Who’s that woman I saw my father with?

Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, AUG 30, 2004
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I’m afraid she’s a gold digger. Besides, it’s too soon after Mom’s death for Dad to have a girlfriend.


Dear Cary,

I am 24 years old and currently attending graduate school in fine art. About a year ago, my mother died from breast cancer after fighting the terrible disease for seven years. I was in another state attending school when complications led my mother to her final hours. I tried to get home as soon as I could, but she passed on while I was traveling home. I regret so much that I wasn’t there to say goodbye.

Time has passed and my family has moved on. My mother died while we were moving to another city because my father had found a new job, and both my parents were in the process of building a new home. My family now lives in the home my mother designed while she was alive. I am not there most of the time due to graduate school, and both my younger brothers are in college, which leaves my father alone for most of the year. He is a physician and is doing well for himself currently. I was worried about him being alone for the first time. My parents were married for over 30 years and my dad is in his 60s, and still very active physically. However, he said he could take care of himself. My brothers and I promised we would visit as much as we can.

Class is out now and I returned home for summer vacation as well as to care for my father. For the first time, I have noticed something different about my father. He is forgetting to pay his bills and return calls to people. He is also forgetting simple things like closing the front door, closing the garage, and even the front door of his car. I thought that he was losing his memory due to his age, but then I noticed while I was checking the phone bill that he keeps calling a certain number. I also noticed that while on the phone he keeps mentioning phrases like “I keep thinking of you,” “like to keep seeing you,” and finally “I love you.” That last phrase got to me and now I realize that he is seeing a woman for the first time. Memory loss now looks like love. He is currently going to Las Vegas for a conference in October and on his reservation form I read the name of the woman who is going to be staying with him. Now I am devastated by this.

My brothers and I have never seen this woman and among all of us, we don’t know anything. I do suspect one woman I saw him with at church, though I don’t have any proof that she is the one. But if she is, this woman is recently divorced and living with her mother, who has heart disease. I saw her less than livable living conditions while my father drove to her house after church with the excuse he wanted to get some food she was talking about to him. At that time, he went inside her house and left me in the car.

If the relationship is so serious, why hasn’t my dad told his own children? I am beginning to suspect bad things about this woman now, whoever she is. My father is a doctor and I know women will go to a man like him out of lust and greed. The last thing I want is my father being in a relationship with a woman who wants nothing but money out of him. I am still wondering why he is being so secretive about it. Should I confront him about my findings? Or should I let him tell my brothers and me about it in his own time? Or is it really none of my business? I don’t think I could control my emotions should he tell me he’s getting married sometime and he’s never even told his children about it in the first place.

I am still recovering from my mother’s death and it hurts a lot that he can proclaim love to a woman other than my mother, for what just seems to be weeks. I’m not sure what to do.

Not Looking for a Stepmother

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Dear Not Looking for a Stepmother,

Rather than confront him about what you have observed, I would suggest that you find some time to sit down and have a searching, open-ended conversation with your father. Ask him about the future, what he imagines doing, what he wants from his kids as the years go on, how he sees the next 20 years unfolding. Does he want to stay in this house his wife designed? How does it feel to be in this house now? Does it remind him too much of her? Does it make him sad or happy? Does he feel content there or vaguely lost? Ask him about grieving, whether he has some support in his grief, whether he’s talking to any counselors during this time. Since he is a physician, he is probably acquainted with psychiatrists, and since he is a churchgoing man, he knows where he can turn for spiritual guidance as well. Ask him if he has talked about his feelings with anyone. Ask him if he would like it if you tried to locate near him, so you could see him often. Ask him how he feels about his sons and their plans. Does he feel lost and lonely without his children around him, or is he in some ways grateful to have some time to himself. Ask him lots of questions. Ask him if he’s got a girlfriend. Ask him if he’s thought about remarrying.

Tell him things as well. Tell him that if he should have a girlfriend or decide to marry or is thinking about marrying that it’s OK with you. Tell him the only thing that would hurt you is if you didn’t know. Tell him not to worry, that his kids are strong and doing well and mostly grown up. Tell him he doesn’t have to shield his kids from the truth. Tell him part of the reason you’re saying these things is that you’re not over losing your mother yet, and you need to feel close to your father. Tell him how you feel about having been so far away when she died. Tell him how hard you tried to get there on time. Ask him if he missed you and wished you’d made it.

Oh, there are so many things you could talk about. I know fathers are hard to talk to sometimes, and as they get older they tend to drift a little, and they get tired and need a glass of water or just a drive in the car. But again, this is what I would suggest: Have a searching, open-ended conversation with your father; seek to know and understand but not control.

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How can I help my grieving daughter-in-law?

Cary’s classic column from

 

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I feel awful there isn’t more I can do


 

Dear Cary,

I always appreciate your philosophical approach to helping people reflect on their problems, and I am interested in hearing your thoughts on mine. How does one support another in grief? I actually am pretty good, I think, in the short run, in the immediate aftermath. I’m a good listener, I share my good memories of the deceased, I don’t try to downplay the pain or offer platitudes, and I do my best to sound out and anticipate what is actually needed rather than just lamely saying, “If you need anything …” which puts the burden on the grieving person to ask for help, and I try to use my own experience of grieving when my parents died to support others. But in the long run, I’m not sure what is right.

Almost three years ago, my daughter-in-law’s younger brother died in a tragic accident when he was only 20. I never realized the kind of void that’s created by the death of a young person. Suddenly, all of the assumptions about the future are destroyed. Even my husband and I, though we barely knew the young man (in part because we assumed that we had all the time in the world to get to know him) had to adjust the future we imagined — in which he was the uncle of our future grandchildren and the father of their cousins. For my daughter-in-law, it has been devastating, made worse, I think, by her feeling that it was supposed to be her job to take care of her little brother, and not ever let anything bad happen to him. She was in no way responsible for his fatal accident.

My son has told both my husband and our other son, that she is still “having a hard time.” She is in therapy. She does function well. She has a job, she has hobbies, and she and my son have a reasonably active social life. But at the same time, I know she is still grieving, and I’m sure at some level always will. When our other son got married recently, I could tell that she was having a hard time holding it together during some of the wedding festivities. My son told my husband that she was sad thinking about how she would never be at her own brother’s wedding.

I don’t avoid talking about her brother, I have a photograph of her and her brother displayed in our home, at the wedding of my other son I put my arm around her as she cried (but, of course, many of us were in tears — it was a wedding, after all), and once recently when we were having a family get-together and I could tell she was trying to keep from crying I went over to her quietly and said, “You look so sad, I wish I could do something for you.” She didn’t say anything — I couldn’t tell if she thought I was being intrusive or not.

The anniversary of her brother’s death is coming up soon. It is made more difficult by the fact that it is near her birthday, and the birthdays of many in the family. Additionally, his birthday falls on a holiday. So, again, my question is, how do I support her in her grief? Do I write a letter saying I remember the anniversary of his death and that I know she is still grieving? I know I am powerless in the face of death but I still want to do something. I want to be there for her.

Sad, Too

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Dear Sad, Too,

Well, for starters, I must thank you for what you said about not saying, “If you need anything …” That is very insightful. When we are clobbered by grief, we don’t know what we need or how to ask for it. If an elbow is proffered maybe we lean on it. But if we had to say, “Would you please proffer your elbow so I may lean on it, because I’m grieving and it would make me feel better, even though technically I am able to stand and walk just fine …” well, that just is not likely to happen.

Sometimes a helping hand, extended without being requested, and without being mentioned, is about the sweetest, most helpful and touching thing one could want. And knowing how to do that is a beautiful thing.

You have a great grasp of the essentials — that when one is grieving one needs support in ways one doesn’t expect to need support, and in ways that are hard to ask for. One needs support without a lot of to-do.

As I read through the rest of your letter, I honestly don’t think I have much to add. You’re handling it very well. But here is one thing I can think of that may help in the long term: Just never forget. She may be grieving for a long time; let her grieve as long as she grieves. There may come a time when other people have moved on and yet she is still raw. Three years from now, five years from now, a decade from now, everyone else may have moved on, yet her wound may still be fresh. It takes as long as it takes. Keep doing what you are doing, remain alert to her fragile feelings, and remember that her sadness will last a long time.

You know, when bad things happen sometimes we feel bad for a long time — and that should be the title of a self-help book: “When Bad Things Happen Sometimes We Feel Bad for a Long Time.” By Cary Tennis.

Yeah. I should write that.

Like I said, you’re doing great. There’s not much more you can do. Just keep being human. Just don’t stop. The one thing you can do is remember when others forget.

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My alcoholic father has a child we never knew about

Cary’s classic column from Tuesday, January 22, 2008

 

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Way back when, he gave up rights to the child, but now I want to know my half-sibling.


Dear Cary,

Until a few years ago the only issue I had with my dad was his drinking and resulting behavior. A family member recently uncovered a secret that my dad has been keeping for ages. When he was very young he and another woman, whom he was never married to, had a child. To my understanding my dad tried to provide for that child, but the relationship went sour and the mother asked my dad to sign away legal rights to another man (the person she eventually married and who I believe she is still with today).

My sibling and I have asked questions and have only gotten some answers. My dad is not interested in finding this child, but is not trying to hide from the child’s finding him, either (i.e., he keeps his name listed in the phone book). So, we have a half-sibling out there in the world and have been asked to leave it all alone. My mom supports this notion, stating that doing otherwise would only complicate things (i.e., future family functions or airing the laundry of the past).

I have decided to respectfully leave it alone — for now. My sibling, on the other hand, was for a time on a quest to find this person (with no success as far as I know). When my parents divorce (this is certain) my dad will have a reasonable amount of time to get his life in order and his addiction corrected (i.e., discovering new and healthy coping skills). If he chooses to continue drinking (and I do believe that, to an extent, addiction is a choice), he has been warned that a relationship with me will not be an option. (I’ve carried his weight for too long … I’ve set my boundary.)

Should this be the case, I will then look for the half-sibling because it would no longer “complicate things” due to the ending of contact with my dad. If he gets himself together, however, I will potentially lose this option … unless I go against my dad’s wishes. Knowing that a part of me (my dad) is out there calls to me and nags at me from time to time. (Do I have an entire additional family out there? Am I an aunt? Would I be accepted as part of their family? Rejected as part of “him”?)

Even though my dad has lost just about all respect, I don’t necessarily want to go against his wishes (but at the same time a part of me could give a shit about his wishes). So what do I do? If I do nothing, will the internal nagging go on forever? Do I continue to wait it out to see what my dad does with his life? (As if I haven’t been waiting long enough already!) Or do I go about finding this person because I have some right to know him or her, given our bloodline connection? I realize that this person may not want to be found, and may not want a relationship with other half-siblings, but how am I to know this for sure if I don’t find the person and ask? Any thoughts?

Mesmerized by the Possibilities

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Dear Mesmerized,

A secret in the alcoholic family is like a precious jewel or a newborn child, a thing to marvel at and a cause for rejoicing. I imagine a family gathered around its secrets as though around a warm hearth, celebrating with a birthday cake and candles, passing secrets down through generations like jewelry. Why am I imagining this? I do not fully understand. It is certainly not a literal thing; it is more like a dream. But stick with me here and let us see where this goes.

I note how you calculate the effect of your choices, worrying how people will be affected. I suspect this has much to do with the relationship of a child to her alcoholic father.

Let’s go back a few years. The child of the alcoholic watches his condition. She dreams he will overcome. She tiptoes. She considers her actions carefully, not wanting to hurt the parent or abandon him or draw attention to his frailty, but guarding her flank too, knowing how he can lash out.

She develops theories. She considers whether the parent’s condition is a choice or a sickness. It becomes a central matter, like the existence of God: Is his ailment partly his choice, or is it wholly not of his making? Does he deserve my sympathy and pity or only my scorn?

She conditions her choices on his condition. If he is well, she can move about freely. If the parent seems vulnerable, she reconsiders.

Your concern for how your actions will affect others is nice but it is excessive, and seems to be the legacy of a childhood with a man whose shifts of mood were mercurial and catastrophic.

You had a father who could not be relied upon and trusted, who would not shoulder the burden, who put his burdens on you to carry. He left you resentful and wounded. Step free from this alcoholic father for one precious moment. Make a decision based on your own desire to know. You speak to me of what is right, as if I should know what is right! How am I to know what is right? Something happened in your father’s life and you want to know about it. You want to know your half-sibling. That makes sense to me. It is in fact the only thing in this situation that does make sense to me: You want to know the truth. I want to know the truth, too. That I understand. The feelings of people are something to consider, but in this matter I think you need to honor your desire for the truth.

Oh, people in your family will react. Sure. Of course they will. You can count on people in your family to react. There will be repercussions and effects no matter what you do. Your silence and inaction have their effects as well.

Do what you need to do to know what you need to know. Take up this quest.

I’m aware of the downside. But the upside is that you become a beacon in the room, a ray of light: You broke free. You took some action. You faced a secret.

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I’m not sure I trust him. Is he lying to me?

 

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Hi Cary,

I have a problem, and I don’t know whether it’s with myself or my partner. You have an exceptional understanding of the human mind and soul, so I’m hoping you’ll be able to help me out. 

We’ve been doing distance this past year with the intention of telling our parents that we want to marry soon. The stakes are high because we’re from polar opposite backgrounds, and we both have to go out of our way to placate our families if we want their blessings. I’ve told my siblings, and was all set to tell my parents tomorrow (time constraints: there’s a small window for him to meet my dad. They’ll both be in the same state for a short time very soon) until something funny happened. 

He’s been busy this past week (he is a med school student), so we haven’t been able to talk much. This doesn’t happen often: we Skype/call/chat almost everyday. He also left Friday evening for a road trip with one of his college friends. He was supposed to call me when he got in to their hotel (we’re 12 hours apart). He’s usually good with his promises, but this time he didn’t call. When I texted to tell him I was starting my day and would be busy for the next few hours, he replied that he was sorry and would reach his hotel in an hour. He called in an hour but I was away from my phone attending to the work I had to do. I am boring you with the details because somewhere during this time, I suspected he was lying to me. I have absolutely no proof that he was, and rationally it makes perfect sense to me that he had arrived late. But he has a history of concealing things from me, and I realized some time during these last 12 hours or so that when it comes down to it, I do not entirely trust him. Rationally, I think I do for the most part, but instinctually when he doesn’t answer his phone or something goes awry, I tend to think the worst. For instance, this morning (the day after) I saw that he was online at 11 am his time, but he texted at 12.30 saying that they had just gotten up. There could be a number of explanations for this (like he came online for a second and fell back asleep, he defines ‘just’ very broadly, etc), but my instinct is to explain inconsistencies with dishonesty.

This history in brief: a while after we started dating, he asked for a break. He was graduating from college and didn’t know if our relationship was right given our radically different backgrounds. This upset me. I told him he could have all the space he wanted, but I wasn’t comfortable with us seeing other people while we were away, and if he wanted that we would have to break up. He agreed to the terms, but didn’t tell me when we got back together that he’d kissed a girl while I was away. He told me this a few months after we reunited, when I just found out that he’d also hung out with his ex-girlfriend once when we were dating. Nothing happened, he said, they just went to grab coffee because she insisted. But he hid it from me because ‘(he) knew (I) wouldn’t like it.’ This seemed silly: I wouldn’t have cared that he had coffee with her if he had just told me. The fact that he hid it from me made me suspicious of him, and hurt me deeply. He insisted that the incident with the girl was the only other thing he was hiding from me. 

I was very upset (truthfully, thinking about this still upsets me and I wonder all the time if he was entirely truthful), but we recovered from it okay. Somewhere along the way, we swapped Facebook passwords. I didn’t surveil him but one day while I was on his profile, I saw he received a message from an old flame. It was completely friendly, but I noticed he was curious about her. They replied back and forth once or twice. This unnerved me, and when I obliquely brought up the subject of old flames and openness, he said there was nothing he had to tell me. I asked him if he was absolutely sure there was nothing I’d want to know, and he insisted that there wasn’t. This was after he last admitted to covering things up. This was also while he was messaging her. It felt shady to question him like this, but I also felt shattered and furious. I told him what I knew, and he apologized and said he didn’t know why he had lied. Later, he denied any wrong doing, said that he hadn’t been hiding anything, that he insisted there was nothing to tell me because it hadn’t occurred to him that I might want to know about the messages. I find this hard to believe. I am completely open with him about everything. He isn’t the jealous sort, and doesn’t feel at all bothered by my wishing my ex boyfriend a happy birthday. And while I am clearly insecure about our relationship, I don’t think I’ve ever been irrational or unfair about his past girlfriends or female friends either.

Now I know none of these things constitutes cheating (we were on a break the first time, coffee with an old girlfriend isn’t a big deal in itself, and an innocent Facebook exchange is hardly tantamount to an affair), but he has a slight habit of hiding things. Things that are not inconsequential to me, either. This much I know I can fault him for: the fact that I wouldn’t like his meeting a girl is no excuse not to tell me. In fact, it’s more of a reason to tell me. What I don’t know is whether my suspicions of his faithfulness are fair. Am I being unreasonable for doubting him the way I did earlier today? 

It’s clear at any rate that there is a problem here. While we’re very communicative and generally happy, as soon as communication lapses a little, I get restless and nervous. I don’t know how to address it with him because 1) I’m not sure if this a problem with myself and 2) if not, I don’t know how to get an honest answer from him. If he’s hidden things from me before, what are the odds that he’ll open up to me about any indiscretions right before we talk to our parents? I know he loves and misses me, and wants this to work very much, and he will not want to jeopardize that if he is hiding anything. Is the distance making me paranoid, do I have reason to be this way, or am I a distrusting person? I’m not sure if I can tell my parents about him if I have a serious problem on my hands. 

Please help. 

Sincerely,

Frazzled

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Dear Frazzled,

You know, some of us more or less take it for granted that whenever we are out of sorts, whenever we have a problem with somebody else, the problem, ultimately, is with us. We know that the only way we can live in peace in the world is by accepting the world as it is, and accepting everyone in the world as they are. We recognize that our main problem is not other people, and the state of the world, but our lack of acceptance. Our problem is us. Our problem is our belief that we can and should work to make other people conform to our expectations.

This is huge! Surveilling other people, gauging their behavior, comparing it to our set of expectations and taking action when it threatens to deviate is the dominant mode of interpersonal relationships for many, many couples and families in the United States. And yet it is a recipe for relationship disaster.

This is an opportunity to talk about an alternative.

It’s a radical idea, actually, that when somebody is doing something we don’t like, the problem is with us. It goes against everything we’ve been taught. What we’ve been taught in school and family is that there are standards to uphold, that there are right ways and wrong ways to behave, that there’s a consensus. In this way of thinking, you’re either with the consensus or not with it. If you’re with the consensus, then you have the right — nay, dare I say, the duty! — to place blame on the other person who is not with the consensus; and if you’re not with the consensus, then you have to shape up.

In place of this insistence upon other people conforming to our expectations, I submit that what we need is a deep and abiding reverence for each and every human being.

What we need is reverence for the person. We need that not just as an abstract idea to kick around on blogs and on TV but in our daily lives, with our brothers and sisters, our husbands and wives, our employers and employees, strangers we meet on the streets. We need a little bit of holy wonder. A bit of awe. A bit of awe that you are even in this relationship. A bit of awe that this guy likes you and is interested in spending his life with you.

Now, he could be the wrong guy for you. That’s something you need to decide. You need to weigh your possible future heartache against your tangible present pleasure.

But to get out of this debilitating cycle of worry, try a little experiment.

Try having no expectations of him at all. Just watch what he does. Do this for one week. Take notes.

Observe him in the wild. What do you see? How do you feel about what you see?

Ah, but here’s the rub! You can’t see him because he’s not there! You’re not in the same location! You’re many time zones removed! You’re “doing distance.” You’re in a “long-distance relationship.”

A “long-distance relationship” is not really a relationship. It’s a technological holding cell. It’s a container for a plan. All over the world people are conducting these things they call “long-distance relationships” but they’re not really relationships between humans. They are relationships between machines. The machines are having a relationship with each other, and you’re pushing buttons and footing the bill.

You get nervous when the intervals and rhythms of communication change. Of course you do! Because that’s the only indication you have that this person even exists! That’s not enough! You need him with you. Your body needs him. All your body gets now is the cool glossy feel of a smartphone screen. That’s not enough. You need him to physically be with you.

But aside from all that, for the sake of exploration, let’s say that you are together, and you are still uneasy, and let’s ask: What if you knew that no matter what your boyfriend does, you would be fine? Could you live that way? Could you live knowing that if this relationship works out, great, you and he can be happy together, but if it doesn’t, fine, you are free to make your own life?

What if, in personal relationships, we didn’t care if people live up to our standards at all? What if it didn’t matter? What would happen? What if you didn’t care what he did? What if you just hung out with him because you liked him?

This is a philosophical question based on the premise that in personal relationships, interpersonal harmony is more important than either party’s individual performance against a set of abstract metrics.

In this scenario, love means granting freedom to another person — freedom to be who they are. It means acceptance, not interpersonal policing.

These are the things I think about: How can we increase harmony and decrease conflict? Why do we know so little about each other? Why are our expectations so out of line with what people are really capable of? How can we increase human understanding and decrease conflict? If high ideals and expectations in personal conduct increase conflict, then is the conflict worth it? Is it the kind of conflict that is likely to persist and never be resolved?

There is something to be said, I suppose, in sports and business, for having expectations that are nearly impossible to meet, to force people to strive. But in personal relationships, it is not performance against a set of numerical standards that is important; it is the harmony within the relationship itself. So it would be better for expectations to be in line with performance capabilities. It would be rational for you to reduce your expectations so he can meet them.

But now we’re getting a bit far afield.

Here’s the bottom line.

I see that I just typed, “Here’s the bottom line.” But is there a bottom line? Or is that just another habit of mental laziness, the assumption that, after we have thought about this and that and expressed ourselves and played around with possibilities, that there is some tidy bundle of words that will sum it up?

If that were the case, why not just deliver the tidy bundle of words and ignore the rest?

Because the complicated stuff is what’s interesting!

I’m not going to sum it up.

I sit in my room, thinking these thoughts. They don’t amount to a hill of beans, really, but they have been my thoughts, and now they are yours.
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I found the man of my dreams so late in life!

Cary’s classic column from

Why can’t I get over my bitterness at my bad luck?


 

Dear Cary,

It seems crazy to write you at this time because actually I am happier right now than I’ve ever been in my life. I am engaged to a wonderful man and we are going to be married in the spring. He is 53, handsome, with thick salt-and-pepper hair and a truly sweet nature. I am 45. I’m crazy about him and I never thought we’d end up together. When we met, in 1995, we were both married to other people.

I know it sounds like a convenient coincidence, but both of us really were married to unfaithful, abusive people. When “Tony” and I first found ourselves thrown together, we quickly developed intense feelings for each other, yet when we talked about it, we decided not to act on it. Neither of us wanted an affair, for a lot of reasons. So the years went by and we talked on the phone occasionally, or met for coffee once in awhile. In 1997 I told Tony I couldn’t see him at all anymore — I was trying so hard to make my marriage work. I had two small children (Tony has two children as well, but they’re older) and every time I saw him, I wanted to be near him again and I felt I couldn’t “do the right thing” — i.e., concentrate on my husband.

Well, eventually Tony got divorced, and in 2000 I finally left my abusive husband. Now Tony and I are together, and after dating for several years we have taken the plunge and decided to marry. I can’t believe it finally came true — it’s like a dream. He’s the love of my life and he feels the same way about me. Our kids get along great and each set of kids loves the other person.

So, Cary — why am I writing you? This is why. And dear God, I really want to know whether other people feel the same way. I hope you can tell me. I can’t seem to get over wondering why Tony and I didn’t meet sooner, didn’t have a chance to fall in love and marry sooner, didn’t have a chance to have children together. Here’s something funny for you: We grew up in this midsize Southern city only about three miles away from each other. For the first 25 years of my life, Tony and I never lived more than five miles away from each other. He dated a girl in my neighborhood; I often rode my bike past his house (never knowing). Yet we didn’t meet. In 1989 he was invited to my brother’s wedding, but didn’t attend; he was separated from his wife at the time and could have met me then — I was a bridesmaid. It would have been a perfect time to meet — if we had, we could have married and had children. I have the strangest feeling that Tony and I have crossed paths a hundred times in our lifetimes. Yet we didn’t meet. And by the time we did — and by the time we finally got untangled from our bad marriages — it was too late to have a child together. I know I’m incredibly lucky to have found him at all — most people go their whole lives and don’t feel this.

Cary, I can’t seem to let this go. It hurts so much that I’ll never have this man’s child, that I wasn’t his first wife, that I wasn’t there when he was young, that I was with other people, wasting my time. I find myself HATING the woman he married, who bore him two children and treated him terribly. I happened to see a snapshot of that wedding once, and the image is burned in my brain. Why wasn’t that me? Why aren’t his kids mine? Why aren’t my kids his? Why didn’t we have that wild youth together? Why couldn’t it be me in his arms? Why didn’t we meet sooner? Why? Why? I even find myself, for brief flashes, terribly resenting his younger child for being the daughter of her mother and not of me. It’s breaking my heart. I was taught that God leads you to the “one” you are meant to marry. So why didn’t it happen? Yes — we (hopefully) have 25 years of happiness ahead of us. He says to concentrate on that. So why can’t I let go of the agonizing jealousy, and the wondering why it will never be 50 years together? I can’t stop feeling like it’s sooooo late, and it’s not fair. And how do I get past the jealousy of thinking of him having children with someone else? Please say something to help me get over this. Does anyone else feel this way? I can’t bring myself to ask even my closest friends, for fear that nobody else suffers through this!

In Love With Tony

Dear In Love With Tony,

Some things happen for reasons so random, complex and indeterminate that to question them is fruitless. How could you possibly retrace your childhood to learn why you never met? Your bicycle routes through the neighborhood, your trips to the store, the parties you might both have attended: All that is swept away into the past. It’s tempting to try to retrieve it, as though the past resided in some vast TiVo and could be replayed to pick out the details. Replay that scene again: How close did you come to him there? What were the missed opportunities?

But without an accurate record, we replay the past in our heads and, whether we mean to or not, we refashion it to our liking; each time we replay it, our wishes reshape it until we come to believe what we want to believe — that we really were only a hairsbreadth away from winning the Nobel Prize, that an Olympic gold medal was just beyond our reach, that it was only the barest of chances that prevented us from meeting and marrying the man of our dreams. And then, because we have come to believe that fate has not favored us, the suffering begins: Why, Lord, why? When I was so close?

By this time your feelings, though real, are based on a fiction. You were never really so close to being with this man. It only seems so in retrospect. At the time, you were doing what you had to do, and so was he. There were children to be looked after, and relationships to conclude. You had made some choices that had unexpected consequences, that led to unforeseeable difficulties. You worked through those difficulties. You are now grieving for some lost time. But you did the right thing as long as you could. And now you have found some happiness. Your happiness is tinged with sadness about what might have been. But it is still happiness. Having been through so much, you are perhaps a little greedy for more of this happiness. You think of what life might have been like if this happiness had been there all along. It’s understandable to think of such things. But do not let such thoughts torture you. There is nothing you can do about the past now. Let it be.

Spend some time feeling what you feel and remembering what you remember — not for what it means, but just for what it is. Out of this, a story may emerge that explains what happened. Stories are a kind of mercy. So after looking over your past you tell a story. Perhaps it begins as a polite apology to the present, for being unavoidably detained in the past. Or perhaps you say, “There was a raging storm. It rained for 40 days and 40 nights and then I was rescued.” You say you were held captive as a slave until finally set free by strong hands. You say there was some sorcery involved: A spell was cast over you; you were blinded and could not walk away until one day the spell was lifted and the sun shone and you could see and you walked out of enslavement into freedom. You don’t know why you were enslaved, or who put the spell on you, or why your rescue happened when it did. But now you are free, and grateful. Amazing grace, how sweet the sound. I was lost but now I’m found.

I made out with a jerk

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Cary’s classic column from

We work together and now things are very, very awkward


 

Dear Cary,

Hi. Today I’m working from home because I’m so confused and humiliated about a situation at work that I am taking advantage of this option whenever I can. I started this job about a year ago, as a temp who was quickly hired into a high-powered position. Before that, I dropped out of a Ph.D. program after a year of research in the Third World because I realized the academic life just wasn’t for me. After I came back from life abroad, I couldn’t find work for awhile and just got depressed. Between work, trips to the gym, and finally finding some friends, until a few weeks ago I was rebuilding my life and things were really starting to look up. I was looking forward to a lot of things. I haven’t dated or had sex in almost two years, but I figured that would come. I’m not a supermodel, but I’m good-looking and seem to attract men when I bother to do things that aren’t work or the gym. I’m 31, my situation in life is constantly improving, and a lot of people would be happy to be where I am.

When I started the job, a certain male co-worker caught my eye. We flirted a bit, but nothing serious. We would talk about sci-fi shows and books and generally had really nice interactions. He is 41 and divorced, with several bitter relationships behind him. He’s also a vegan and a self-professed feminist with high social ideals.

A few weeks ago we had a work party at a bar to celebrate a milestone in our year-long project. A few of us stayed late and were having a good time. When I went out for a cigarette, he followed me and kissed me. We spent the rest of the evening making out. It was followed by texts and Skype chats, and an invitation to the symphony. We went, had a great time, and went out for drinks. The subject of us working together came up, since we work in a small office where things could get awkward quickly. I said that we could take it at whatever pace he was comfortable with and see where it could go. So he invited me back to his apartment and sexy time ensued. I was happy and excited, thinking that maybe things were going to move forward in the one part of my life that had been empty for so long.

And then I heard nothing. When I texted him, I got a polite response that his day went well and that I left some jewelry at his place. Nothing more. Then I emailed him to ask if he wanted to get together over the weekend and heard nothing. I saw that he was active on the online dating site that we both have profiles on, but he didn’t answer for days. On a Friday afternoon, he sent me an email saying that he wanted to be good friends. That we could really be great friends, but that was what he was comfortable with. He said he was too busy to tell me in person, but he could drop my jewelry off and spend a few minutes with me before he went to dinner on Sunday. He said he was sorry I would be disappointed. It ended with an exclamation point about how excited he was about it being warm and being able to be outside. There was no real explanation, no apology, no discussion of how this would affect our work. Attempting to keep my dignity, I responded with “Message received. Please leave my jewelry on top of the fridge at work — no one will notice.” There has been little communication since, though when he did leave the jewelry for me, he was a bit chatty in the email, asking how I was. I didn’t respond.

I’m definitely hurt, but I’m angry and most of all confused. How do you go through a year of flirting to change your mind like that? How can he be so cavalier knowing that I’ll be uncomfortable in our workplace? He knew how long it had been for me and he escalated things anyway. The way he went about things and handled this was stupid and cruel. And we have to email each other 10 times a day for work purposes. How do I interact with him after he treated me with so little respect?

A close friend in my office knows what happened, and encourages me to just leave it alone and let it blow over. Part of me thinks that’s the way to get through this with my dignity intact. Part of me wants to send an email that isn’t explosive, but that at least calls him out on his bad behavior. Maybe I should talk to another co-worker for advice. I don’t know what to do, and it’s so much harder to shake off the hurt and anger when we have such close contact all the time. It’s also hard to shake off the feeling that there is something inherently wrong with me that made him change his mind so quickly. My self-esteem, which had been growing, is now at a rock-bottom low. I don’t think I function in the world very well, because I do expect to be treated with respect and kindness by those around me, and I do expect people who profess certain values to live by them.

What was he thinking? Why would he do this to me and to our workplace? Am I the immature one for expecting people to be careful? Is it right to do something or to leave it alone? I’m confused and uncomfortable, Cary, and I would really appreciate your advice.

Confused and Dismayed

Cary Tennis Writing Retreat in France

Dear Confused and Dismayed,

This guy had several bitter relationships behind him. Guys with several bitter relationships behind them are doing something wrong. Look at the pattern.

Here’s what you need to do. You need to adopt some protections for the future so that you do not get involved with another man like this.

Maybe you lack the ability to spot such men. Learn to recognize them. Here are some clues:

Real men who will treat you well may occasionally eat halibut. They might hold the door open for you even if you can get through under your own power anyway. They do it because they’ve seen what happened with Stalin. If that doesn’t make perfect sense that’s OK. It’s meant to be sort of oblique. A man who’s OK and not going to screw you over might even be rude to you but he’ll apologize when it’s pointed out to him. He won’t pretend his rudeness was an instance of high social ideals in action.

He’ll just apologize.

Without beating up on men, because after all I am one, can I just say that if you have been socialized as a man you have learned some pretty rotten stuff? This learning is called “being realistic about the world out there.”

For instance, if I were drinking with a group of young men (which of course I mean I’m 23 years sober but if) and if I mentioned that I had had a one-night stand with a woman at work and had decided I didn’t think it was going to work out long-term, and I was wondering what to do about it, there would not be an immediate outpouring of, “Let’s talk about this together, guys, and put ourselves in her shoes and imagine how she’s feeling and debate the ways you can smooth things over with her and make her feel better about what happened.”

The consensus would be: “Cut her loose, dude. End of story.”

If I were to pursue the issue and say, “Well, guys, what about her feelings, and the awkwardness of it, and the fact I sort of led her on to believe it was going to be more than what it turned out to be?” the consensus would still be, “Shit happens. Cut her loose, dude. End of story.”

If I were to say that I think she and I should have some conversations about how things are going to proceed henceforth, there would be some good-natured ridicule and they would move down to the end of the bar.

Guys are taught to let it go and move on. In a fundamental way, this leads logically to the eventual dehumanization of the other. That is, if you are taught to make unilateral decisions in a relationship, then what you are really doing is invalidating the relationship and in the course of it invalidating the other.

The logic of it looks like this: If one is in a relationship then each person has a say. Ethically speaking, if one is in a relationship, one cannot make decisions about the relationship without the involvement of the other. Yet we guys are taught to do precisely that: to be independent, to make up our own minds, to keep our own counsel, to stand on our own two feet, to lay down the law. That’s what he’s doing. He’s doing what men have been taught to do for centuries. He’s made this decision about the relationship all on his own, without any involvement by you. He probably thinks he’s handling it pretty well. Amazing, isn’t it?

If one person has no say in matters concerning them both, then that is a kind of objectification, isn’t it? To treat someone as having no say, no opinion worth hearing, no desires worth considering, is to consider that person less than human, is it not?

So this is why you’re upset. You have been dehumanized.

Of course, this kind of dehumanization goes on all the time. It is so common that we scarcely pause to consider it. We men are taught to do this. We are taught to dehumanize the other. We don’t call it that. We call it being realistic and grown-up.

He’s the product of bad conditioning. He may also have a mild personality disorder. That doesn’t mean you have to be nice to this guy or like him or feel sorry for him. It just means that his behavior is not inexplicable. It’s a perfect emblem of how we live today. It is a perfect emblem of the society we accept as normal.

That’s why many of us feel half crazy most days.

Don’t trouble yourself too much. You’re fine. You just thought you were dealing with somebody like yourself. You’re not.

You must learn to recognize guys like this and stay away from them. If you can’t recognize guys like this, ask your women friends. If you don’t have any women friends, make some.

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My best friend is now my mom’s best friend

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Cary’s classic column from

What is she doing at my parents’ house when I’m not there?


Dear Cary,

I’ve known my best friend for 22 years, since we were 10. We grew up right across the street from each other. It has been one of those great friendships that weather the seasons in people’s lives when you can’t keep in touch very well: We can always hook right back up as if no time has gone by. She has always been considered a member of the family, and my parents often refer to her as their adopted daughter.

This sounds pretty good, yes? Well, I’ve slowly come to discover that having your best friend unofficially adopted by your parents is a drag.

I think the first incident that ruffled my feathers was when we were in college. We were both going to go on a camping trip with my folks, but her finals were over before mine, so she decided to go ahead and meet up with my folks where they were picking up their new R.V. There are all of these pictures of her “in my place” with my parents and their new R.V. I didn’t say anything about this, though, because I thought it was petty to be a little hurt, and what good would speaking up do anyway?

The next incident revolved around my wedding. As often happens around big events such as weddings, many of our family members lost their minds, so we moved the wedding offshore and the only guests were my best friend and four supportive family members. Not surprisingly, when we returned home I was not on speaking terms with my folks (as they were not among the four). However, my BF continued a relationship with them, stating that she wasn’t the one who was mad at them and that they were also her friends.

I have long since made up with all familial relations and have had a more or less good relationship with the BF I was frustrated that her version of making time for me was to swing by my house for 15 minutes on her way home from work, but on the other hand she was there when my sister “came out” when she was a teenager and all hell broke loose and she came to live with us. And my BF was there the whole 12 hours I was in labor with my second son.

Before I get to the weird BF/mom triangle, I need to add one more angle to the back story: My BF is more like my folks than I will ever be. She is financially conservative and a saver. I buy $50 shoes for no good reason. She finished her undergrad degree in three years and then got a master’s. I took five years to get my B.S. and don’t have a job remotely related to my degree. Her house is always spotless. My house looks like you would expect if two adults, two toddlers, three cats and a dog all lived in 1,400 square feet. She always writes thank-you notes. I haven’t written one for anything received by either of my kids. In other words, she is just like my totally “perfect” parents, and I’m so not.

So, to the Mom + BF = BFF part: My BF was married a year ago July. My mom really stepped up and into the MOTB role on the wedding day because my BF’s mom was too busy getting sloshed. This seemed to create a bond between them. When my BF moved across the state (to be closer to her folks, ironically) she and my mom kept in touch. They e-mail back and forth every couple of weeks, and my BF and her hubby (whom my mom adores, natch) occasionally stay a day or two with my folks when they are on their way out of state — without even calling me to let me know they will be in town. When something significant happens with my BF (like a new job or something bad like an illness) she calls or e-mails my mom. I hear about it secondhand.

I approached my mom about this, and she said that I was being silly and that it is my own fault for not “keeping the conversation going” with my BF like she does. Did I mention that in addition to two toddlers I have two jobs and my husband is in school? Just taking the time to write you is a major luxury.

I can’t seem to get any advice on this because it is the weirdest thing any of my other friends or family have ever heard of. I can’t make the two stop being friends, and at this point I’m uncontrollably jealous at how my folks seem to respect her so much and how they seem to wish that I were more like her. It isn’t her fault that my folks dump this baggage on me, but does she have to condone it by being BFF with my mom? Honestly, I feel like “breaking up” with her. Then again, you can’t just find another 20-year friend on Craigslist.

Third Wheel

Cary Tennis Writing Retreat in France

Dear Third Wheel,

This is about patterns. It’s about the patterns of what you want. It’s about the pattern formed by what you have always wanted and what you will never get and what you will always crave and strive for until you recognize what you are doing. It is about how you will never get what you have always wanted but other people will. Other people will get what you have always wanted, and they hardly even want it at all; they don’t even notice when they’re getting it; they don’t see how desperately you want it and need it. But you do. Or do you? Do you know how desperately you need your parents’ exclusive love? Do you know how desperately you needed them to be there for you when you were a little kid? Do you know how angry you still are at them for not giving you what you needed? Do you know how angry you have to be to exclude your parents from your own wedding, to move it offshore to exclude them? Do you know that you cannot patch this up just on the surface? You have to admit to yourself how hurt you are. This maddening jealousy is about how hurt you are, still, about your friend’s sitting in your seat in the R.V.

It’s about your best friend taking your place. And yet it’s not about that at all. That is, it’s not about who fills the void, it’s about the void itself. There is a void there where you are supposed to be in your parents’ esteem and affection and love and support. There’s an empty seat in the R.V. It’s about the empty seat itself. It’s not about who finally comes along to sit in it. Anyone could sit in it and you would feel the same. You would feel, “That’s my seat!”

This is not about the friendship between your friend and your mom, although that is a subject that could be taken up on its own. If your friend wrote to me about this, I would ask her about her own mother’s alcoholism. There is a story there too. But that is not your story. Your story is about your own unhappiness. If you were not unhappy, what would it matter that your best friend is also close to your parents? That would be a lovely thing, would it not? Would it not, in the most perfect of worlds, be just a warm and loving extension of human friendship to family, a beautiful melding of the familial and the personal? But no, you want something from her that you did not get from your parents, and now instead of giving it to you she’s giving it to them, so it is deeply painful to witness their closeness. You are in competition. You are competing with her for your parents’ love and moreover now you are competing with your parents for her love! You are the odd one out in the triangle. It shouldn’t be that way. If you’d gotten the love you needed originally it wouldn’t be that way.

But you never got what you needed, so it will always be this way. It’s always going to be this way for you until you face this awful, wrenching childhood thing: You are a little empty and will always be a little empty.

It’s not your fault. You didn’t get what you needed when you needed it. So face it and cry it out and scream about it and beat your fists against the wall and then toughen up and be who you are. You are messy and unorganized and impulsive. So fucking what? Who cares? You have the right to be who you are. You don’t have to be like your mom. And being like your mom would never get you what you wanted anyway. Because it’s too late now. You’re not going to get it. That chance is gone. Your chance to get that wonderful, enveloping, loving feeling of being completely the center of some strong, loving mother’s attention, to be the stable center of your parents’ stable lives, to live in the center of their undivided attention just long enough to be given the inner confidence and peace and stability that you see all around you but are not able to attain — that chance is gone. You’re not going to get that. You are who you are now. You have hurts. You have hungers. You need attention and warmth. This need you have is like the need for food. You need it every day.

I’m guessing that this crops up in other areas — in your marriage, with your kids. So here is what you can do. You can recognize that this gnawing hunger is the work of generations. Families send not just their genes but their hungers through the generations. This happens sometimes because of economic and social conditions, illness and poverty, overwork, racism, alcoholism, wars, scarlet fever, malaria, exodus and displacement, survival responses that are appropriate under dire circumstances but otherwise neurotic; it happens because of trauma and abuse, too many children to feed, violence, fear, infant mortality, crippling depression, the myriad devils of the human. And it gets transmitted silently through looks and blows for centuries, through tales and attitudes, through habit and practice, through sheer ineluctable personality.

So when you contemplate this hunger you must see that this hunger is the hunger of generation after generation. You may also recognize that this hunger is in part a spiritual hunger. That is, though it may be rooted in material circumstances, it will not be cured by material circumstances. You just have a need that can’t be filled. You are suffering, that’s all.

So here is what you do: You take your revenge by giving your children what your mother did not give you. You get some therapy and you strengthen yourself. You say to yourself, I am going to get stronger within myself. I am going to identify those hungers that I live with day to day and find ways to fill them day to day. You parent yourself. You give yourself the things you need that others did not and will not give you. You say to yourself, I recognize that every day I wake up and I need more. I will never get enough. I need to be fed every day. That’s just the way it is.

And you recognize that if you do not find a way to take care of yourself in this way, you cannot be of use to others. You do not do this for selfish reasons. You do this for your children.

It is possible that this is not true about you. If it is not true about you, that’s OK. It will be true about someone. That is the way this works. I am speaking from my heart. It is true about me. And it is true about many people I know. So if this is not true about you, it is true about somebody, somebody who is overhearing this and thinking, yes, he is like me, I recognize this hunger.

And if this is not true about you, then surely something like this is true about you. There is something true about your suffering and you must find what it is. You must find the pattern that is true about you, the pattern of your being, the things that you crave and cannot get. That is the pattern that will drive you to keep doing things that make you unhappy. That pattern is what you need to confront. It is your strength if you face it. It is your weakness if you run from it. It is your footprint, your mark, your signature. It is what you are and cannot escape. It is the only thing that matters.

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The beauty economy

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Cary’s classic column from

I was a nerdy frog who became a princess. Now I see the power, but also the price, of being beautiful


Dear Cary,

I have a problem that I can’t talk to many people about, because it’s about one of the most sensitive areas of life: looks. I am writing to you because you see the deep issues behind things that seem shallow, and that’s exactly what I am looking for perspective on. My “problem” is that with a lot of hard work and insanely careful attention to my diet and appearance, I can look conventionally “hot”: tall, blond, bombshell-hot with an hourglass figure. I’m 26 and just working my first real job out of graduate school in a lucrative and arcane field. And I am rather miserable right now.

I’m going to talk about my body, and I hope this does not come across as shallow. I think about my appearance a lot, but I didn’t like to when I was younger … because I used to be unattractive. I never did my hair or makeup, I dressed in dowdy clothing, and I was 20 pounds overweight — not enough to make me clinically obese but definitely enough to edge me out of the “hot” category. I had truly terrible teeth that braces could not much improve. And I had a very large, crooked nose that was due half to genetics and half to a car accident when I was 16. Three years ago I decided to fix it, and I got a beautiful and subtle nose job. And then I pulled out most of my teeth and got tooth implants (medically recommended for jaw problems, though not strictly necessary), straightened my hair, and became a gym maniac to lose the extra weight. I got help dressing more sexily and gained some much-needed confidence.

At first I enjoyed the new attention from men that I suddenly got. At 23 I was getting flirted with by strangers for the first time, getting asked out on dates, and generally getting access to a realm of existence I thought was closed to me forever. And then (no surprise), I regained the weight because of work stress and feeling like I couldn’t mentally deal with the tedium of counting calories. And lo and behold, the quality and quantity of men hitting on me nose-dived. I felt so depressed and worthless, even though I know it’s wrong to base my self-worth on these things. My emotions won’t seem to listen to my good sense.

I’m on a diet right now, successfully losing that weight, and I’m pissed. I am so pissed that I want to scream at men both when they pay attention to me and when they ignore me! In a way, it felt terrible to get all that positive attention when before I was ignored or taunted for my appearance. I was tortured during my school years, bullied and mocked for my looks every day. Everyone is so shallow … and now I beat myself up for being just as shallow as most people. I feel like I can never go out in public without having to think about my appearance, and maybe this is par for the course for women in this society, but I never got used to it at a young age. I used to dress badly because I had such low self-esteem that I thought no one would look at me anyway.

I have nerdily calculated the amount of time I need to spend counting calories (buying healthy food, cooking it, weighing and measuring and recording it and preparing it ahead of time), going to the gym, and doing hair and makeup every day to look my best, i.e., like someone who gets sexual attention from strangers: three hours a day. Sometimes four. Isn’t that ridiculous? I feel like I’m wasting my life doing these things, yet the payoff is addictive: compliments, numbers, dates (without needing to do online dating, just getting approached in real life).

Most people who are unattractive learn to adapt and deal with life that way, and so do most attractive people. I have had the experience of moving dramatically from one end of the spectrum to the other, and I think I’m still reeling from the transformation. Those makeover shows on TV never show this part. I know I will never get more plastic surgery, and that the things I fixed are considered conservative and reasonable in this society. Yet I feel very ambivalent about it all.

Sadly I don’t think I have body dysmorphia or OCD, because the majority of my female friends and acquaintances seem to devote this amount of head space and effort to their appearance. I don’t know how to reconcile myself to my body, my place in society, my gender, and just let go and connect with people lovingly. I used to deny that looks had a lot of importance, but now I know I was in denial because the truth was too painful. Now that I’m much more attractive I can afford to realize how blatantly pretty people are rewarded and how ugly people are punished in this society. It’s horribly unfair, and I feel guilty and disgusted — but not enough to refrain from wearing a low-cut top and flirting to get a discount on something, which never ever happened to me before my surgery.

Are these stupid ego boosts worth spending four hours of my life per day doing things I don’t want to do? In truth I’m nerdy and introverted and prefer to read rather than go to the gym. But I want a boyfriend and that won’t happen if I stay home and never make an effort with my appearance — can you see the crazy thought cycle here? Worst of all is that now I judge men for having a gut or having bad teeth, and I am more attracted to conventionally good-looking guys, who before would never look twice at me. I feel like your readers are going to kill me for saying these things, but I feel like everyone thinks these things and doesn’t say them.

Part of me wants to fast forward to when I’m old and ugly and happy with life and not thinking about this. There’s a lot more to me, but this is the stuff I never say to anyone so here it is, in all its hideous narcissism. Do you have any beautiful thoughts for me?

Sincerely,

Unhappy Swan

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Dear Unhappy Swan,

You have done nothing wrong.

All you have done is take society’s commandments at face value. It is the height of hypocrisy for anyone in the modern West to pretend that female beauty is not a currency spent like money on the streets, in the banks and in the gambling halls.

What foul, disordered, body-hating culture would on the one hand set such a high price on beauty and on the other hand punish a woman for making herself beautiful?

All you have done is observe the truth and respond rationally.

“I know it’s wrong to base my self-worth on these things,” you say. “My emotions won’t seem to listen to my good sense.”

Of course your emotions won’t listen to your good sense. Why should they? Your good sense derives from the moralistic fiction that underlies our astounding hypocrisy about beauty and sex. Forget these abstract values you mention. Who are these people who seem to think that your efforts to make yourself beautiful and thus raise your value in our culture demean you? Who would not want the rewards of beauty? I see no reason to denigrate the work you have done to make yourself beautiful.

I don’t think this is narcissism. The sensible love of one’s own beauty is not a disorder.

What is ugly is our own hypocrisy.

You’ve had a peek into the privileged world of beauty and it’s been unsettling. Your consciousness has been raised. Naturally, the raising of consciousness brings discomfort. So let’s take it a step further.

If you like to nerdily calculate things, I suggest you calculate not only the cost of your beauty in time but the value of your beauty in dollars.

For you have glimpsed the operations of a system we might call the economy of beauty. Goods and services are exchanged, rewards given and withheld, hierarchies established, challenged, reordered and again established. Countries and companies are run, families are made, jobs are given, wealth and property change hands on the basis of this intoxicating thing of beauty.

But rather than operating openly in a regulated market, this economy operates right in front of us, but we pretend it does not exist. In the modeling world, the beauty economy operates aboveground. But in much of the rest of society, is it like the drug economy. It operates soundlessly in the night; transactions are whispered and preparations are made in secret. Yours is the black-market beauty economy.

It’s like everybody is pretending not to smoke pot.

But back to the nitty-gritty monetary value of your hard-earned beauty. What are you worth by the hour? That might sound like a question one would ask a prostitute, and the idea isn’t far off. But what I mean is, What is your time worth as a trained, educated professional person?

How much of that value is due to your beauty? Do you suppose that a contemptibly ugly person with your same skills would occupy your job? Of course not. The only question is, what percentage did your beauty contribute to your employment. That’s not to denigrate your talents, but to simply make an observation. You have seen how things work from both sides. You know this to be true. You’re doing the only rational thing: You’re responding to the market.

The contradictions you experience are not internal; they aren’t due to some moral flaw within you. They are material. They are external to you. They arise naturally out of how we actually live and feel.

Female beauty is not shallow. But it can be short-lived. So my only advice is to revel in this fragile and miraculous thing because it fades so quickly. Catch it while it’s fresh. Take advantage of it now. Enjoy it. Use its power.

After all, you’ve worked very hard for it.

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My stepmom accused my sister of coming on to Dad

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Cary’s classic column from

I think my stepmonster is a borderline personality case


Hi Cary,

I’m writing to you because, much like many of your readers, I have a family dilemma over a decision I’ve made and I’m getting so many different reactions that I don’t know what to do.

The short version is that when I was 16, after my father’s business tanked and all the money was gone, and my mother was left with nothing in the divorce, my father moved across the country to be with an old girlfriend. He tried to take me, but I refused to leave the place I loved and our depressed, often drunk mother whom I dearly loved and refused to abandon in our usual sick, but well-meaning role-reversal. He did take my little sister.

Clearly this is already a dividing event, but the true problems came when his new wife began to show her true colors. An angry, religious bully of a woman, she pushes everyone around to the point that I’m pretty certain she may have borderline personality disorder. She is extremely quick to anger and almost enjoys seeing terror in our faces, making threats but never getting physical. My beautiful younger sister, 14 at the time and the most loving, guileless human I’ve ever known, was very much caught up in this. One day my stepmonster accused this wonderful girl of coming on to our father at the dinner table. My sister kept this secret from me for years and asked me to do the same from others that could help until she was out of that house. As a result, she often hid herself in baggy clothes, spending very little time with our father for fear of being accused again. This is particularly infuriating as our parents had taught us to never be ashamed of our bodies — that being naked and sexual nudity were very different things. Once my sister moved out, I told our mother and the resulting shit storm has caused a serious rift that my father solely blames me for. As a result of his inability to see his culpability in this (what parent doesn’t immediately leave someone that shows no remorse for doing this to their child?), I have decided to no longer speak to him.

When I told him this, he repeated the same things he said to me when I expressed anger at him leaving: that I’d understand when I got older and that I’d “get over it.” I’m 24. Half the family seems to think that he’s just weak and I should pity him, allowing him to take part in my life. The thing is, he hardly ever communicated before. The only things I got before this were cards to me on my birthday or Christmas that he didn’t even sign (she did).

I feel like making it final was important, that he needed to see that his actions had consequences. He can’t just give up on his girls and expect them to love Daddy unconditionally. Others in the family can’t believe that cutting him out is right or that it’s what I need to do to protect myself emotionally. Did I do the right thing? Or is cutting out a parent, no matter how weak-willed or stubborn, the wrong thing to do as a child?

Thanks Cary. Hope you’re well.

Cut Him Out?

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Dear Cut Him Out?,

I think you did the right thing. It was what you needed to do. You did it for yourself.

I don’t think there’s any hard-and-fast rule about never being allowed to cut off contact with a parent. Often it’s something you have to do. It may not last forever. But that’s for you to decide.

This is a hard thing to get but it’s important. Sometimes we have to do things because we are taking care of ourselves. It’s not going to make sense to other people. Other people are going to say that we’re not following the right code of conduct. They will say we owe something to someone. We are going to get all kinds of grief from family members when we do things we have to do that violate the unspoken code. That’s the price of doing what you have to do.

It would be nice if we could all do what everybody else wants us to do. But that’s impossible. Why? Because not everybody wants us to do the same thing. If you do what your dad wants you to, you won’t please your sister. If you do what other family members want … see what I mean?

Conflict is good. There’s no escaping it. We all want different things. We’re in conflict because we’re individuals. Knowing that there is no escaping conflict and disapproval is a good thing. Every time I write something, somebody is going to disagree. No matter how hard I try to be on good terms with everyone I know, not everyone is going to like me.

There are a great many unknowns. That’s an amorphous truth that may seem to mean nothing to some but to certain people in certain situations at certain times can seem quite profound. In a family where many relationships are contingent and shifting, it’s helpful to keep in mind just how much is unknown. So you do what you have to do to keep your own sense of balance and well-being, and you recognize that not everybody is going to love you for it.

It’s also helpful to remember that you’re not teaching your dad a lesson. You’re taking care of yourself.  The family is beyond your power to fix or control. All you can do is take care of yourself and refuse to be drawn in to the craziness.

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I was betrayed by people I trusted

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Cary’s classic column from

I thought they were my friends, but they’ve been laughing at me all this time!


Dear Cary,

About a year ago I found out that five of the people on my campus, including my freshman roommate and a bunch of people I thought were my friends, had been laughing at me behind my back on Facebook — which I’d never used — for months. I found this out when I broke up with my first boyfriend. (He told me under pressure.) Shortly thereafter, I realized that everyone else I’d been friends with at school were his friends, and they stayed his friends. I graduated early, thank God, but it did nothing for me in the end. Some latent psychological issues surfaced right then, and I became every bit that awkward, narrow-minded, ugly and damaged beast they had all seen from the beginning.

Now I am in graduate school. I work a day job so menial that it’s difficult to talk to some people in the academic community. I’m a recently outed gay woman with social skills in the negatives and a face that I can’t make excuses for. To top it all off, I’m 21 and still every bit a sheltered and naive country girl. Everything that was true when it was on Facebook is still true now.

I understand that this is the way things are. I would have experienced a lot of this eventually, bullies or no bullies. I see a therapist, took medicine for a while. But I still feel compelled to isolate myself. I just couldn’t take another incident like this.

But what I really want to know is why, one year later, I’m still thinking about it. Nobody has been able to explain why this one thing haunts me so badly. The best explanation I can think of is that what those friends and acquaintances posted was really close to the truth that I knew and didn’t want to see. But I’ve accepted the truth and I’ve made changes where I could. Is this not enough? What more can I do? Even a jerk ought to be able to shrug off a few Facebook comments after 12 months. Right?

Baker Street

Cary Tennis Writing Retreat in France

Dear Baker Street,

While I’m not a social scientist, I do think about stuff like this, and it seems to me there is a good reason why an experience of betrayal by the group would continue to appear painfully in your thoughts long after its occurrence. I think it is about banishment and exile, about being shunned. It’s not so much about the hurtful words that were said. Nor, I suspect, is it about the truth of what was said. Rather, it is the recognition of banishment. Psychologically, emotionally and indeed organically we depend on the group for survival.

When you leave your family for the first time to live on a college campus, you transfer your dependence and your allegiance from family to social group. So it would seem reasonable to assume that the social group would then be as vital to you, psychologically, as the family was. Your animal nature would perceive the group as the source of shelter and food and protection, just as your family played that role.

So when you find that they have betrayed you, it sets off alarm bells deep in your primitive, survival-oriented self. It’s not that you’ll have nothing to eat, necessarily (although in the dining hall you may find yourself eating alone, guarding your tray like a prisoner does). It is that you have been kicked out, forced to wander. Imagine what it would be like to be literally shunned by all communities, if you had to wander from village to village. Imagine that you had been branded an outcast, and every village you came to, hungry, thirsty and lonely, the villagers would see this ugly brand and turn you away.

Now here is the thing about cosmopolitan society and the modern world. We don’t live in no fucking village. We are free to wander. You can go to California and call yourself Dolly or Nikita. You can be the stranger about whom all one knows is what you tell them. You can go somewhere where nobody sees the mark, or if they see it they do not realize that it is a brand of banishment. They don’t know what it is. It’s just a mark. You can say it’s a birthmark.

That is what we do, those of us who are different. That is what is so merciful about modern technological and postindustrial society: We are free to come and go and define who we are.

Except — and this is the weird thing: Social networking on the Internet seems to be taking us back to the primitive village where everybody knows our business and everybody can see the mark.

So you may have to disappear from the Internet, just as, in former times, you might have found it necessary to disappear from a village in which you had found yourself unjustly shunned and betrayed.

(Isn’t that interesting: While modern cities have long offered the iconoclast a geographic anonymity, the collapse of physical distance brought about by the Internet has put us all in a tiny village with no curtains — a village, incidentally, full of nosy parkers and busybodies! It’s a very annoying place at times, now that our faces are on it!)

That’s the interesting thing to me, anyway: that the technology of social networking seems to be dragging us away from the anonymous cosmopolitan and toward the tribal. I’m not sure I’m so crazy about that. I sort of like the unlimited opportunities of the modern urban situation, where you can come into town and reinvent yourself, as so many of us did in the pre-Internet San Francisco and pre-Internet New York.

So my advice to you: Get off the Net and travel, physically, to an urban setting that loves gay people and is hospitable to outsiders, where you can reinvent yourself on your own terms. And accept the fact that this was a deep and shattering betrayal and it will probably come up in your thoughts from time to time. That’s just the way we work.

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