My crazy creative acts don’t add up

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Dear Cary –

My creative doubts have been simmering like a mild poison in my heart and mind for years and I’m starting to hate myself. I need to do something about it.

Nine years ago I was living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. By age 31 I had accidentally become a loudmouth, performance-arty, punk-rocky type person. I say accidentally because as a dull-witted, privileged, Southern Californian white girl, I wouldn’t have chosen that life. I wouldn’t have believed myself capable of thriving on the grungy, diversified, kaleidoscopic roller coaster that is (was?) New York City.

I was a quiet adolescent with vague aspirations of becoming a marine biologist, though I had no aptitude for science and was a poor student; I just liked Sea World and wanted to ride around on the whales. Then in high school I found the drama kids, in college I majored in theater and went on to get an MFA in acting; even though acting is an impractical profession, the path was well defined. I went on auditions, tried to land an agent, took head shots and even started a theatre company of my own. But I wanted to run wild and so I did.

I raced around New York on my bicycle doing naked performance art in dive bars, having sex with random creatives and cursing loudly into microphones. I would do anything as long as I considered it to be “arty.” I wasn’t accomplishing anything real, though — nothing I could point to and say, “If only I’d kept doing ‘xyz’ I could have made it.”

I wrote short stories, sang and played guitar, acted in plays and did standup comedy and I am not being overly critical of my abilities when I say that unless something unusual happened like it did for some of the lesser bands that hung out at CBGB’s, my antics weren’t going to get me what I really wanted which was to be a part of the professional rather than amateur conversation by making the art that only I can make. I prayed that the group of misfits I was surrounded by would achieve a Studio 54 level of significance, if only in retrospect, so that my showboating would turn out to be meaningful. I can see now that artists like Amanda Palmer, Taylor Mac or Kathleen Hanna are actually doing what I thought I was doing, but wasn’t. Anyway.

I was also lonely and I yearned for romantic love so when I met my husband — the true love of my life, also a standup comic, musician and actor — it felt like hitting the jackpot. I became shy and lost my taste for exhibitionism and decided to drop out of my punk rock band and focus on writing. I grew quieter and I liked it.

I worked as a secretary and eventually became a flight attendant. We got married and both started to feel chewed up by the New York grind. We bought a house in the desert where my parents live and we love it out here. Neither of us misses big-city life.

I quit flying and became a secretary again, wrote five incomprehensible novels and created a silly/offensive cartoon and blog.

But then I started to feel hidden in a bad way. It seemed none of the people around me understood that I had more to offer than the ability to arrive on time and fill out expense reports. I felt sad and droopy, like a bird with wild, colorful feathers wearing a drab, slouchy grey sweatsuit with stains on it.

I didn’t know how to handle this feeling, but I wanted to take action so I swore that I was going to work as hard as I could on my latest novel. I was going to write my way out of the ugly, grey sweats and let the world see my feathers again. I quit my job and for a year I’ve been living off of my savings trying to do whatever it takes to finish the fucking thing.

But I hate it. The novel — writing it has been just … bad. Not bad like “Keep at it and you’ll get better!” bad, but bad like “Why do this when every single day writing feels like a dead, empty, cold, fishy void?” Right now I’m working now on my third rewrite (rewrite as in I’m rewriting the whole thing from scratch) and I just don’t care. My feathers are as droopy as ever. They’re wilting and I think they might be starting to fall out. The novel is meaningless. I am disgusted with myself, but I swore I’d finish it.

I feel like I’ve wasted all of my energy and enthusiasm and now I’m going to be 40 and I have absolutely nothing to show for my artistic ambitions. I’m not a marine biologist, I’m not a punk-rock theatre skank, I’m not a novelist, I’m not a secretary or a flight attendant.

Today I spent the afternoon contemplating getting a degree in digital media arts at the local community college. It seems like a practical thing to do, but is it? Is it just more of the same? Who’s to say I won’t hate that too?

I’ve tried teaching yoga for a year and I really, really hate teaching yoga. I hate secretarial work. I hate writing novels. I’ve tried and failed at a crafty Etsy endeavor. I enjoy painting and drawing but can’t fathom what makes the visual art world tick and while I can pursue it as a hobby, I feel that a hobby doesn’t achieve my goal of exposing my feathers. I want to dig deep, get serious and contribute something artistic in the next (knock wood) forty years. I don’t know what I want to do only that I don’t want to be a nurse or an actress or anything that I can point to in a college catalogue. I don’t have or want children. All I’ve ever cared about was art but I can’t seem to make any.

I want more out of life, but it seems that I am an asshole who doesn’t like anything and can’t do anything well. I should also say that I am very fortunate to have a great husband and great parents who love me and I know how lucky I am.

Can you please tell me if I sound like an asshole? I’m so tone deaf that I don’t even know if these concerns are meaningful or just the dissatisfied whining of someone who’s been given way too much, encouraged way too much and should just find a way to stop complaining and be a secretary. Help.

With much love and appreciation for what you do,

Like a bird in a sweatsuit

OnlineWorkshopAug6

Hey there Bird,

It’s OK for you to move from one thing to another. It’s natural for you. That’s where your energy is.

You are a wanderer. You are gathering wisdom from experience.

The problem is that when you look at what you have accomplished it seems like an incoherent mess. So you feel like a failure. You are not a failure. You are at the beginning of something. You are an artist in the early stages of accomplishment. There is a large, life-defining project awaiting you but you don’t know for sure what it is yet. That’s OK. You are working toward it.

What you need is a pattern of working for the next few years that will allow you to keep doing these seemingly disparate activities while also finishing pieces, and all the while keeping an eye on the unifying whole. I suggest using a loop as a pattern.

Envision a circuit. Picture a studio with several projects in various stages of completion. Or maybe it is not a studio but an open field. Maybe it is the desert. Whatever comes to mind. Line up your various pieces and ideas out there: Your performance-art work, your writing, your punk band, your painting, your jobs. Make a path that links them and walk that path. Go to the project that speaks to you at the time, but water them all. Attend to them all. At times, you may simply go and contemplate a project. That is OK. Your attention is like water. It is like love. It keeps the project breathing while it awaits your hands.

You don’t have to stay with one project until it’s entirely finished. You can move from thing to thing. But line the things up so that as you are moving around, you are moving in a circuit of your creations. Each time you come back to the next thing, it’s at a stage where you can work on it and move it forward. In that way, you can finish things and keep them moving forward. You will eventually finish certain things. Others may languish for years. That is OK. Finish what you can finish. Just don’t turn away from anything in despair. It all has meaning.

At the same time, while you do this, in your spare time, study form.

Concentrate on mastering the basics of any form you work in. The novel, for instance: Master the elemental truths of the novel as a form. Go back to basics. Take a look at what the novelist Jane Smiley did when she got stuck. She read 100 novels and asked herself, what are these things? How do they work? What defines them? She wrote 100 Ways of Looking at the Novel. She got down to basics and defined what a novel is at its most elemental. It is “a lengthy written prose narrative with a protagonist.” That’s all. But that’s a lot. The implications of that small statement are immense.

So learn as much as you can about form. Use what you learn to make your pieces cohere.

I sense that you are an extravert, a courageous and in-your-face kind of person, probably an ESFP with an unusually strong intuitive side. It’s vitally important for you to be alive in the moment and impassioned, and you want to share this passion with others. Also, you are physical, tactile. That is your sensing preference. So you need to be doing the stuff. You do your thinking by doing. That’s OK. Because you have a strong intuitive sense (you are probably on the cusp of sensing/intuitive) you can envision and take in nonmaterial ideas.

Creative people are often unbalanced in our talents. We can take steps to moderate our tendency not to finish things. That is one main reason why I created Finishing School — to help those of us who are impassioned and live in the moment but also want to make lasting work. By creating a structure in which we can be just as crazy as we like, we get things finished.

For some people, often those of the “J” persuasion, finishing is the driving motive. For others, the “P’s” among us, the process is the driving motive. For folks like you and me, in the moment of working, it doesn’t matter to us that much whether we finish. Later it does, though. And it matters a great deal to the world, to our audience. So we come upon the dividing point where the creative person must choose between selfishness and service. If we just want to fuck around then we can fuck around and we enjoy it but we are of no use to anyone else. They can’t understand what we are saying because we are not finishing our statements. So we have to supplement our weaker, anarchic, process-oriented, in-the-moment-and-fuck-the-results side. We have to consciously build a structure that ensures we end up finishing things in spite of our tendencies to wander off mid-song.

This requires both finesse and faith.

Since your strong side is the inspiration side, concentrate on building up your conceptual side. This may take a little bit of make-believe; that is, you may have to conjure up a story about each work that is not perhaps entirely literally true. It is a hypothesis that can guide you in making decisions. Ask, What is this piece? What is its thesis? If you are racing around New York on a bicycle doing naked performance art in dive bars, what is the thesis statement of this activity? What might it be? What is the conceptual framework? Might it be a critique of bourgeoise society? Might it be a celebration of the Dionysian? Might it be about being a woman, or unleashing the power of the body? Try to think in terms of a thesis so that you can make decisions about what goes in and what stays out, and so you can decide when the piece is finished. If you know what the thesis is, then you can say the work is finished when it adequately states the thesis.

You may say, well, people should understand the work anyway, in all its inscrutability. Well, maybe they should. But they won’t. Not unless you give them some framework in which to “understand” it. Now, of course, “understand” is in quotes because it is only a rough equivalent of what actually happens when people apperceive a work; it is the cognitive, expressible side. The other, ineffable side is there too. The mystery doesn’t disappear just because we conceive the work within a hypothesis.

Creating a thesis for a work also provides a basis for deciding various crucial elements. For instance: Do I want to smear bicycle chain grease on my nipples or not? Would that add to the meaning or detract? Would it create a richer pattern or would it seem random? Would it be sexually exploitive of yourself as a woman? And speaking of being sexually exploitive, why nipples? Why not on your face, as a warrior? Or on your biceps?

Another way to deal with these apparently incommensurate forays into various art forms is to conceive of your life as the actual project, or canvas. In that sense, what unifies these various activities? They spring from one unique consciousness; together, they define a person. So ask what are the major themes of your life and how do these activities express those themes? Wandering? Seeking? Rebellion? Break down those themes into their constituents and find correspondences. For instance, where has wandering been synonymous with rebellion? When has rebellion provided answers to what you were seeking? See if you can draw lines — it may help to do this visually — between these themes; look for equivalences and synonymous relationships, and also for the contradictions: Where has rebellion led to confinement? Where has seeking led to emptiness and wandering to stasis? These dualities constitute another ordering principle by which you can bring these various artistic endeavors into a conceptual whole.

That whole is your life.

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Dating rules

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Cary’s classic column from

Is it possible to go out with two women at the same time and get away with it?


Dear Cary,

I’m in a bind: After going a couple of years without a serious relationship, I recently met two very cool women in the course of two days. Gal No. 1 is smart, funny, confident, good-looking and slightly counterculture. Gal No. 2 is smart, witty, lighthearted, self-deprecating and a little bit kooky. On a shallow level, I find No. 1 just a little bit more physically attractive.

As I met them at essentially the same time, I thought it would be OK to get to know them both. I had enjoyable e-mail and then phone relationships, and then had very nice dinners with each. No. 1 is open but taking it as it comes; No. 2 seems to be more proactively interested in me. I might be a slightly better personality match with No. 2, but I really don’t know either one of them well enough to say that with conviction.

In the event that everything continues to proceed well, is there any general time limit or number of dates by which I should get on the stick and make a decision? I’m not the kind of guy who feels OK about simultaneously dating two women, and the last thing I want to do is hurt someone’s feelings. Is it totally stupid to be swayed by the attractiveness of No. 1 even though No. 2 and I get on very well? I’m in my early 40s (as are both women) but feel like a dumb, naive high school kid. I don’t want to screw this up. Help!

Conflicted

OnlineWorkshopAug6

Dear Conflicted,

Does God exist? If God does not exist, then this is random nature at work, which means that randomness can be as kind as it can be cruel, which means that consciousness has no monopoly on agape. I see no reason why you should feel compelled to tamper with nature. On the other hand, if God does exist, then God has put these two women into your life for some unseen but no doubt lofty purpose — not the least of which might be the beneficial effects of certain fantastic imaginings that may occur to you. God, if he exists, is not altogether without a sense of humor.

So what to do? Do whatever you feel like doing. Leave it up to the women. Don’t try to control everything or be super cagey about it. Just lay it out there. Say that you met two women at the same time and you’re currently dating both of them. Say that such a situation has never happened to you before, and you don’t know where it’s going to lead and you don’t want to do anything rash, dishonest or hurtful, so you’re just laying it out there.

I don’t think that you have any great responsibility beyond just saying what’s going on. In fact, I would hesitate to try to spin it in any particular direction, because that could backfire; the minute you start trying to spin, you enter the realm of unintended consequences. You really have no way of knowing how it’s going to end up.

But if the totally Zen approach is a little much, and you’d feel better guiding the conversation toward some definable options, you might ask each woman if she has entertained any notions of your relationship becoming serious enough to warrant the easing out of the other. In other words, try to find out if either of these women is thinking seriously about you.

You might also remind these women that you are a man, and thus completely without guile or cleverness, and that if they think you’re cooking this up as some kind of manipulation, they vastly overestimate you. Remind them that you don’t particularly relish the difficulties it poses.

I don’t think you have much to lose by being open about the situation. I do not think that either woman will refuse to see you on account of it, although if one does, it probably means that she wasn’t all that into you anyway. If that happens, consider yourself to have been granted a second piece of good fortune: It relieves you not only of the burden of a difficult choice, but of the potential heartache of a futile courtship.

So, again, I say, just let go of the outcome and explain the situation. Nothing bad can come of it.

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My boyfriend lied about his debts and now he’s couch surfing

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Cary’s classic column from

But he’s an artist. Should I boot him?


Dear Cary,

My boyfriend and I have been together for over a year — my longest and best male/male relationship. Right before we met, he quit his lucrative job in retail to go back to school in photography, a longtime passion. He simplified his life: he bought a motorcycle outright, moved into a cheap downtown apartment and got a part-time job that would be flexible with his class schedule. I think this was brave and admirable. He made the right decision, such is his obvious talent. He’s 31 and I’m only 25, we’re both artists, and both getting started in our careers.

A month ago he came to me and told me that he’d incurred some reasonably large debts, and that he was being evicted from his apartment. He cried through most of the discussion. He’d known about the debts (some was money due to the IRS for a year, some was more recent) and hadn’t told me. In fact, he’d hidden them from me. When I first heard of the “possible but unlikely” eviction, he attributed the trouble to a party we’d thrown at his place that had upset the neighbors — a party I’d thrown for my birthday. But he was evicted for simply not paying his rent. His lies (he says he never lied, just didn’t offer the information) were instantly forgiven. His raw emotion took me over (I love this man!) and I switched into my “solve it” mode.

One month later, most of his stuff is in storage and he splits his time between living with me and driving his now impractical motorcycle 35 miles to his family’s home and sleeping on the couch. I live with a roommate and — though I feel guilty about it — I haven’t told him of my boyfriend’s eviction because I’m afraid he’ll be angry and say he doesn’t want to live with two roommates (which he’d have every right to say). My boyfriend allowed me to plan a $1,200 vacation to visit my family, so now he owes me money he can’t really afford to pay back either (I feel guilty taking his money when I know he still owes a landlord). Basically, I feel guilty all the time.

After four years living in a big city and making just enough money to survive, I’m finally making enough to go to out to dinner every now and then. But this relationship is financially draining me. My credit card debt has grown to a level it’s never been at before, and I’m making more money than ever. I love this man and I know he’s being sincere when he says if the roles were reversed he’d take care of me in any way he possibly could. But I can’t have him living with me in this situation and I feel guilty when I make him drive to a house I know he hates. Worst of all, he just doesn’t get it. He thinks, with all his heart, that love conquers all. How can I make him understand that this is tough for me, too, when things are absolutely 100 percent tougher for him right now? Am I just a selfish person?

Selfish and/or Guilty

OnlineWorkshopAug6

Dear Selfish and/or Guilty,

You feel guilty because you’re doing something wrong. Isn’t that wonderfully simple? You’re allowing this person to lie to you, steal from you and mistreat you. It’s wrong to allow that. You know it’s wrong to allow it. That’s why you feel guilty. You’re not helping anyone by letting it continue. On the contrary, allowing him to continue makes you an accomplice. Standing up for yourself in such a situation is the farthest thing from selfish: It’s a selfless act of courage, a gift to the world. If you stand up for yourself, you stand up for your roommate and for your families. When you stand up for yourself you stand up for us all. You stand up for the weak, the elderly, the frightened, the codependent. You set an example of strength, moral clarity and courage. You add to the store of goodness in the world. You teach others by example. Even for your boyfriend: By standing up to him, you also stand up for him — for the good part of him who needs to know that what he’s doing is wrong, and can only lead to debasement.

It was courageous of him to go back to school and follow his talent. But it’s wrong of him to lie about his debts and become a mooch. His art can only suffer. If he quit a lucrative job to go back to school, he’s going to have to learn to live cheaply on his own. He already has an obvious problem telling the truth about money. Do not play into it. Do not feed this problem of his.

Do not think of what you personally may lose. Think of all the other people he is manipulating, and act on their behalf, not your own. The only power he has over you is your fear that if you stand up to him you will lose him. That is your weakness. You must think in larger terms: of your very self, your pride, your sense of fairness to others, your place in the world of family and roommates and friends.

Being a creative person does not mean that right and wrong do not apply to you. Because you have a larger, more profound gift for the world does not mean you get your bread for free. We should not pamper our artists and our stars. The more we pamper those we admire, the more we rob them of their belonging in the world, the more we feed their addictions, the more we blind them and render them ignorant, and thus destroy their ability to tell the truth through their art.

So do us all a favor. Stop letting this guy walk all over you. Tell him to pay his debts and get a place of his own.

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Should I sue for workers’ compensation?

 

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Dear Cary,

I recently hurt myself at work and was forced to take a few months off. I received worker’s compensation but it didn’t cover my bills and I ended up burning through my savings. Still, I was happy just to have all my physical therapy paid for. Then worker’s compensation denied me any more sessions of PT despite my physical therapist and the doctor (they made me go to) insisting that I needed more.

Because of this I was forced to go back to work in order to keep up with my bills. My doctor recently appealed the decision made by worker’s comp and asked for twelve more sessions of PT. They gave me four instead. My physical therapist did not express high hopes for my speedy recovery. In addition, I’m not thrilled with how my work has handled the situation. I was a good employee. I never called in sick and I often covered for those that did. My boss has also failed to keep any of her promises to me (and other employees) pertaining to days off or what holidays we get off and I’ve always just gritted my teeth and gone to work like I was asked.

While I was stuck at home she made aggressive comments to my co-workers about how I was “on vacation” and trying to prolong coming back to work. I feel betrayed and angry. Many of my friends are pushing me to sue worker’s compensation and my work. Part of me thinks that it’s unnecessarily mean, but part of me thinks they deserve it. My injury is pretty apparent and makes my life hell. I can’t even make a bed or put on shoes easily. I’m especially frustrated because I was promised a full recovery by now from the doctor if I followed his instructions. I did everything that was asked of me that I could. What should I do?

Injured

OnlineWorkshopAug6

Dear Injured,

The person you need to talk to is a workers’ compensation lawyer. I suggest you call a few and have some free brief conversations. You can pick up a lot in a free brief conversation. A lawyer won’t tell you in a brief conversation whether to sue or not. She won’t have enough facts to advise you on that. But you will learn some things. You will learn how much it would probably cost. You will learn some of the options.

It sounds like there are two issues. One is your injury. The other is how your company is handling vacation and holiday pay. If your company is cheating its employees out of money they are legally entitled to, that is a legal issue, too. But only a lawyer could advise you properly.

It would be great if you had a slam-dunk case. You probably don’t have a slam-dunk case. A slam-dunk case would be if you were in an iron lung and your boss poured hot oil on your face. Or if your boss made you wash her windows 20 stories up and you fell because she slammed the window on your hands. Or if your company has never paid any holiday pay or vacation pay to anyone, or has persisted in a blatant disregard for the rules over a long period of time after being repeatedly warned. It’s probably not like that.

It’s probably more like a gray area where the company isn’t being so great but then isn’t necessarily breaking the law either, or is breaking the law in a way that is hard to prove. Only a lawyer could tell you that.

That’s my advice about whether to sue or not. Talk to lawyers. They’re the experts.

I have some other advice, of a more general sort. I think you need to realize that you are being exploited. That’s not necessarily a terrible thing. We’re all being exploited, willingly, when we work for money. What I mean is that you represent labor in the marketplace. You are selling your labor. The exchange is market-driven, not morality-driven or ethics-driven. You are not in a personal relationship with your boss and your company, and your company does not necessarily reward you for good citizenship. This doesn’t mean that the people at your workplace are evil. They are just doing what is natural in their situation. They are maximizing their profits by minimizing the amount of money that goes out of the company.

Now, maximizing short-term profits in this way may turn out to be counterproductive in the long run. In the long run they might do better if all the employees at the company loved working there and felt that they were being treated in a way that is ethically and morally sound. But bosses and owners don’t always think that way. And even if they were treating you very well, it wouldn’t mean that your relationship is personal, ethical and moral. It would mean that they made a business decision that doing things that seem ethical and moral is better for long-term profits.

Being a good citizen is not necessarily rewarded in the workplace. Things that are rewarded in a workplace are: Making money for the company, and making your bosses feel good. Bosses will sometimes keep people around if they make them feel good even if they are not making the company a lot of money because bosses are human and don’t always go by the numbers. Conversely, bosses will sometimes keep people around who make money for the company even if they don’t like their behavior. But they don’t often keep people around and treat them well just because they are good citizens and show up on time.

That’s just something to think about.

Talk to some lawyers. It might be worth it to pay a reasonable fee to have your case reviewed in detail. At least then you would be able to make an informed decision.

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Parents in a pickle

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Cary’s classic column from

Our son has asked us to be cool toward the parents of his ex-girlfriend. Should we do what he wants?


Dear Cary,

My college-age son just went through a nasty breakup with his girlfriend, which was largely due to her treating him incredibly poorly. I saw it unfold, and, though I have a bias, I know that he was mature in the situation and it was she who acted out of character.

The problem is that, socially, we run into the girl’s parents quite often. My wife and I were already quite nervous about this situation, especially since they, most likely, do not know the details of the breakup as we do. My wife and I had discussed it, and thought it may be best to just act like nothing has changed when we see them.

But then my son made a strange request: He asked that we act coldly toward them. In his own words, “Don’t be mean, just don’t be nice.” It seems he’s trying to send a message to their daughter through us. While I feel this request is a bit out of line, my allegiance, of course, lies with my son.

So how should we act?

Polite Parent in a Pickle

Cary Tennis Writing Retreat in France

Dear Polite Parent,

I think you should act decently toward the parents of the girl, since they have done nothing to you. What your son is really asking for, in his oblique way, is not so much that you treat her parents a certain way, but that you reassure him of your loyalty to him, and give him no reason to doubt that loyalty. He may be afraid that you’ll hear a different side of the story and turn against him. Indeed, he may have exaggerated certain of her wrongs and covered up his own, and may be afraid that if his errors come to light, he will lose your support. So more than anything he needs to know that you are on his side. So reassure him. Tell him there’s nothing to worry about.

You know your son’s degree of maturity better than I do, and you know what kind of relationship you have. So I would leave it up to you how far to take the conversation. Some parents might find it an opportunity to discuss the principle involved — that though you support him and are on his side, you have to observe certain boundaries. Others may intuit that such a conversation would just confuse him, or undermine the basic message you are trying to give him. Maybe all he needs right now is your emotional support. You must be the judge of that. In any case, try not to get drawn into either committing or refusing to commit any specific act of social warfare. Just find some way to show him that in his moment of vulnerability and hurt, you’re on his side.

When we’ve been hurt, the hurt is sometimes compounded by a feeling that we are powerless to strike back and thus feel humiliated. So naturally one would dream of having the powerful figures in one’s life — one’s parents — do the bidding of a wounded ego, much as a wounded country might send its army to bomb the wrong country. Part of growing up is understanding that such wishes are best not acted on.

I would suggest that when you see her parents, ask them if they are aware of what happened between their daughter and your son, and suggest to them that it sounded like a very painful breakup. Ideally, you and the girl’s parents, as adults capable of dealing with the difficult truth about things beyond your control, could talk with compassion and understanding about what happened between your kids. Shake your heads, commiserate and move on. Though you may feel his pain as heartily as if it were your own, you cannot fight his battle for him.

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WhatHappenedNextCall

I do everything last-minute. Does that make me a bad person?

 

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Hi Cary,
 
I’ve had a problem for most of my life of being a procrastinator.  When I was younger, I just thought that’s how it was.  I did well in school but I’d usually wait until the last minute to do my assignments.  When I got into college, I was intimidated and sometimes started earlier and worked harder.  Then, when I made good grades, I slipped back into doing things last-minute.  Sometimes these things turned out well and sometimes not so well, but I graduated with mostly good grades.
 
When I got out into the working world, I followed much the same pattern.  I would talk about work and worry about work and procrastinate around work, but I still wouldn’t really work until I had to.  So my work has never been as good as it could be.  I went to counselors about it.  One gave me the typical time management advice to break projects down into small pieces, work for short periods of time, and so forth.  Another counselor told me I was bored and should do something more stimulating.  But I didn’t know what might be more stimulating and I needed a paycheck, so I stayed where I was.
 
I liked writing and wrote fiction part time, but I would never totally complete something.  I get close and then lose interest.
 
A few years ago I got to retire early because the place I worked was offering buyouts.  It wasn’t a lot of money, but my husband had already retired and between us we had a good income.  I got involved with some hobbies and volunteer activities, but I still have the same problem.  There are things I need to do, that I realize it would be to my benefit to do, but on some level I don’t want to do them and I can’t make myself.  Such items might be turning in volunteer paperwork or keeping an area of my home tidy that drives me crazy because it’s such a mess.  I try making plans and schedules, setting a timer and working for just 20 minutes, and so on, but nothing really works.  If there’s no hard deadline, I won’t do the task, and more and more, I won’t do the task even if there is a hard deadline.  It’s very frustrating when I feel at odds with myself.  Part of me sees the benefits of doing the task but another part says, “You can’t make me.”  I’m tired of this issue.  What am I, five years old?  I’m retired for god’s sake!
 
Any thoughts?
 
Kathy

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Dear Kathy,

What would happen if you just let it go? Would the whole world fall apart? Why not find out? Why not start by telling people about your limitations?

I’ve done this before. I’ve said to people, you know, I know myself pretty well, and I’m probably not going to fill out that form and send it in, so really, you might want to just not give it to me.

You might get some guff, of course, and some funny looks, and some things might not get done. But lots of things aren’t getting done anyway. They’re not getting done, plus you’re torturing yourself.

OK, lets do this but with a safety net. Write down the few absolute necessary paperwork things. Pay medical insurance? Pay DMV fees? Pay bills? Who pays the bills, you or your husband? If he pays the bills, then you are probably not in danger of screwing up anything major if you just heave a big sigh of self-acceptance and start not doing stuff. If you are responsible, though, for life-giving chores like paying medical insurance or the mortgage, then just list those few things. Then, if you can manage that, or if you’re already doing that OK, then just do that. If not, have somebody else do them. Like your husband.

And let the rest of it go!

Isn’t that better than torturing yourself? Let it go. Lower your expectations. You’re retired.

I think it’s funny that the time-management people told you to break things down into small chunks and it didn’t work. That’s what I would have said, too. Obviously that doesn’t work for everybody. Maybe you genuinely don’t want to do this stuff. Had you considered that?

Maybe you have been doing stuff you really don’t want to do and what this is telling you is that you have to actually change your life. Getting better at filling out forms is not going to help. You need to change your life. The conversation you have in your head is a big clue. The side of you who says, “You can’t make me” has a grievance. You need to listen to her. I’ll bet she has been belittled all her life and made fun of because she’s not super organized and efficient. Well, she needs some loving care. She needs to be cut some slack. She has value, too. She’s the one who writes your stories and walks around in the woods. She’s also the one who looks at the way we live and work today and says, “Phooey. Who needs it?”

She’s got a point. So cut her some slack. Next time you have this inner conversation, let her speak. Let her say more than just “You can’t make me.” Hear her out. She’s put up with bullshit for a long time but now she’s in rebellion. I say let her rebel. Listen to her. She has wisdom. She’s a neglected part of yourself.

Perhaps she is spontaneous and every time you make plans a little part of her dies. It’s OK to not like to make plans. Maybe you don’t want really want to be a volunteer. Being a volunteer and making plans and sticking to the program may be killing a vital part of you that needs to be heard.

So stop trying to change yourself. Instead, try to be yourself. Hear yourself. Honor yourself. You will be OK. Some things may fall apart. That’s OK. Let them. It’s not the end of the world.

Be yourself. Enjoy retirement. Let it go.

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Stolen words

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Cary’s classic column from

My boss uses what I write in e-mails as his own. What should I do about it?


Dear Cary,

I’m an in-house copywriter/creative director with a small technical company, working for a boss whose communications skills, to put it delicately, are not his greatest asset. Lately I learned he’s been passing off my writing (not ad or brochure copy, just conversational e-mails on internal issues) as his own. I’ll write him a note on a topic, and later on that same note will land in my in box as part of a forwarded e-mail conversation chain — only now the note has his name on it. It’s happened several times that I know of.

I’ve always thought of him as a fundamentally decent fellow, and I sense he does this more for expediency’s sake (“Why bother rewriting this opinion that I share, when I’ve got this version sitting here?”) than to lay claim to my thoughts and words. Still, they are my thoughts and words, and I worry that by keeping my name out of these conversations he’s limiting my ability to benefit from people’s reactions to my ideas. Besides, I’m a writer: Even within the quasi-professional forum of interoffice e-mails, it feels like plagiarism.

Am I overreacting? And if not, should I confront him?

Accidental Ghostwriter

Cary Tennis Writing Retreat in France

Dear Ghostwriter,

Here are some suggestions: Stop giving your boss great lines that he can use and call his own. Do your job on the brochures and the official stuff, but stop giving him stuff for free. If there are people you want to impress with your ideas, send your ideas directly to those people. Or if there’s a discussion you’re having with your boss and you can predict that it’s going to widen to include others, if you suspect he’s going to steal your material, suggest that that you include those people to whom he’s likely to send your material. Ask, what other interested stakeholders are there? You know, act like you care.

Either suggest they be included, or just cc them as though you thought that was the normal thing to do, since you know they’re interested parties.

Don’t be telling your boss not to cop your copy. He won’t get it. He’ll just think you’re being a pain.

You might also review just what you were hired for. Did you get a job description? Did anybody ever tell you what your job was? There is probably some expectation that you provide “other written materials.” These e-mails could be considered other written materials. You just want credit for it, right? So I’d find some way to let others know where it’s coming from — like, by cc’ing them before your boss steals your stuff.

And I would beware of your own personal motives that are tripping you up, too. Hey, I know about this: You want to do a great job of writing e-mails because that’s what you are. After all, you’re a writer. So you could be tricking yourself into giving your stuff away because you’re so damned good and you can’t help it, and you can’t help trying to impress your boss. I know what it’s like to be a writer. It doesn’t matter who the audience is. You’re still going to sweat over a few sentences until they’re perfect.

Bosses in non-media companies are so weird. They have no idea what it’s like to be a writer. They are just so weird. How do they even get through the day without being able to communicate?

Who knows. But they do. I guess they do it by hiring people like you.

Don’t pick a fight with him, but don’t be a sap!

WhatHappenedNextCall

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Can I help the handyman who sleeps on a cot?

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, AUG 20, 2009

This guy in our neighborhood has it rough, but I need to maintain clear boundaries


Dear Cary,

A neighbor of mine needs help. He is effectively homeless, although I think he might have a cot of some sort in another neighbor’s garage. He works as a handyman around the neighborhood, including doing yard work for my family when we need it.

He also sometimes needs money immediately. In the past he has offered to sell us something of little value (which we refused), although recently he asked for $20 and insisted he could pay us back the next day (which he did). A few days ago he and I discussed his coming by to clean out our gutters and we agreed on a price. Last night he stopped by to ask if he could have a $10 advance, which I turned down because I did not have any cash on me.

He is also sometimes late or a no-show (like today) for the appointed time to work. He doesn’t have a phone so I can’t contact him when this happens. I am not a hard-ass when it comes to schedules but I can’t let the dog out when I expect him. I have tried in the past to leave a note for him if he was late and I needed to leave for some reason, but I believe he might be illiterate.

I really want to help him, and that feeling scares me. I believe he has some history of substance abuse and that he might not be in recovery now, in part because until about seven years ago most of my relationships were codependent ones with substance abusers. I recognize the feelings of being pulled in that direction with him.
I try really hard to make my exchanges with him about business. I have established boundaries for our transactions and I try to treat him as I would any contractor, although I sometimes pay him more than his services are worth. But I feel pulled to continue lending him money when he needs it, which I would never do with a contractor. I also would probably terminate a relationship with a contractor who is so often a no-show and so hard to communicate with.

I sometimes think about doing something substantial to get him on the right footing, like giving him a no-interest loan to buy a new lawn mower or even just giving him a small stipend to water our lawn twice a week. I think about looking for an organization that is designed to help him. I also consider the possibility of explaining to him how to manage his money and time better myself. I don’t do any of this because I fear that I’ll end up being an enabler again.

My question is: How do I know the right thing to do? How do I know when it is OK to help someone like him in a way that won’t pull me into the kind of fucked-up involvements I had in the past? Is there anything I can do to help this person beyond just paying him for the jobs he shows up to do?

Thanks,

A Former Enabler

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Dear Former Enabler,

I pay attention to coincidence. The first two letters I received this morning concerned the chaotic lives of others and our perceived obligations to them, how we can help and yet avoid entanglement. So I am going to trust that there is some sense in following this.

Here’s how I see it. There’s this guy in your neighborhood. He’s kind of a handyman. He kind of lives somewhere but not always. He’s not all that dependable but he’s around. He can clean out your gutters and mow your lawn and sometimes he asks for money and sometimes pays it back. He can’t really put a long-term plan together and carry it out. But he’s around. Sometimes you think, wow, ought to do something about that guy. Ought to fix him.

That’s where you get into trouble, right? You think, Oh, if I do this for him, then …
Forget the then part. Just do things and let it go. Transactions with him may be “wavy.” They’re not clean and straight and to the penny. His deal is a wavy thing. Times are approximate. Stuff gets done sort of and sometimes it doesn’t get done or it’s confusing or surprising and sometimes you have to redo it but sometimes he’ll hit his stride and outdo himself and it’s amazing. Maybe it’s something you didn’t even want done but it’s still amazing! Something will come over a guy like that in the course of building a gate and it’ll turn out to be the best gate on the block … except maybe it has this one hinge that’s crooked where his mind wandered. He was thinking — as he does from time to time — about why his life didn’t turn out just a little more together, with some money in the bank, a dependable car, something to look forward to and something to fall back on. He’s still scuffling for a dollar. He’ll get by. But he doesn’t have that comfort thing. He’s got a cot in somebody’s garage … and as he is thinking of these things he mismeasures for the hinge and it goes on crooked because it’s getting late in the day and he’s tired and he doesn’t want to start over.

To what extent are we responsible for others? This guy is not a social experiment, he is a member of your community. Do you give this guy respect, do you regard him not as a problem to be solved but as a member of your community, do you respect the stubbornly incommensurate facts of his existence?

A guy with a cot in somebody’s garage may be sad to some. Maybe somebody will get him a room in a house. Then for a while he’ll be a guy with a room in a house. Then maybe he won’t have the room in a house anymore. Some people will say, “Things didn’t work out,” or “Things changed.” They’ll say he’s a guy with a cot in a garage and he had a room in a house for a while but now he’s just got that cot in the garage but he’ll mow your lawn or do some painting, just be careful he doesn’t let the dogs out because he’s not always paying attention, and if you lend him money he’ll usually pay you back but maybe not always but it’s never that much money … but last week he showed up at the house kind of late at night and maybe he’d been drinking but we couldn’t smell anything but he wanted $10 but I didn’t have $10 so I sent him away and I probably should have, like, told him that he shouldn’t be just dropping in on us at almost 10 o’clock at night asking for money but I felt sorry for him and maybe he was hungry but we didn’t want to ask him in, we were getting ready for bed.

People will say he does “inappropriate things.” How bad is “inappropriate”? He’s a guy with a cot in somebody’s garage.

You are on the right track. You know the territory. You have the tools and the understanding to avoid being sucked into this guy’s life. Just do what you’re doing. Set boundaries and be clear about what you’re willing to lose. Don’t wait around for him longer than you want to. If he shows up late and you’ve left already, well, that’s the way it goes. Consider anything you lend to him a gift. Be ready to let it go, whatever your intentions are for it. If he should lose what you give him or sell it for cash, consider it a gift to him.

Give him things but do not give him things with strings attached. It’s the strings that are the problem. If you are giving with strings attached, then you are letting yourself in for disappointment. Give because you want to give, and are willing to give, and have the money to give.

The man with a cot in somebody’s garage stirs many things in us. You wonder: Does he know he stirs all this stuff up in us? Does he know? Is he manipulating us? To what extent?

I have seen firsthand down South how the privileged and the dispossessed who have lived shoulder to shoulder for so many generations manipulate each other and jockey for position to the very limits of their assigned roles. I have observed firsthand the veiled and coded power struggles between still-privileged semi-rural ex-plantation-owner upper-class whites and still-somewhat-indentured blacks living marginal lives of casually enforced servitude. I have seen this. It is of course gravely rooted in political wrongs not just in the past but in the present, but each case is also a personal story of human beings working out what is acceptable and what can they get away with and what can they bear within the confines of their fate. It is people playing the hand they have been dealt. Each thinks about outsmarting the other. They spend decades outsmarting each other. I have seen this with my own eyes and know that it is not simple. It may look simple from outside but it is not simple if you live there. If you go there and think, I am going to fix this situation by giving this man a no-interest loan to buy a lawn mower and start a stable lawn-care business … woe betide you.

You seem to know this. I sense I am just reinforcing what you already know. So use your instincts, and use what you know, and you will be fine.

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I’m having trouble trusting my new boyfriend


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Dear Cary,

I am writing to you in the hope that you can help me sort out my life, such as it is. I am a woman in her late thirties, though I look much younger. Who knows how long that will be the case, which is one of many issues clouding my mind and keeping me up at night.

I met a man last year; we started as “friends,” though we slept together the first time we met. We were both getting over being mistreated in various ways by previous partners, and kept it light for a while. However, after almost a year of spending weeks on end together (I wasn’t working and he works from home), we realized it was working out despite itself and made it official.

Things changed a lot when finances dictated he move home to his parents’ house, but he still makes an effort to see me regularly, almost always twice a week. It is more difficult to be alone or engage in physicality, but we make it work and enjoy each others’ company a lot. He texts me good morning and good evening almost every night and in general, it’s working out.

The main problem is that I have not been able to trust him. I trust that he is not seeing anyone else, but I don’t trust that he truly wants me. He is definitely more reticent than I am used to, he doesn’t compliment me but when I mentioned it, he said that the real compliment (and the reassurance that I needed) was to be found in the way that he is still eager to see me and that it has lasted so long.

He seems to be missing the point, that I wish he could just once tell me I am pretty, or that he wants me physically.

I know that he does want me, in that there has been no sign that sex between us is less interesting or that he is just seeing me for convenience’s sake. In fact, I have never met anyone who was less likely to do me wrong or misrepresent himself in order to avoid conflict. I have never found him in a lie, not in all this time.

I should add that before we met, I was in a long-term situation with someone who was extremely manipulative and cruel, who trampled my self-esteem and used me to feel powerful due to his own perceived inadequacies. I spent that whole time in growing despair and confusion. If I hadn’t met my current friend, I may never have escaped because the previous one was heavily invested in keeping me around. I really lucked out in finding the new man.

I know that he is stressed and worried over the state of his life. I am also in a similar position, and the idea that there are many things more important than this is not lost on me. However, I live with the fear that I will lose this, the best thing I’ve ever found, due to timing and life issues. I get the feeling that this will be my fault, in the way of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

How can I learn to trust him? If I can’t trust him, I can’t trust anyone. I love this man. I don’t want my problems to create additional stress for him. I just wish he could try a little to reassure me on the physical level, which he deems unimportant but without which I feel constantly insecure.

Trying Not To Mess This Up

Dear Trying Not To Mess This Up,

You may think that if only he would show more affection, you would feel more trust. But that’s not guaranteed.

What if he starts telling you you’re beautiful and desirable and that he thinks about you all the time and wants you and finds you attractive and irresistible? Will that solve the trust problem?

That depends. Maybe you really don’t trust him for good reasons. Maybe you sense that he is being dishonest with you. Sometimes we pick up on things, or read people’s micro-expressions, and we are actually picking up on something that is real. In that case, if you can get him to be more demonstrative in his affection, it may only be helping you to be more blind to what is really going on. It may be your way of unconsciously asking him to lie to you better.

So don’t automatically distrust your distrust. On the other hand, part of your distrust probably has to do not with his behavior but with your own recent experiences. Because of that, you may be overly alert to signs of dishonesty. So it will be important to notice if certain things are triggering you just because they remind you of past experiences. For instance, if your former partner used to show up late because he was fooling around with someone else, then if your new friend is late, it might trigger the suspicion that he’s fooling around with someone else. That would be an instance in which your prior experience is triggering distrust that has nothing to do with the present. So you would need to know. You might need to ask your current lover, if he is late, if he was fooling around with someone else. Just bring it to the surface and make it explicit. Then you and he can joke about it. If he knows that your fears are triggered by certain things, then he can be sensitive to this. He can perhaps know not to take it personally.So you need to know what is really going on.

I’m not suggesting that you accuse him of cheating on you. I’m suggesting that you get it out in the open, whatever it is you’re talking about, what you’re concerned about. Just get it out in the open.

And what about you? Are you completely reliable yourself? It’s a two-way street. Can he ask you about that? Can you admit that sometimes you might think of doing things you would want to hide from him? He has to trust you as well.

If you just level with each other about what you really think about and what you really want, you can get more intimate. It may be that asking him to tell you you are beautiful is a way of becoming less intimate, because you are asking him to be inauthentic. Maybe that’s just not his way. On the other hand, out of love, we do things for the other person that we’re not totally comfortable with.

And we live in a culture that has imbued us with certain fairy tales. We can play with these fairy tales but they are fairy tales. The beautiful maiden and the strong, loyal man are fairy tales. They exist in us, and they are real and powerful archetypes, but they can also be distorted and used against us by cynical advertisers and despots; they can be used against us to keep us powerless, like children. So it is not a simple matter. Your desire to be told you are beautiful is not a simple matter.

I think you and he have to get to the deeper issues in order to truly feel trust between you. That means examining and revealing your weaknesses to each other. What if you to say to him, “I know it may seem shallow, but I really feel I need to be adored as a woman; I need to know that you find me beautiful.”? What if he did not adore you in that way? What if you are not as beautiful as you wish to be? What then? Is that a death sentence? Could you live with that? Would you renounce him if he were to admit to you that he does not have these feelings? What if this is not a storybook romance? What if it is something else, a bond of love, of two desperate souls, of two people unsure just how honest and unguarded they can be with each other?

Wouldn’t trust grow out of knowing the truth? Why not ask him to tell you the truth? Why not take that courageous leap and see if you can handle the truth from him, if you can love his truth, who he is, how he genuinely feels? And likewise, he must love your truth, the real you, the one who needs to be told she is beautiful.

There is nothing wrong with play-acting. But if he feels that he is unable to be authentic with you then that will lessen his love. Because what the soul longs for in love is to be authentic. We wish to be, in front of the lover, the person we truly are, and we wish to be accepted for being that person. What you need from him is not a canned expression of a culturally determined value but something unique, from the heart, something true about why he is with you.

What you need is the truth.
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A good mother

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Cary’s classic column from

I have four kids, so should I break with my sometimes violent boyfriend?


Dear Cary,

I’m a mother of four: three preteen boys from my marriage at the tender age of 19, and a 3-year-old daughter with my current live-in boyfriend. Here’s the deal. I had a lot of sex in my 20s, a lot of boyfriends, and was basically irresponsible. I was married young to my first real boyfriend. He left us when I was 21. Insecurity and immaturity and an endless pursuit for a father for my kids led to a string of real losers. I’m not talking about boring guys or guys who worked sporadically — I mean losers: drug addicts, criminals, men who wanted a free place to live, etc.

And the sex was good, on-the-edge porno-type fucking. When I was 26 I moved 3,000 miles away and started again. I met my current boyfriend, who was sweet, worked hard, and seemed to love me. He was younger, but I was immature, so it worked. He isn’t passionate, though — he doesn’t like to kiss, and he’s sexually selfish, preferring a blow job to the “extra effort” it takes to have sex, there’s minimal foreplay, and his sex drive makes sex every three weeks the best possible scenario.

A couple of years ago my father died, and suddenly I had a moment of clarity and from that moment on my kids have come before anyone or anything else in my life. I must have done something right, because I couldn’t have asked for better kids. They are compassionate, kind, and funny. My boyfriend cares for my sons and tries to show them in his way — which is usually by correcting them and being strict. He is an excellent father to our daughter. He takes on 50 percent or more of her care, gives her attention, and basically loves her to pieces. My ex-husband was remarried two years ago; since the marriage he has paid child support and asks for the boys to visit each summer. It’s fun for them, and I’m supportive of their need to develop that relationship. He was young, I was young, people make mistakes.

Here is my dilemma. I love my boyfriend, but am not in love with him. I was sooo in love when we moved in together, but when I had my growing-up incident a few years ago, I saw him in a different light. His angry outbursts pissed me off more. I was pregnant and since that time, I have often thought about leaving him, but then I look at all the changes he has made, and he tries so hard, and that makes me love and appreciate him, because I’ve met so many people who never try. In the past four years he has completed one degree and is working on another while working full time and making time for the family. He doesn’t drink, go out to the bars, or leave me wondering where he is at night. We have had episodes where there has been some physical violence. He grew up in a violent home. I put it off as the stress of being in a relationship with me, a bunch of kids, my jealousy, whatever.

He’s worked through that and sought some outside help. He doesn’t cheat on me. I’ve already had the experience of raising small people on my own and seeing their sad faces ask me for a father. I also hate thinking I had found one and then realizing that he’s kind of a dick to them — I mean, couldn’t he balance the discipline with some fun? My daughter has her father: Should that be my No. 1 priority? Do people have happy lives without good sex lives? If I told anyone that he has hit me before, they would automatically tell me to leave.

Have you heard of anyone working successfully through something like that? I have worked long and hard to make something of myself and provide a decent life for my children. I have overcome my own selfish, self-centered nature. I have prayed, cried and grown strong. I love my kids and feel that they have enriched my life so much. I love watching them grow and play.

I don’t need him, but I am afraid that I just feel that way because he is around and if he left I would revert to that person I used to be, and what if the next guy was worse? He wants to get married. If we broke up, I’m pretty sure that would be the end of my love life. I don’t think I want to go through the dating process or the having another man in my house process or the introducing my kids to another guy process. Nope, I think I’d be done, but who knows, maybe I’d become a total nympho again?

A Good Mother

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Dear Good Mother,

I recommend that you make as amicable a split as possible with your boyfriend. Support him in his desire to keep close ties with his daughter, but free yourself and your sons from his oppressive yoke.

This is not an easy conclusion to reach. No matter what you do or do not do, someone is probably going to be unhappy with you. So you have to be firm and think of the next five or 10 years. What I’m thinking is that making some difficult changes now will improve your chances for a happy and secure future, and reduce some long-term risk to you and your children.

It’s not an open-and-shut case. As you say, some people will claim that if he’s ever hit you, even once, you have to leave him and that’s that. But abusers can and do change, and there are sometimes core economic and family issues to consider. So I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion that you must leave him because he hit you. Others would say that fatherhood and the family unit are sacred bonds that should not be severed under any circumstances. Again, although fathers have certain rights to their children, and children need stability in their homes, I don’t believe that you have to keep mother and father together 100 percent of the time.

It seems more a question of what brings the least harm and the most benefit to the most people.

Sometimes removing a “strict” father who is a source of fear and repression can be a good thing for a child. Those three boys may be absorbing from him a regime of intimidation and implied violence that will make it very difficult for them to live happy, peaceful lives as adults. You might go so far as to say that they are undergoing a process of slow spirit death, the steady banking of boundless rage. The conflict between him and your three sons will only get worse as they become teens and assert their manhood. Dangerous, traumatic and violent clashes could lie ahead. They will question his right, as simply a boyfriend or stepfather, to assert his authority over them; he in turn, unable to accept their challenge to his authority, may find himself striking out with fiendish cruelty, while justifying his violence as necessary to maintain order.

“It’s for their own good,” he’ll say, and by then the damage will be done. Such conflict could make you own life a living hell throughout their teenage years and damage your relationship with your sons for years afterwards. If he became a violent tyrant and you did not protect your sons from him, they would resent you and feel betrayed and abandoned. On the flipside, if you side with your sons against your boyfriend, his violence against you may erupt anew.

So I really think, hard as it is, that you should act now to remove him from your house and try to put in place a system of visitation that works over the long term.

If you find yourself concerned that leaving your boyfriend means depriving your sons of the discipline they need, consider this: While discipline is important, it’s confusing if only one parent is strict. Kids need to internalize a dependable standard of conduct against which to measure their own actions. If you and your boyfriend differ greatly in your strictness, your children may conclude that standards of conduct have no inherent validity but depend on the whims of whatever authority figure is enforcing them. That is a lesson that allows for criminal thinking: The standard of conduct becomes whatever they can get away with. They need to know that there is a standard of conduct that is always applicable. Even if it’s just you making the rules, even if you’re not a great enforcer, at least they’ll know what the rules are.

I sense that you have at times led a chaotic and impulsive life, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing: At least you are powerfully alive; you are not meek or cowering; you have a vibrant lust for experience, for ecstasy, for sensation and emotion. You may be a creative type who has not yet found her art, a deeply passionate person who simply has to learn how to direct and regulate her energies. Another reason I think you should move away from this man is that if he is a controlling type, you and he will come into sharper conflict as you begin to exert or sublimate your libidinous, expressive energies into other forms — music, dance or art, perhaps, forms that may threaten his need for control.

I think you will be OK on your own. You say you fear that without this powerful, authoritarian man in your life you may regress into sexual compulsion. I don’t think that’s likely, not if your kids remain your focus. That moment of clarity you had when your father died sounds like a significant, life-changing moment to me. I’m guessing it was about more than simply putting your kids first. I think you may have had a kind of vision, a visceral and highly personal awakening to the sacredness of life and the value of innocence, and the deep importance of primal bonds. If it has caused you to begin to think hard about your choices, it has changed you in a deep and permanent way.

Do not fear change. It is better to try to achieve something good than it is to try to avoid something bad. Both paths have risks, but only one can lead to happiness. So do not simply coast along thinking maybe this is as good as it gets. This is not as good as it gets. It gets much better than this. You need only the courage to act. Take strength in knowing you have come a long way and you are doing the right thing.

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