

When I married my wife, I started my own business (Web development). And since our wedding day, that business was modest and grew slowly, but surely. But never beyond being a modest business.

And we were happy.

The key, however, was that I worked from home and spent a lot of time with my wife I otherwise would not, and I knew when we had kids, that meant spending time with them too.

We are now married for 11 years, and sure enough, I spend every moment with my children (except while they’re in school) and I love that about my life, i.e. it went exactly as planned.

What’s different is that along the way, besides my company, my wife and I decided to invest our saved money in real estate, and while that too has gone wonderfully, it was frustrating (for my wife especially), to work with Realtors. So, my wife decided to become a Realtor herself. And she loved it!

And I loved that she found something she loved!

In fact, she’s so bright when it comes to business (she started her own business as a teenager!), she ate up as much knowledge as possible, and within three years, became a real estate broker. And it didn’t stop there. She added on association management, and now if you look at her business card, without exaggeration she has at least 20 designations. She is even a notary for practical reasons. She has married about five couples. If you were to read her Zillow reviews, what people say about her is nothing short of spectacular.

It’s gone so well that her business long ago out-earned mine, and as a result, she suggested I too get my real estate license.

I did.

And slowly but surely, I put my business on pause to help with hers. We became your typical husband and wife Realtor team.

And even though this meant me becoming No. 2 and literally dumping all praise and focus on her (I’m just not as good a Realtor as she is), I was more than happy to do so!

Combined, her business makes a lot more than mine, and our family has never been so financially stable.

To take things a step further, I started to become a kind of Mr. Mom, too. Because since she is the “star” of the real estate operation, it’s important she court clients, etc., and her presentation is perfect. I especially love the part about how passionate she is about her work, and how much she loves what she does. And I love that part because I love to hear that she’s happy.

Even if it means being the one who takes the kids to jiu jitsu classes, guitar lessons, school, etc.

I honestly don’t care that I’ve swapped my web development day-to-day for a Mr. Mom day-to-day, with real estate as a backup for when she needs me. I’m taking one for the team and I am only too happy to do so.

But then, all of a sudden, especially when I show how happy I am, she starts with things like “I hate being the bread winner,” or “I hate having the pressure of earning all our money.”

And sometimes it gets nasty as in, “Why don’t you do something productive with your life?” or “Why don’t you be a man instead of jerking off all the time?” (metaphorically speaking of course).

This has built up over the past three years. And honestly, I am less than happy now. I am starting to get extremely upset about it.

I thought sacrificing my career for the greater good was being a man. I thought it was being provider. I thought I was doing a really good thing.

But because there’s no salary on the other end, I get no applause. And applause isn’t even what I want. All I want is this nagging to stop.

Appreciation would be nice, but just for the cheap shots to stop would be enough for me.

So, now I look at my life and I ask myself what do I want? I want that autonomy back.

I obviously don’t want to be a Realtor anymore. When I work in real estate or try to, she, as my “boss,” insults me. And often times in front of other employees, which is extremely humiliating.

The worst part is she never apologizes even when she admits to others she was wrong to behave that way. It’s as if she doesn’t want to give me that satisfaction to see that she was wrong.

Is there anything I can do to get her to stop? If I talk to her she has the knack for twisting my words and making everything about her and my fault, and I just can’t compete with her in that department.

We tried therapy, which was working. The therapist sided with me on a lot of things. But then it was getting expensive (according to her — she’s a little frugal, too), so we stopped and now she doesn’t want to go back.

So I am all alone. No one to speak to, no one to help me. I am trying to get out of this rut, but can’t.

Completely Confused: Thought I Did the Right Thing

Dear Completely Confused,

You have lost your mojo. You need to get it back. You can’t get it from your wife. She doesn’t have it.

Where could it be? You have to go look for it. Is it in your pants? Is it in the forest? Maybe it is in your hair. I don’t know where it is. But you have to find it.

Do you know what mojo is? It is the life force. It is the thing you have when you’re getting born and fighting for a breath. It is the survival instinct thing, the love of life thing, the thing that feels pure beauty, that loves water and sky and rain, that dances, that cusses and sings, that says no to bullshit.

There are ways to look for it. Sometimes people go out in the desert. There’s mojo out there. I don’t know why. There is also mojo in garages and in car engines. And in guitars. When mojo departs, it tends to go to places like that. But it depends on what kind of mojo you have. So you need to remember who you are and why you love your wife. You love her for some reason other than the money. The money is bullshit. Forget the money. You could live on sandwiches if you love your wife. You could feed your kids on nuts and berries. They’d get the hang of it. If they saw that their daddy had his mojo back they wouldn’t care about the berries.

What I mean is you need to get down to fundamentals. That’s where your mojo is.

Your wife doesn’t have your mojo. She can’t give it back to you.  She didn’t take it from you. She just noticed that it was gone and became irritable and unpleasant. She’s not behaving well but if you play into that you’re in a losing game. She has to sort herself out. Steer clear of trying to fix her. That’s what got you into this mess, thinking too much about her.

One guy I read about leaves the house for an hour if his wife spews venom. You might try that. While you’re out, have a hamburger. Having a hamburger will tell your mojo that you’re ready for it to return.

Mojo does not like to be treated poorly. That’s why it left you in the first place. If you let yourself be treated poorly, your mojo goes out to the desert or into the engine of a car until you find it again and coax it back.

You might have to go all the way back to being born. Or maybe you only have to go back to when you got married. It depends.

I could say a million things about therapy and family systems theory and cultural models and sexism and our peculiar cultural moment but I have a feeling all that is just thinking and you can’t afford any more thinking. Thinking and trying to do the right thing is what got you into this mess. The only thing that will get you out is to find your mojo.

One more thing. When you find that mojo, keep it close to you at all times. And don’t put it in a jar. That will make it moldy.

I’m lonely

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Cary’s classic column from

I’ve kept my HIV-positive status to myself except for one time — and that person doesn’t communicate with me anymore.


Dear Cary,

I really like the humane advice you give and I need some myself.

I am HIV positive and have known this for 15 years now, ever since I was in my mid-20s. Since I have never had an associated illness (never even a symptom), am doing well on the available medications, and do not fit the profile that many people associate with the condition, hardly anyone knows about my status.

This is how I want it. I vowed from the beginning that I would live a “normal” life as long as possible. I am also very aware that telling people puts a great burden on them because they have to live with upsetting knowledge, and I also fear distorting friendships by having people feel sorry for me (which I dread), or people sticking around when they really don’t like me just because they feel somehow obliged to.

At the same time, as I’m sure you can imagine, it gets very lonely, and this includes time spent with support groups (which I have not found very useful in my case). Apart from the existential issues, there are the very visible and practical ones: You have to hide to pop all your pills, you have to take them with or without food, you get tired, your body changes in bizarre ways, you have to make up excuses at work for why you have so many doctor’s appointments. Just covering, lying and planning all this is exhausting.

It is also true that I do get very depressed, in a way that I don’t think I would if I was negative. Inevitably, friends notice this and it seems downright inexplicable to them, since on the outside I seem to have a lot going for me.

That’s my prelude. A couple of weeks ago, fed up with the constant dissembling and lying, I “outed” myself to a friend in an e-mail (we live some distance apart and all our communications are by e-mail.) This was an unusual thing for me to do, but I just wanted this person to understand me a bit better, in particular, understand why I get anxious and down when no obvious explanation exists. There is no question of any (sexually) intimate relationship between us — we have talked about some very personal topics in the past, and I decided to step out of my comfort zone and include this one.

Well, two weeks later, no response, whereas normally we communicate several times per week.

I feel awful. You feel so vulnerable when you disclose information like this — you only do so if you feel you can totally trust the person. I mean, trust the person to behave with compassion, solidarity and maturity. I guess the silence means I misplaced my trust. I am also angry with myself for my poor judgment, for making myself vulnerable to someone who obviously doesn’t share my own values about being there for friends in need.

Cary, are my reactions appropriate, in your opinion? Should I take this as a lesson to shut up in the future — once bitten, twice shy? I would also like to take this opportunity of conveying to your readers that should they ever find themselves on the receiving end of information like this, the worst thing they can do is withdraw in silence. If you can’t think of what to say, at least say that you can’t think of what to say.

Also, if ever this person does make contact with me again, what would be the best way for me to handle it? It is hard for me to judge, since I am so used to being the bearer of bad tidings and not the recipient (except from my doctor).

Wondering Alone

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Dear Wondering,

I applaud you for having the courage to out yourself this one time, and I’m sorry it did not turn out better. I think you have taken on far too heavy a burden of secrecy, and this painful first step should be followed by a second and a third, which should be progressively less painful, so that eventually you can come out of this mode of secrecy altogether. It is far too much work to hide such a thing; should the disease eventually weaken you, it will be an unsupportable burden. You deserve to live in a community of compassionate people who do not need to be deceived. The only way you can find such people is to trust them with your truth. Some may react badly. Most, I think you will find, will respond like human beings.

Not only do you deserve to be able to live honestly and openly with your disease, but those who truly care about you also deserve to know the truth. You can’t control what their reactions will be; that is the risk you must take to live in community with others.

I think your advice about how to accept such information is splendid. People often do the wrong thing when they hear such news. I think part of the reason is that we overestimate the amount of influence our behavior has on others. We think that if we say the wrong thing we will devastate someone else. We think if we reveal our disease that others will be incapacitated, unable to respond. And if we find a case in which that is so, we tend to see it as proof. But I do believe at the heart of this over-regard for others is a kind of over-regard for our own importance. The truth, I believe, is that while others are more capable of compassion than we might surmise, they are also not quite as concerned with us as we would like to believe. That is, we are not the center of their lives. So when we deliver such news it is often neither as devastating as we fear nor as earthshakingly important as we would wish.

Further, when, believing that we must control what is known about us, we habitually act with deception, we may hide the particulars but what we reveal is the pattern of deception itself; people may not perceive that we are HIV positive; they just perceive that we are deceptive.

I understand your desire not to become an emotional burden, but I think you have taken it too far, and everyone will benefit if you began confiding in others about your status.

And if that person you first confided in should finally get back to you, try to stick to the facts. Just say you noticed that after you said you were HIV positive, you didn’t hear anything for quite a while, and that it was hurtful, and see if you can have a frank and open discussion about it.

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My Scandinavian bridesmaid’s roommate is a creep

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Cary’s classic column from

He screwed my 17-year-old sister on my wedding night, and threatened to have my kneecaps broken!


Dear Cary,

I live in a Scandinavian country. I moved here a little over a year ago to be with my love and recently got married. Despite the difficulties of being from a different culture we have made some close friends. I have particularly become close to one young woman, and we spend a lot of time together, have a lot in common, and have become such good friends that I asked her to be a bridesmaid in my wedding.

My family and many of my close friends from the U.S. came over to be in the wedding, including my little sister who is 17 years old. On the night of the wedding my sister met my new and dear Scandinavian friend’s best friend of many years. He is a very good-looking and smooth-talking guy and sleeps with a different woman every night; at the time he met my sister he had a girlfriend (whom he had already cheated on and would cheat on again). He and my sister made out (running off to corners, etc.) all night long. At the end of the night as we were all leaving, my sister came to tell me that she was going home with him and with my friend (they are roommates).

I knew what was going to happen, and at that moment it made me feel sick. The wedding had been so beautiful. My family and my husband’s family had bonded, and all of the love between our families, ourselves and our friends and guests felt overwhelming. At the end of this kind of night the fact that my underage (but hardly virginal) little sister was going home with a man I knew (and she knew as well) to be a complete shark just felt like a very bad thing. I went to this man and told him, “Don’t sleep with my sister!” I did it in a very firm way, maybe even aggressive, but I did not swear at him and I did not shout. (Nor was I drunk; I had felt so stressed and had so little sleep leading up to the wedding that I made a conscious decision to drink very little.) He told me that I was being dirty, so dirty that if his father ever saw me he would have to break my kneecaps. (Yes, he said that, and not in a joking voice trying to diffuse the situation, but in a very angry voice!) When he said this it felt a bit like I had been slapped. I was standing there in my long white gown, in my veil, and had been told that, and I just felt it was very much over the line. I walked away from him and did not talk to him again that evening.

The real problem, and the reason that I am writing to you, is that my new friend will not accept that I do not really like or want to be around her sharklike best friend. She is very close to both of us and feels that it is unacceptable that I do not like him. We have had several fights about this. I do not badmouth him to her, I do not try to convince her not to be friends with him. In fact when she wants to talk about him (which she does very, very often) I in no way show my basic dislike for his (what I consider) lacking character. And I have helped her analyze him and his very strange and privileged background.

She has been trying very hard to get us to become friends again. She has started bringing him over (twice during this last weekend) trying to get us to hang out together. When we do so, I am very friendly and frankly quite fake, and I really don’t want to hang out with him. In fact I would rather that my friend would not come over at all if she wants to hang out with him. His affectations, which didn’t do much for me before the falling out, are just ridiculous to me now. My husband doesn’t like him either.

However, I do feel very, very close to this friend. She has made life here so much easier for me, making me a part of her life in a way that few Scandinavians are willing to do (besides, of course, my husband). She and I love to sit and talk for hours about life and literature and politics. I really hate the fact that this could have an impact on a new and important relationship in my life. I also hate that she is trying to force me to be friends with this person. She has asked me several times, “But you like him again, right?” I have answered yes, because when I told her several weeks ago that I didn’t want to be friends with him and didn’t like him she became very angry with me. However, to me this issue is not going away as fast as she would like it to.

I can not figure out if this is my problem or her problem. I don’t want to lose someone whom I like so much, but I’m not sure how much longer I can hold my tongue.

Confused and Abroad

Cary Tennis Writing Retreat in France

Dear Confused and Abroad,

I think he did a terrible thing and you are quite right to despise him. What a despicable act! Not only to defy a bride’s wishes on her wedding day, to sleep with her sister against her clear entreaties, but to threaten her? To suggest that he’ll have her kneecaps broken? That is beyond the pale. I don’t see how you could expect to get over such treatment and come to be pals with this guy. You need to be true to yourself. I would not let him in the house again. If it means losing this friend, that is the price you have to pay for being true to yourself.

But perhaps it doesn’t mean losing this friend. If they are roommates, they will probably not be roommates forever. Your social circle in this Scandinavian country, I’m guessing, is fairly fluid; your friends are young and subject to changes in their living arrangements and their loyalties. So if you end up having a longtime friendship with this woman, she too may come to see that her friend is a jerk. In the meantime, you have been pretending; you have not been true to yourself, and that, I think, is destructive to you. I’m sure there are reasons — you are in a foreign country and you are grateful for the society of the natives, you don’t know if your standards are right or not. But the reasons do not seem sufficient. What this man did, it seems to me, showed great disrespect to you. I think you should stay away from him, and make it clear to your friend that, however much you like seeing her, you do not want to see him.

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My husband abused my son

 

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Dear Cary,

For three years I have grappled with how to write this letter. Cary, you are the only individual aside from my therapist that I can trust with my story. I have felt ashamed, frightened (all my secrets spread across the Internet) and strangely unable to write. But now I feel strong enough.

Three years ago my 33-year-old son came forward and told his sisters and myself that my husband, his stepfather, had sexually abused him from age 10 to 13. Cary, he had been my son’s father since my son was 5 years old! My husband admitted it was true, but first tried to say it was only for one year. And it was just hugging. Then he said “I thought you knew” Then he said “It was a way to get closer.” Cary, unlike most pedophiles my husband did not court my son. He did not give him gifts or treat him “special.” He was hard on my child — never pleased with him, always annoyed, especially at the dinner table. My son went to live with his biological father when he was 16 to get out of the house. My relationship with my husband was rocky, too. We had terrible arguments, but I could never “win.” He could go on and on for hours without getting tired — all night — and wear me out, but not let me sleep. Or cry. Or go to the bathroom. He hated when I would go into another room to get tissues. I considered leaving him, but we had two little girls, and when he was happy, we all had what seemed to be a great time together. My girls adored their father.

In the last few years before my son’s revelation my husband had mellowed out quite a bit. Once all the children were out of the house he seemed to lose a lot of his anger issues. We had a lot in common, shared a house and bills and assets and cars and the whole nine yards. We stopped arguing and everyone thought we were the perfect couple. Waitresses told us how cute we were. I started to forget what a rocky past we had. We were turning gray together. My son started coming home for visits more often. I was in heaven when all the “children” were together for a Christmas dinner. Then this bombshell.

Cary, it was as though all the planets shifted — Gallilean! Many of the problems I have had with my husband now make sense — and I feel so betrayed. My girls are adults now, but they are having a terrible time trying to understand how their father could have done this to the older brother they love. They don’t know how to fit him into their lives anymore. My son has sought therapy, and he is doing remarkably well, but he has a lot to deal with. I am in therapy with a psychiatrist who has a background dealing with offenders, and I have filed for divorce. My son and I are closer than ever, and I see him all the time now. But I am crushed by guilt — how could I have not known, why didn’t I leave when we were having such problems 20 years ago? What kind of twisted fantasy was I living all those years?

I tried to create a bright, cheerful life for my family — big Christmases, nice vacations, brightly painted rooms. I spent so much time caring for my husband — being with him when he had a prostate operation, helping to care for his dying mother, doing EVERYTHING for the household. I just feel so duped and stupid. My husband is out of the house but still seems to think there is hope for us. I fret about money, selling the house and how I will ever retire now. I am happy to be rid of him, but I always feel anxious. And I was so well conditioned by his abuse that I still hate to upset him or make demands in any way! How can I come to peace with a lie that took up 20 years of my life?

Shaken

Dear Shaken,

I’m proud and honored that you would feel comfortable sharing this with me. But if your therapist and I are the only ones you feel comfortable sharing this with, maybe you need more people in your life whom you can trust, and who are capable of hearing such stories and responding in a straightforward, accepting way. One thing such an event does is shake one’s trust in others, so perhaps part of your work of recovery will involve finding some people you can trust again.

It’s not your fault, however. That I can say. You did nothing wrong. Someone took advantage of you. You were deceived by someone who set out to deceive you. You did nothing wrong. You did your best and this happened to you. It happened the way traffic accidents and murders happen to people: with the cruel logic of random events.

For many people, the sheer random nature of tragic events is very hard to accept. Being unable to accept the sheer randomness of events, we come up with strategies to invest awful events with meaning. Feeling guilty about it can be one such strategy. If you feel guilty, then you had some responsibility, some agency. If you had some agency, then it wasn’t just random. It could have been prevented if only …

It is harder to accept the fact that this happened and that’s that. It can’t be undone. Speculating on what you might have done to prevent it is a waste of your precious energy. What I suggest is that with the help of your therapist you begin consciously moving toward acceptance. That means doing concrete things to help you accept this. It might mean saying it out loud over and over. It might mean perhaps some techniques your therapist has. It means in some sense encountering what happened in a deep, raw way. I don’t know how that is done but perhaps you have a sense of what I mean. At the center of this awful thing is a philosophical truth that is frightening but liberating: We are not responsible for everything that happens in the world. We are not able to control everything that happens. We instead often have to simply accept what happens and accept our inability to fully understand.

Perhaps if you make a list of the world’s mysteries and meditate on them, you will find a place for this awful thing in the pantheon of all the world’s awful and inexplicable things. As I say, it is frightening to face this, but it is also liberating.

Here are some thoughts about guilt and how we use it to avoid facing our essential powerlessness in the universe. Guilt places you at the center of a drama that did not really concern you. Rather than face the fact that this thing happened and was beyond your power to prevent, by feeling guilty about it you can entertain the fantasy that you might have been able to stop it. But you weren’t able to. You couldn’t. This thing happened between your husband and your son. It did not happen to you. Perhaps in a way you wish you could take your son’s place. This is another perverse thought we sometimes have: Rather than mourn for others, we avoid the feeling by placing ourselves at the center of things. Or we feel somehow guilty for surviving while others suffered. The truth is that others suffer. We must accept that they suffer, and if that makes us feel awful then we must feel awful. I’m sure you have felt unimaginably awful, and it has been exhausting and painful. I feel empathy for you. But I do not feel responsible. I know that the world is full of senseless suffering which I cannot curtail. All I can do is try to point out that accepting this is ultimately liberating.

Ask your therapist for help moving from guilt to acceptance. There are many good reasons to avoid such acceptance. True acceptance of this event will shake your accustomed beliefs about the world. You may ask, If this isn’t my fault, then whose is it? In plain terms, it is your husband’s fault. You may find it hard to accept that your husband did this evil thing. It may be easier to believe that you yourself had some hand in it than to believe that your husband did this. So you need to work on accepting the simple facts. The simple fact is that your husband sexually molested your son. This is an awful thing but it is the thing you must learn to say out loud without qualification.

Maybe if you will walk along a body of water and say this aloud a few times, listening to your heart as you say it, maybe you will fill with grief and be able to accept this. Maybe you will fill with rage and find you are closer to accepting this.

It will live in your heart for a long time. It will be there. You must let it be there and not pretend. It will bring you pain and you must accept that.

Full acceptance of it will make you wiser and stronger. Accept that this happened, that you had nothing to say about it and no way to prevent it, and that it is in the past. Accept that your son is recovering from the experience and is taking responsibility for his own life.

Stay out of your husband’s life. Let him go. Stay close to your son. But do not take responsibility. This is his experience. You have your own burdens, which will grow lighter with time.

Help! I’m falling for a fat man!

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, JUL 27, 2006

I like this guy a lot, but the poundage is a turnoff.


Dear Cary,

Currently I’m dating a man who just won’t leave my consciousness, not for a moment. I think of him all the time. He’s pretty special.

My problem is this: This wonderful man with whom I’ve shared some amazing moments and do share a phenomenal connection … he’s overweight. He’s not merely out of shape or a hike and a swim away from fit, he’s fat.

I’ve made a conscious effort to look past it (“it” being my own stupid, shallow, superficial, counterproductive reaction to the weight), but there it is, all of the time. In bed, he’s attentive, very strong, wonderful — we enjoy genuine chemistry — but even when the lights are out I find it difficult to navigate his flesh. I’m a smallish person stature-wise; it’s difficult for me to wind around a man with what little leg I’ve been given, never mind a man the size of one and a half men.

Worse yet is I fear being a selfish lover, because I don’t fantasize pleasing him the way I would ordinarily with a slimmer man. I’m intimidated, daunted and generally unprepared for certain activities.

I don’t know what to do. It’s a turnoff. And worst of all, part of the reason it’s a turnoff is that I see myself with a head-turner when the lights are on. I’ve always been with striking men — not pretty boys, but men who had that quality; after all, it’s that quality which turns my head in the first place. And this man just doesn’t light my fire in that way. I’m attracted to nearly everything about him but his size. So he doesn’t light my fire, and doesn’t feed my ego in the company of strangers. I hate myself even for admitting it; it’s just so superficial.

Am I trying to convince myself that we have a future together? Is there any way I can get past my bias and enjoy this person for who he is in total?

Weighing in, in Washington

Cary Tennis Writing Retreat in France

Dear Weighing in,

You haven’t gotten this far by pretending. You’ve gotten this far by being straightforward and honest, and I suggest you continue being straightforward and honest.

This is harder, of course, because we are freaked out about fat. It is one of our crazy things. It goes deep. It has its paradoxes and corollaries as well — we are freaked out about skinny, and we are freaked out about food, and the planet, and the body and money and exercise and power. We are a freaked-out culture. We are all freaked out.

The fat man knows this.

If you are a fat man in America you cannot help noticing that people are freaked out about fat. People will suggest exercise bikes. They will feed you lean portions. They will say to each other, “It’s his fault, and it’s disgusting; he must have no willpower; he must eat the wrong things; he must be repressing something; he must not respect himself.” And what does the fat guy say? He says, Yes, thank you for that astute observation, I have indeed noticed that I am fat.

So I suggest what you do is go in your backyard and sit quietly and meditate on the fact that you are not turned on by this fat man. Meditate on the fact that you like him very much but he doesn’t turn you on. Wait for something to come to you. Accept the answer that comes. If you come to the feeling that you have to end it, then end it. If you come to the feeling that you want to stay with him for a while more, then stay with him for a while more. If you come to both, then put each on an apothecary’s scale, weigh them and choose the one that weighs a little more.

Don’t try to reason it out and don’t guilt-trip yourself. We don’t know why we are the way we are. It’s not our job to know. Just meditate on it and wait for an answer.

Maybe you meditate on it and the answer that comes is that it’s just not right for you. OK. Make a tearful goodbye. Or maybe you meditate on it and it continues to intrigue you and so you stay with him for a while. What’s the harm in that? Maybe you learn something new. Maybe you have sex and it turns out to be good. Maybe it’s just some learning you have to do — maybe you are not used to having sex in ways that are not automatic; maybe there would be some learning at first and then it would be automatic, just as it always was. What can it hurt to find out?

And by the way, why are you in such a hurry lately? Two or three dates is not all that much time. Human emotion goes slowly. Insight is a complex computation; it can take days on our little computers.

Besides, consider: The sex is great in the beginning lots of times. This you no doubt know. It doesn’t always stay great. It might dwindle down. It might be great at first with some guy you don’t like that much otherwise. It might dwindle down and then what have you got? A guy you don’t like all that much anyway whom you don’t like to fuck much either anymore.

Some things are painful and sad and wrong but nonetheless true.

We are the way we are for reasons unknown to us. You needn’t feel guilty if it isn’t working out. Quiet your mind and wait for the answer to come to you.

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My freeloader boyfriend

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Cary’s classic column from

He followed me on a work-related move and now he’s sitting around reading comic books


Cary,

About six months ago, I got a major promotion that came with a moderate pay raise. I needed to transfer from my company’s Northern California office to our office in Georgia. I had been dating a man for just under a year when I got the promotion, and he was less than supportive and took the news quite hard. After days of fights and tears, he apologized and said he wanted to be with me wherever I was. I never asked him to come with me … he just kind of tagged along. But I loved him, so it was OK.

Fast-forward six months. He hates it here. It’s too hot. It’s too humid. There are no mountains. The bugs freak him out. He hates our apartment. And he’s unemployed. He’s a chemist by trade and can’t seem to find a job. He tells me that everywhere he looks, nobody is hiring. That may be true, but when I come home at night I never see him looking. He never tells me he’s been out dropping off résumés or networking. He fills out one online application per day and then reads his comic books. He’s in his mid-30s, and I am absolutely appalled at this man’s lack of motivation and inability to sell himself as a valuable employee to another company.

I told myself that if the shoe were on the other foot, I know he’d do the same for me. But if the shoe were on the other foot, I’d be flipping burgers somewhere in the interim so I felt I was carrying my weight financially. His bills have piled up. I’m paying rent plus utilities, plus MY bills, plus buying his food. And it drains me down to the last penny every month. The original deal I made with myself was that he had 30 days before I kicked him out. But six months later I can’t do it. I can’t work up the nerve to break his heart. And he can’t afford to move anywhere anyway … so I don’t know what good breaking up with him would serve. But I know this is not the man I am supposed to be with, and I have totally fallen out of love with him. I need a man with a professional drive and ambition that matches mine. I need a man who shows that he can be a provider. This man is neither of those things. How do I bow out gracefully?

Sole Provider

Cary Tennis Writing Retreat in France

Dear Sole Provider,

The important thing is to bow out, even if it’s not graceful. His attachment to you may be a kind of love, but it does not sound like the kind of mature, independent, big-hearted love that would allow him to applaud your good fortune and wish you well on your journey.

Instead, when something good happened for you, his first reaction was not to support you but to think only of himself, perhaps with the unconscious intent of thwarting your departure. When that did not work, then in his emotional dependence he blindly followed you. Now he finds himself unhappy and stuck. Quelle surprise!

So do him the favor of unsticking him. Put him on a plane back to California. It may not feel graceful, but it will feel right. It is the kindest thing you could do.

And do not worry too much about breaking his heart. When a dependent person is stuck, it can actually be a relief to receive some instructions — even harsh and demanding instructions.

So send him home, send him a bill for what he owes you, and be patient.

He is a chemist. Perhaps in the realm of human affairs he is a little dense. He may have thought that people can change states as easily as matter.

I don’t know why I should be so optimistic — perhaps because it takes intelligence to be a chemist, even a dense one — but I have a feeling he will soon realize what happened, will see that he was on a fool’s journey, that he owes you and will pay you back.

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