I survived — now how do I survive my survival?

 

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Cary’s classic column fromWEDNESDAY, JUL 2, 2008

 


Cancer changed everything. I need a new paradigm.


 

Dear Cary,

Please help me figure out how to survive surviving.

Three years ago I was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. After a year of surgery, chemo and radiation, my cancer, for the time being, seems to be at bay. My doctors tell me that this type of cancer cannot be cured, but that I have a 2-in-3 chance of living beyond five years. I’ve come through all of this slightly scarred, and bearing some permanent side effects from my treatment, but otherwise feeling pretty good, at least physically.

My problem is that my entire worldview has radically shifted, and things that were once important to me no longer are. It’s not the first time that I’ve had to figure out a way to reinvent myself, but for the first time in my life, I have no idea what changes I need to make in order to feel better about being alive, and to be happy.

My unhappiness seems to center mostly around my employment. I worked my way up the ladder into a well-paying but dead-end job. For the first time in my life, I haven’t had to work long hours and struggle to make ends meet to provide for my family (I was a single mom). On the other hand, the company I work for is no longer the edgy high-tech firm that it was when I started there 14 years ago. Instead of contributing new ideas and feeling part of a team, I’m stuck, along with everyone else, in a gray cubicle farm. I can work from home if I want to, and I often do, but doing so makes me feel even less a part of the team. Most of the work has lately been outsourced, and many of my favorite co-workers have lost their jobs. I miss my friends, and dread that I could be the next one to go. In the past, this wouldn’t have gotten me down. I would have brushed up my résumé, and perhaps even started proactively looking for another job. But now, I’m petrified to move. I desperately need my health insurance because of my cancer. I’m also physically much weaker now, and just the thought of looking for another job, going to interviews, pounding the pavement, tires me out. In three words: I feel trapped.

Aside from feeling trapped, though, I’m also questioning what I’m doing. After surviving cancer, and knowing just how fragile my hold is on life, I can’t help but wonder if this is really what I want to do with the rest of my life. And even if I can figure out what it is that I want to do next, will someone want to hire a middle-aged cancer survivor?

In my heart of hearts, what I would love to do is to take three or four months off to explore other options, to work on getting my strength and endurance back, perhaps take a class or two. However, I need to keep working. Even with insurance, my medical expenses have eaten away all of my savings, and I have nothing to fall back on. This depression isn’t helping. I’ve lost interest in many of the things that made me happy in the past. And the physical activities that I used to love, like hiking and dancing, I can no longer do.

I’m stuck. How do I get unstuck?

Grateful to Be Alive (I Think)

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Dear Grateful,

What I want to suggest to you is that you find a group of cancer survivors and throw yourself into work with them. Help them cope with the same questions you are coping with. Make this the dominant, driving force in your life. Trust that the other elements will fall into place. If this means continuing to work, for now, in your same gray cubicle, then paint your cubicle pink — or green, or purple, or black if you like! Fill it with flowers. Fill it with sunshine.

You can’t go back to the cubicle and the way things were. You just can’t. It isn’t right. That life is gone. I imagine you in that cubicle, just surviving your days, and it breaks my heart. It breaks my heart not just for you but for the world. The world needs you in the hospitals and living rooms of fellow survivors.

If you can get the sabbatical you so desperately need, take it. If you must continue to work, in your mind let it go. It is no longer the most important thing in your life. It is just a place you spend some time. Throw your energy into helping others like yourself. They need to know how you got through it and what it feels like and how you cope with the questions that arise. They need to know how you get through another day.

So how do you get through another day? That is a good question. Answer it. Ask others how they get through the day. Acquire knowledge about this central question: How does the cancer survivor, whose future is uncertain and whose present is compromised, get through another day?

I think you will find that the answer is circular; that is, you get through the day by helping others get through another day. And, in being circular and tautological, it is partly an impractical act of faith. But the faith involved is a pragmatic faith. It is a pragmatic faith in the workings of deep human community. You will find, if you turn to a life of service, that certain ancient forces of human community coalesce to benefit you. These forces may seem mysterious and full of paradox, but they are real and historical and if we must reduce them to the biological they probably serve some purpose in the continuation of the species. Compassion, agape, selflessness — whether these are evidence of our divinity, our material and social arrangements or our biology, they are dependably awakened in crises and will come to your aid. Open your mind to these forces beyond your conscious understanding. Consider the possibility that this encounter with grave illness has put you in touch with the mystic stream of life itself in its most basic and primal reality.

If you are religious, or mystical, or interested in the arts, or if you have always wanted to sing, or if you are secretly happiest when you are gardening or sewing clothes or doing math problems, turn to these things. Turn to the things that have always given you the greatest happiness. Turn to them because they are a source of joy and joy is a gift to the world. In that way, you will contribute to the world, and you will gain what you need.

At work, if it is possible to cut your hours in half and maintain your medical coverage, do so. If you can take a loan to pay your medical expenses so that you do not have to work full-time, do so. If there are resources at your disposal, such as a house that can be sold or mortgaged over, do so. I know you said you have nothing to fall back on but when you begin asking around unseen resources may emerge. Ask others for help. These years are precious, unique and unrecoverable.

Never before have you been handed such an opportunity to place your life on a new footing. Always you have been working in the system. Always you have been tied down by the struggle to make your payments. These payments are not just checks and cash. We make our payments when we knuckle under. We make our payments when we live in fear. We make our payments when we pretend the emperor is clothed in the finest raiments of the land. We make our payments when we “buy in.”

I want you to stop making payments but I do not want you to do anything crazy.

Well, yes, actually, to be truthful, I suppose I do want you to do something crazy. I do. When we face life in its starkest terms we see that, indeed, our previous life is the life that was crazy. We see that we might have gone on knuckling under for the rest of our lives, still playing the role prescribed for us by people to whom we are just a number.

By suggesting that you stop making your payments, what I mean is, step out of the system as you know it. The system of work as you know it is geared to competition and based in fear. It is based on the premise that there is not enough and that no one is going to help you. There is another way to live, based on the premise that there is indeed enough, and that everyone is going to help you. By helping others, and asking for help, you live in a different system. Try that. Try asking for help, and doing what is right and true instead of what is practical and necessary. Try doing what is important — helping another cancer survivor buy groceries, helping someone who has just been diagnosed figure out what to do next, helping someone after surgery, helping the families of the sick and diagnosed and recovering. Try helping. Try helping, with the assumption — you do not have to call it faith, you can just call it a working assumption — that whether for sociological or psychological or spiritual reasons, the help you give is going to return to you; you are in return going to be helped, and loved, and carried forward.

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My dad left us because he is gay

 
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Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, APR 22, 2005

Why did he spend 18 years with my mom? Did he know all along, or what?


Dear Cary,

Two months ago my dad moved out of the house. For about two years he has been depressed and then he started to have a drinking problem. My mom tried everything. They decided to go to a marriage counselor but my dad didn’t like therapy. All he did was yell at the counselor and tell her that he did not have a problem and that he was not depressed.

Once my dad moved out he was much happier and calmer. With him here it was like walking on pins and needles. The week he left he called every day and then he called three to four times a week. I was confused. If he left then shouldn’t he just leave and not call to see what was going on? He didn’t check in while he was here, so why was he doing it now? He has been gone for two months now and it is so much better here. Me, my mom and my sister are much happier. But when my dad moved out my mom had not worked for 16 years. So she had to find a job and now has a full-time job but she doesn’t earn much money.

It has been really hard for me to adjust to all of these changes but I have managed. But two days ago my mom sat me and my little sister down and told us that she had to be honest with us about something. She said that she and my dad were getting a divorce and that it was not just because of his depression or his drinking. It was because she could not stay married to a gay man. My mom figured this out four months ago but it took her this long to tell me and my sister. They have been married for 18 years. Did he not know that he was gay? If he did know, then why did he get married to my mom? Was he just trying to make it go away? What was he doing? Why now?

Confused Child

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Dear Confused Child,

Those are good questions. I will attempt to answer them. But first I have a question for you: When you ask an adult a question, do you sometimes find that they don’t really answer it, that they talk about something else that you hadn’t brought up, which you weren’t even thinking about or don’t care about?

I seem to remember that happening to me when I was a child. When I asked an adult a question I had generally thought it through. I knew what I was asking. I wanted an answer. But often I was not taken seriously. Sometimes my questions were complicated, and I was often misunderstood. But I was not looking for sympathy or hugs. I was looking for answers. So I will attempt to answer your questions.

Yes, it’s possible that when your father married your mother he did not know he was gay. He may have felt he was a heterosexual man who had occasional homosexual feelings. As you suggest, he may have thought that getting married would make the homosexual feelings go away.

Why now? Well, as you will find out as you get older, the longer one lives with a truth, the more difficult it is to resist it. It’s as though you were holding up a wall. It becomes more and more tiring. You finally give in and let the wall come down.

So why did he call so much after he left? I can think of some reasons. One, of course, is that he loves you. The sound of your voice makes him happy. Also, he wants to continue to contribute to your well-being. Moving out doesn’t change that. Some people might say he feels guilty and is seeking forgiveness. That may be part of it. But it’s not your job right now to forgive him. You may be too angry at him to forgive him or even to want to speak to him. But if he is trying to be helpful, if he is inquiring as to your well-being, it’s OK to talk to him and tell him how you are.

You also ask why, if he’s going to go, he doesn’t simply go and not bother you? It’s a good question. It would simplify things if he were simply gone. But you would probably start to miss him, too, if he never called. It’s better this way, even though it may be upsetting to hear from him right now, because you don’t want to get into the habit of never talking to him.

For you, having to talk to him is probably a lot of work right now. It requires you to come up with a new way of relating to him. But if I were you, I would try to force myself to talk to him, to keep up the habit. You will probably find, as time goes on, that you settle into a new relationship with him and bit by bit you become glad to hear from him. What makes it hard right now, I’m guessing, is the way all your emotions well up when he calls. You may feel angry and sad all at once. You may feel things of an intensity and complexity that you haven’t ever felt before, and that may be frightening to you. It may feel as though you are getting a little crazy. Intense emotions will do that even to the strongest person. But that’s all right; then they pass and you are the same as you were. Your emotions won’t hurt you. They are not your enemy. In fact, if you look at them as a source of strength, they will help you get through this.

I have tried to answer your questions as clearly as I can, without adding a bunch of nonsense. Even so, I have probably said more than I needed to. It’s hard to avoid doing that. The important thing to remember is that your father still loves you, and things will get better. You can depend on that.

 

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I threw my junkie sons out of the house

Dear Cary,

I need clarity surrounding my relationship with my two sons, 25 and 30, who until a month ago resided with me in the house I raised a family in. Both are opioid abusers (and benzodiazepines and nitrous oxide “whip-its” when they can get them) and they have systematically manifested the usual toolkit strengths of addicts … lying, cheating  and stealing repeatedly.

After catching them each in separate thieving episodes within the last month, I finally made them move out. This hurt a lot since I really like them when they’re not using. I suppose it’s their life and their path that they must follow and ultimately it’s up to them to decide to stop using, but how do I go about keeping them close in my heart when their junkie conduct is mostly aimed at victimizing me and ignoring my boundaries?

It feels much calmer and safer to not have them in my house anymore, but it also sometimes feels selfish. Your thoughts?

Fed-up Dad

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Dear Fed-up Dad,

How do you do what is right in the world and also feel good about it? Lots of times you can’t. It’s one or the other.

So which is more important? To do the right thing? Or to feel good about it?

What if we only did the things we feel good about? What if we always said yes? People would take our money and make us live in the street. I mean, you walk down the street and somebody says, I need money, I need a place to live, and you say, OK, I feel so awful when I say no, so here is my money, and here are the keys to my house. Then you’ve got somebody living in your house who doesn’t do the dishes and won’t leave.

If you didn’t grow up with people shooting up in your bathroom while you’re waiting to shave it can be a shock when they take your socks. Where’s my damned socks? you say. Then you get that blank junkie stare, and you realize just how far gone into another moral universe is the soul you were accustomed to encountering in the kitchen.

A good place to learn about this is Al-Anon. That place is full of people with addicts living in their basements and attics, shooting up in the bathroom and cooking meth in the kitchen and stumbling around drunk in the middle of the night where the kids can see them and wonder what the fuck they’re up to. At Al-Anon you’ll find people who have addicts driving their cars and raising their children with them, and sharing their paychecks and their beds, and you’ll hear how they deal with it. Sometimes it’s possible to just throw the addict out but sometimes not. Sometimes the addict is paying the rent, or raising the kids, or maybe you super much love the addict and can’t stand being away from him or her, or maybe you fear physical reprisals if you throw the addict out, or maybe if you throw the addict out you’re afraid he’ll die in prison.

In your case, you did the right thing but it didn’t feel great. I suggest you cultivate the minimal satisfaction that comes of doing the right thing regardless of how it feels.

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Leave me alone!

 
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Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, JUN 15, 2004

Just because I bounced between anorexia and bulimia people think they can comment on what I’m eating.


Dear Cary,

Why won’t people stop watching what I eat? I used to bounce back and forth between anorexia and bulimia in high school. Eight years later, I can finally sit down and eat a steak, have a glass of red wine, even have dessert, and savor every bite without thinking that it’s going to make me balloon into that blueberry girl from Willy Wonka.

I still have some minor food issues. I’m not overweight; I’m a completely normal size. I exercise a normal amount. But I get very irritated when people comment on what I’m eating. My husband went on Atkins a year ago and turned into a total nut case. He started looking at carbs on everything. He’d pick up my soda can and make a face of absolute horror, like he’d just been flashed by Rush Limbaugh. After I told him to shut the hell up a few times, he got the picture and stopped doing it.

But what to do when it’s not someone bound to you by law? What about when it’s someone who holds your livelihood in her calorie-counting little hands? My boss has commented on food I’m eating several times. Once before a meeting, when my entire department was waiting around for someone, I opened a granola bar (other people were eating too) and she said, “Oh, those things are packed with calories. They’re all sugar. I never eat those.” I didn’t really know what to say.

A group of women from my office go to yoga together once a week. I had a bottle of Gatorade, and my boss again said, “Oh, that is so fattening. I never drink that. All those empty calories.” This kind of thing happens a lot, and it really makes me want to force-feed her cheesecake. This woman is a normal size. She’s actually pretty small, and she exercises enough that I wouldn’t think calories should be a problem. But why are my calories a problem? And what do I say to make it clear that I really don’t appreciate it? I’m going to get fired for throwing a Snickers bar at her, right?

Richard Simmons, Leave Me Alone!

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Dear Leave Me Alone,

There are several things you could plausibly say to someone who makes comments about your drinking Gatorade. You could say, “Well, you’re very thin and lovely, and that must be how you do it.”

You could say, “There’s vodka in it.”

You could say, “Have you read ‘The Obesity Myth,’ by Paul Campos?”

Empty flattery, humor and direct engagement are just three of the many ways one can respond to such a statement. But it does depend on what the relationship is like. If it’s your boss, after conjecturing that her refusal to drink Gatorade might account for her preternatural beauty and poise, you might ask her, as a follow-up, if she has recently grown taller — an avenue of discussion to profitably pursue in greater detail when you sit down for your twice-yearly employee evaluation. If she hasn’t gotten taller, you might conjecture, it’s perhaps because she’s just gotten thinner. I, for one, might wonder why she showed such intense interest in my beverage, hypothesize that she had recently had a traumatic experience with Gatorade, and tactfully let the moment pass. Her remark would not, in any case, elevate her in my estimation; it certainly doesn’t make you think, “One day, that woman is going to be a senator!”

While it is always nice to have a smart reply, it’s hard to think on your feet when you feel you’ve been insulted. Why do you feel insulted? You probably feel that your boss is, by indirection, speaking disparagingly about your weight, your food choices and your willpower, as if each of us bears a patriotic duty to fight our appetites, to struggle mightily against our eating even as we slather our very souls in the rich nectar of slaughter and science.

I have felt for some time that the obsession with fat is a peculiar cultural sickness that has to do with feminist struggles, social class, professional anxiety, war, privilege, envy, Protestantism, virtue and capitalism. Fortunately — for those are vague notions at best — FM radio came to the rescue on Sunday in a bit of serendipitous synchronicity that might drive more superstitiously minded thinkers to believe in a higher power. OK, so maybe it was a higher power. Authors Paul Campos and Wendy Shanker, interviewed on Wisconsin Public Radio’s “To the Best of Our Knowledge,” said everything I might have said only better.

Shanker, who wrote “The Fat Girl’s Guide to Life,” spoke eloquently about getting over the whole thing about being fat. She told how one day she got into an elevator and a lady said, in obvious reference to Shanker’s weight, that she herself would have taken the stairs. Rather than absorb the cutting remark in silent shame, she turned to the lady and said, “I wish you had.” That was pretty good. The overall point being, we don’t need to walk around being afraid of being fat. If you’re fat, OK. If you’re thin, OK. Don’t you have some work to do?

And Campos in “The Obesity Myth” says what I had been thinking better than I could: “Thinness has a metaphorical significance in America today,” he writes. “Americans — and especially American elites — value thinness for precisely the same reason someone suffering from anorexia nervosa does: because not eating means not giving in to desire. Strangely, what the American elites consider most desirable is a body whose appearance signals a triumph of the will over desire itself. Thus, bodily virtue is not so much indicated by thinness per se, but rather by an achieved thinness. Ultimately the war on fat is both a cause and a consequence of the transformation of the Protestant work ethic into the American diet ethic.

“The obesity myth thrives in contemporary America because America is an eating-disordered culture. Moreover, the prime symptoms of this situation — our increasing rates of ‘overweight,’ bulimia and anorexia — are also symptoms of, and have become metaphors for, a broader set of cultural anxieties … For upper-class Americans in particular, it’s easier to deal with anxiety about excessive consumption by obsessing about weight, rather than by actually confronting far more serious threats to our social and political health. We may drive environmentally insane SUVs that dump untold tons of hydrocarbons into the atmosphere; we may consume a vastly disproportionate share of the world’s diminishing natural resources; we may support a foreign policy that consists of throwing America’s military weight around without regard to objections from our allies — but at least we don’t eat that extra cookie when it’s offered to us.”

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It’s not my fault

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Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, MAR 19, 2003

I want my husband to write a letter to my future lovers, telling them that the demise of our marriage was his fault.


Dear Cary,

I don’t always agree with you, but I do think you are compassionate and nonjudgmental, two of the most important characteristics for an advice columnist.

Now that I’ve buttered you up, I’m wondering if you can help me. I caught my husband cheating on me (e-mail love letter) a few months after we were married. We had dated for almost four years and were trying to have a baby. I left immediately and he was virtually unrepentant, ready to stay with his new flame, and I swear he acted cheerful, as if I was a worker he had to let go and he wanted to make our unfortunate, yet inevitable, parting of ways as pleasant and professional as possible. I was devastated even more by his callousness than by the shock of seeing the words “I love you” written to another woman. Although that was horrible enough.

Well, here I am four months after this incident and still trying to get over the shock. Then last week, on the phone, he told me his therapist thinks that, because his first wife cheated on him years ago and because his boss/friend died soon before we began dating, he had never really dealt with his grief and therefore started dating me to make me happy, I guess in an effort to avoid dealing with his grief. He said he was just a nice guy who told me he loved me because he wanted to make me happy while subconsciously he was really confused and unhappy. And that our trips to Europe and living together and him proposing on his knees was done to make me happy, while “subconsciously” he was really miserable.

Cary, you’ll have to believe me when I say that he didn’t act like he was miserable. We never fought and rarely argued. I’m considered a good person by all who know me. I’m good-looking — people used to tease him that I was too good for him. Friends and family thought I was great and encouraged our marriage. Our sex life was fine, mostly comfortable but we had our moments up to the end. He liked to flirt, but it was more like joking like a seventh-grader — not very sexual. But he was otherwise stable and I never thought he’d cross the line since he was cheated on by his first wife and knew how that felt. Plus he was always telling me how much he loved me, how lucky he was to have me.

I’m in therapy now for the trauma and even my therapist thinks that it is unusual to come across someone so self-deluded and willing to lie. She doesn’t even see the need to explore my part in the breakup since it is so obviously one-sided. I’m not saying I was perfect but I was trying. I had just committed to make a life with this person while he was off starting something new.

So here’s the thing. I feel like this guy ruined my life, and I want compensation. What I want is for him to write me a sort of reference letter that I can show to future lovers. In it I want him to admit that he was mentally messed up, or whatever, that I am a great person, and that the demise of our marriage was entirely his fault. That he lied to me from start to finish, knowingly or not. I’m afraid that without such proof I’m doomed to look crazy, stupid, or otherwise deserving of such treatment when I tell a prospective boyfriend that my husband cheated on me immediately after marrying me. I feel like I’ve been preyed on by a sexual predator, that he isn’t being punished, and that I have to suffer for being his victim for the rest of my life.

Did you ever read “The French Lieutenant’s Woman”? There’s a part where a guy jilts his betrothed and her father makes him write a public letter admitting his guilt to save her reputation. The story portrays this act as useless and desperate. Is what I’m asking my “husband” to do a waste of time?

More Sinned Against Than — Anything

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Dear Sinned Against,

I am so sorry for what you have gone through. It must have been a terrible shock. I think your idea of getting your husband to write this letter shows that you have a good sense of humor, and I understand the lure of this idea. You have been wronged, and it is natural to want justice. But your quest for justice in this case has a tragicomic aspect to it that I think should warn you away from following through with it. That is, such a letter, if framed, could hang in your office. You could also make copies to hand out to your family and to people you date, and to maitre d’s, store clerks, cab drivers and hairdressers. Should you be arrested, convicted and sent to prison, you could request that it be among the few personal items you are allowed to keep with you in your cell. Should you be sentenced to death, you can, as a last request, read it aloud to those assembled in the execution chamber.

Do you see what I mean? You would only be inviting ridicule of yourself by pursuing such a solution. However understandable an impulse, it is a metaphor, a fantasy. I would suggest instead that you focus on concrete things that you can do, right now, to make life a little better while you live through the shock and grief of this event and try to get on with the rest of your life.

Another way to look at it is that by concentrating on having him do something, you are putting the power for your recovery in the hands of someone who does not have your best interests at heart. You need to concentrate on you, not him. Forget about him. Banish him from your life. He’s dead to you, OK? So stop talking to him on the telephone.
When I say you should concentrate on you, not on him, it may seem that I am implying that you are the guilty party. You’re not the guilty party. But you’re the only one who can recover from what happened to you; you’re the only one who can use what happened to become a better, wiser, stronger person. However blameless you are in his infidelity, your part in this event is the only part that matters now. If your therapist isn’t helping you explore that, I can’t imagine what you’re paying for. A therapist is not someone you hire to prove that you were right. Tell your therapist you want to explore your part in this matter, in order to find some deeper meaning in it. If your therapist doesn’t seem to understand what you mean, I would look for a professional who will help you do that. If you interrogate yourself deeply, with the aid of a therapist, you may learn something invaluable.

For instance, you might discover with some surprise just how very much the judgments of others matter to you. That might be why you fantasize about this exonerating affidavit. It might explain why you mention my being “nonjudgmental” as a qualifying characteristic (which, incidentally, if I may be so bold, kind of ticked me off! I guess you were kidding around, and perhaps I’m a little thin-skinned, but it put me on the defensive). And so you might then explore the role of judgment in your past and future life. It may be that your concern with judgment led you to overlook some things about this man’s character. It might also be leading you to overlook things in yourself. Judging may at times be a way of walling off something in yourself, some dark force, something in yourself you don’t approve of that you need to have power over.

As you explore the role of judging in your life, you may find that you have been using it to hold certain things at bay; you may want to explore new arts that affect you in unexpected ways. There is a rich world of emotion, of blood and sacrifice, of terror and darkness, of ecstasy and abandon, of rage, of passion, of laughter, roiling right below the surface of our daily lives; much of it is neither right nor wrong. If you can bring yourself to acknowledge these things, you may find both relief and a new kind of power that lies in the acceptance of the morally ambiguous.

If you can get some distance on your longing for retribution, your feeling that you’ve been sinned against, and your need for punishment and exoneration, you can be less driven by them and perhaps use them to your benefit. They can drive you crazy, but they can also be powerful attributes if you develop them consciously. They might even lead you to your life’s calling. Perhaps you belong in the realm of justice, as a prosecutor perhaps, or an investigator, or working on behalf of an idealistic organization such as Human Rights Watch.

You mentioned sin. I don’t know if that means you are a religious person, but if you are a Christian, for instance, you know the job of judging your ex-husband is already taken care of. You needn’t fear that the judging won’t get done. It will get done. Just not by you. Therein, too, you may find a kind of relief. Let it go, the whole need to judge him. Let God judge him.

So, reluctant and equivocating judge that I am, my final verdict is: Join an African dance class. Sit in a mud bath. Swim. Take peyote. Buy a dog. Get a therapist who won’t just take your money and tell you that you were right all along. And don’t talk to your ex on the telephone.

Good luck.

 

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I’m finished with my family — but am I free of them?

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Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, OCT 19, 2005T

Is this resolution or abandonment?


Dear Cary:

Thank you, first off, for being a unique voice in a somewhat crude, unsympathetic age.

Here’s my problem in a nutshell: I’ve abandoned my family, and they’ve let me, and I can’t decide whether to let them let me.

I grew up in a family rife with abuse: physical, emotional, sexual. There was active abuse resulting in bruising and bleeding and sobbing. There was passive abuse (some call that neglect) resulting in alienation, fear and self-loathing. Some of it happened to me. Some of it happened around me, and I was powerless to stop it. Some of it I learned about years after the fact.

I grew up and I got out. For the most part, I didn’t look back. I maintained a few ties, but I kept them stretched thin.

I turned 30, and I still couldn’t trust anyone, and I still wanted to die.

I’m a writer, and in the process of sorting through the chaos of my upbringing, I did what writers often do: I wrote about it. Furthermore, I did so publicly, and as myself. I didn’t name any names but my own; but honestly, I wasn’t interested in protecting anyone.

When the family found out, the reaction was uniform outrage. They were incensed that I would air my dirty laundry in such a fashion — that I would air their dirty laundry without consulting them. My response was that they’d had 30 years to bring it up, and they hadn’t. I thought I’d waited long enough before choosing to deal with my past in my own way, on my own terms.

Most interesting is that nobody denied anything I wrote. Nobody owned up to it, either. They were not interested in what had happened. Either that, or they couldn’t allow themselves to face it.

That was five years ago. Today I don’t speak to a single one of my relations. Some days I feel desolate. Some days I feel free. Most days I realize that my plan worked, whether I would admit that plan to myself or not: I wanted the Bad People of my childhood to go away, and they did. If I never contact any of them again, I truly believe that none of them will contact me.

My question is: Is this resolution? Is this a real and valid way of dealing with a monstrous childhood? I’ve done therapy, I’ve cataloged what happened, I’ve inventoried my feelings about it, I’ve tried to speak to siblings and parents about it without success, I’ve confronted, I’ve publicized, and I’ve paid the price. I know I’m capable of moving forward alone. But should I?

Yours fondly,

On the Brink

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Dear On the Brink,

Yes, I think you should move forward. I think this is resolution. It may not feel like resolution. It may feel hollow. But it sounds like resolution — or the only kind of resolution one can have to events whose faint echoes will continue to be heard the rest of your life. It may be the closest you get to resolution.

It may be helpful to ask, If you could have the perfect resolution, what would that feel like? Would it make everything feel “normal”? For those of us who so rarely feel “normal” anyway, how would we know? It’s possible that even if you could have a perfect resolution it would still not feel like resolution, because you have been formed already by these events; you are, in a sense, already armed against such things, already wary, already tensed forever for the next blow.

Besides, is a resolution even possible? What would it look like? I suppose the ultimate resolution would be a kind of radical undoing: These things would never have happened in the first place. You would get a do-over childhood in which you were protected and loved and allowed to grow in a fairly normal way. That is, of course, outside the boundaries of what is possible in this universe. Even if everyone wanted this, we could not bring it into being.

What would be second best? The second best, I suppose, would be if your family members changed inwardly; if there were a God who could reach down and change their hearts, then perhaps they could step forward as a group, in grave ceremony, and confess their shameful acts. Resolution could take the form of a truth commission, a trial, a complete airing of all the crimes you remember. They might offer to bare their backs to you for whipping, prostrate themselves before you and give you all their worldly goods, become your slaves for life in penance — and you, seeking not vengeance but only closure, could take the high road and tell them no, there’s no need for that, all you wanted was a little truth.

But that is not likely either, is it? You know enough about the people involved to know how unlikely it is. They have had their opportunities. It is probably not even worth considering, except as a healing fantasy, a childlike wish.

So what is left as resolution? This relative peace you have found. This cessation of hostilities. The assurance of no further damage. That seems to be about it. You have attained safety. You are not being attacked or belittled. You are being left alone. That may be, in itself, resolution.

It sounds like resolution because you yourself have done a lot of work, thinking, feeling, remembering and going about your life with the echoes of these events occasionally in your mind. The writing was probably very helpful to you as well. It sounds like it did what it so magically seems to do — it let you get a handle on this thing, get your arms around it, define it, pin it down, contain it in words, and publishing it allowed you to defy those who would have kept you silent. That may have freed you from their influence, assured you that you no longer have to fear them.

So, as I say, it may not feel like resolution to you, but I think it is a kind of resolution — not, perhaps, the dramatic kind, but the slow, painful, subtle kind. I wish you luck as you go forward, as free of your past as any man can be.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

Imagine my idiot surprise

Indeed, imagine my idiot surprise that French people talking about Jack Kerouac in Paris would be talking about him in French! Imagine my idiot surprise that French is really such a completely different language from English that whatever they’re saying about Jack Kerouac is impossible to understand even with hand gestures and changes in posture and tone of voice! Imagine that the biggest idiot ever comes to Paris for Festival America and doesn’t really get it that these are French people sharing their interest in North American writing and culture (especially Native Americans and the West) in French!

Imagine. My French sucks. I had two years in college. I love the language but am kind enough not to speak it. Unlike some doofusses on stage who even though they can speak it hurt my ears and I’m not even a French speaking person. La meme chose indeed.

Imagine also that I am trembling in the bakery, frozen, paralyzed, sweating, about to turn and run down the street because each loaf has a  signpost stuck on it with “price per piece’ and “price per kilo” or something, I can’t even figure it out because my French-speaking wife is in Innsbruck visiting her aunt and I always just thought price per loaf.

But anyway. About that time it occurred to me that … have you ever read the book Out of Sheer Rage, by Geoff Dyer? It’s all about him not writing a book about D.H. Lawrence? It occurred to me, as I was eating chocolate-covered butter cookies in room 303 of the Hotel Blason above the bar/cafe at Avenue de Paris and rue de Montreuil that I just might spend my whole three days of Festival America eating cookies in my room and wondering how much the bread costs.

But I got out. I went to the Kerouac worship service in the Auditorium Ernest Hemingway at Coeur de Ville in Vincennes. Took some notes in my notebook standing outside the door waiting for the service to begin. The previous service consisted of a movie. So we’re outside the door watching a video screen showing the movie being played inside; it’s not the movie; it’s a camera shot of the stage where the movie is playing, so in our version there are sofas and a coffee table below the movie; it’s like a cheap pirate video but there’s Lawrence Ferlenghetti talking about North Beach! and a photo of Kerouac with his hair all wet maybe from the ocean or maybe he just got out of the shower or he’s just really sweaty from having sex and my, what a head of hair, this was the early days and then a shot of the Pacific beach, a wave crashing, and my heart leaps: Here I am in Paris and they’re looking at a movie of my home town! Or the place I emigrated to on a Gray Rabbit bus from New York in 1976. This Pacific. These rocks. This is my California which Paris celebrates in a bright marble-floored heart with steel roof supports (I-beams bent like bird wings) and someone with a black T-shirt with all the names of the authors at Festival America materializes in front of me and she has a lanyard and je regrette! I could have applied as a blogger and been on the inside! But then I would have to write something and nah. Not going to write anything. And then there is beareded Ginsburg in white button-down shirt before a window and then the pudgy face of later Kerouac older scowling smoking with thinning hair, sitting by a trap set in an arm chair on black and white television his cheeks fat his neck bloated then saxophone music in After-Midnight-esque style, then some America-style poverty-porn “Salvage” wall urban poor romantic in black and white and it occurs to me that we are watching the film we are missing, which is some kind of metaphor. Jack K. shielding his eyes in spotlight at microphone with manuscript held before his face, then tubby in T-shirt sitting scowling again like he missed a bus, then him with his mom in St. Pete and yep, he probably did miss a bus! Then Ferlinghetti in denim shirt, crumpled hat/white beard before a bookcase …

The audience was 80 percent women. The presenters were 80 percent men. Nothing new there, just noticing.

So look. I love these guys. It’s what I came to SF for. It’s just odd to see it worshiped in Paris. I mean, it’s cool, but it’s odd.

Kerouac. Carver. Salinger. They’re the three great American authors being celebrated here. I can’t understand what they’re saying about them, of course, because my French is too terrible.

I meat Jesmyn Ward. She’s not crazy about her own mastery of the great French language either.

Having a great time, wish you were here, much more to come.–CT

Eating cookies in my underwear

There are many things to do in Paris. Many things people do in Paris not fully dressed. One of the best things to do in Paris is to eat cookies not fully dressed. These cookies have chocolate on the top but underneath are just butter. It’s butter and chocolate. Outside the sun is bright and cars are going by. There is much driving in Paris. If you attempt to drive a car into Paris and then return it to, say, an office of Europcar, you may find, first, that driving all the way out to the airport named for Charles de Gaulle might not be the best way. You might want to return it at the office of Europcar located at 60 rue Diderot right there in Paris not far from where you are planning to eat cookies in your underwear once all this is taken care of, the moving of the car, the surrendering of the car to its owners who you wish would just act a tad more grateful when they receive it for after all you have gone to the trouble of returning it. So you might find that the offices at 60 Diderot actually can’t take the car for reasons having to do with the fact that this is their last day of operation, ever. No problem. Standing at the desk, having already … well, never mind about that, never mind about how I almost saw a tear come to the eye of the sad receptionist who could not receive my car because an aura of office-death hung in the air (there must be a French phrase for that) but I have to tell you about the narrow crevice through which I squeezed the hybrid Yaris in order to go up three floors of a mysterious and quiet garage only to find that you can’t return the Yaris here, you have to go to 193 some other rue near the Gare de Lyon. Which it turns out having arrived at last night you could have just dropped the car off at the Europcar location last night and not driven it all around Paris all night before serendipitously finding a parking spot right outside your hotel except that you’re carrying your wife’s luggage too, so that wouldn’t have worked, actually, since she’s gone off to Innsbruck to see Aunt Marianna … (why the italics? Have you ever found that you start off with italics for some reason of emphasis you can’t even remember anymore and then just keep going like a terribly acute yawn or a fit of laughing and you just have to eventually stop the italics and go bold until even that get ridiculous and finally finally finally you’re back to roman? Ever happen to you? And furthermore where is that close parenthesis? Can I just close it here? I guess so))))) (more parens for emphasis!!!))) Anyway so the other place at 193 rue something-or-other near Gare de Lyon where the lady at 60 rue Diderot told me to return the car because, so sad, so very very sad! their office was closing forever tomorrow!!! just wasn’t at all visible from the street so I went in their parking garage and there was Avis and there was Budget and maybe one or two others but no Europcar. So then I couldn’t just drive out of their parking garage but had to pay for parking even though I didn’t park because it was a parking garage and the only way out was to exit as if you had parked there.

My wife, Norma, says I don’t lose my cool easily and I seem to accept the conditions of Parisian driving with preternatural calm. This is true. I am just an observer in these transactions. I myself observe myself observing how very calm I am when coming to understand that there is no place to put the car I am returning to Europcar. Then I get lost. I come out of the wrong garage at the wrong exit and am suddenly flying down some Parisian street in a squadron of motorcycles and scooters and that takes some time to find a place to pull over and I find somehow I’m way over by the Seine, which is a lovely river and no one should speak ill of it but it’s just not helping right now because the Yaris has to go back to its owner. So then I think OK let’s reroute with the help of the map person inside the iPhone and we make a new route which I am following until we turn down this street and there’s a garbage truck in the middle of the street collecting garbage. So that took about one inning. One of those innings where they have to dust the ball off a lot and lo0k at some replays. About that period of time basically. And then I come around again and sure enough I’m at 193 what’s-that-street-called and there’s no green Europcar sign. So then I realize that they’ve hidden it. Perhaps there is some shame involved, or just shyness. But shyness does not seem very French. Perhaps Europcar is not French. Perhaps it’s Belgian and has a complex. It is located like a cosmetics store might be located, up some stairs, down a concourse, or maybe like a toy store but not a place into which one must drive because the product of the place is a car which one must drive on streets and cannot bring into the building like a set of Legos or a compact. Anyway I think I get the picture. It’s like this for a reason. Oh, and by the way, before this happened I wandered into the Europcar location at the first place and found an office and there were like two people there, in offices, looking at spreadsheets. One of them spoke “a bit” of English. Merci.

Well, anyway, then I thought, having found the second Euopcar office at 193 what’s-its-street/rue/bd I realized I really shouldn’t leave the car with its flashers going right out on the street there in a not-parking place. So I drove it into the parking garage to park it while I transact my simple but urgent business upstairs. And what do I find in this parking garage? It’s the Europcar place. They keep that a secret but if you go and park your car, not looking for the rental return, you will find the Europcar rental return. You have to just not be looking for it. You have to be already so driven to distraction that you’re willing to park it in a garage and pay good euros for the privilege and basically have reached such a state of sublime gallic shrugnicity that you really don’t even care if it … which if you are paying attention is exactly the shape that enlightenment takes, i.e. reaching a point of such frustration that you really don’t give a shit and then Buddha appears and offers you some nice chocolate cookies and doesn’t even mention that you’re in your underwear.

And you’re not even having other coincidental thoughts such as …

did you remember to fill up the tank. Which you didn’t because in deciding not to drive all the way out to CDG you were so filled with a sense of wonder  at the possibility of delivering the car right in Paris, just a few blocks away!!! that all sense went out of you.

So the car is delivered. And then riding the 1 Metro from Gare de Lyon to the Chateau Vincennes was a cinch. Except for just a couple of things right in the station related to buying the ticket. A lot of tourists must come straight to Paris from pig farms. They don’t know how to put coins in a machine to get a ticket for the Metro. But I have amazing patience and used the time to contemplate exactly how I would slide my coins in, and in what order.

So here is this thought I had:

I must not be a genius. That was my thought. Because if I were a genius I would think all these things through really quickly and I would use game theory and attack the problem from several angles simultaneously and I would draw on all the patterns of human thought and action I have observed over my many years and I would see very quickly, before we even drove to Paris, that if I really think hard about this, we will realize that Norma doesn’t have to take a train to Paris from Champtocé-sur-Loire because I’m driving to Paris anyway! Now, there was a lot of planning that went into this trip and circumstances changed and we just didn’t evaluate all the ways that the changing circumstances created new opportunities. That must be what generals and billionaires and despots do. They must be always always always thinking about every little changed circumstance and how it gives them an advantage. I just don’t pay that much attention. If I were a genius I’d probably never end up going Doh! and slapping my forehead when we do things like fail to realize until the last day of the retreat, until I’m practically ready to deliver Norma up to the train station at Angers, that she doesn’t need to take a train to Paris because I’m driving there anyway! (Originally I was going to stay in Champtocé-sur-Loire for a few days to write while she went to Innsbruck. And then I realized that Festival America was taking place in Paris and wouldn’t that be cool?)

So registering for that was a whole other thing involving my not being able to speak good French. They’re honoring American and Canadian authors and stuff, but I don’t think the main thing they’re interested in is the fact that they all wrote really good in English. It’s more all stuff read in translation. Maybe some of the translations are better in French. Anyway, I got the tickets after returning the rental car (only 15 euros for all three days!) and was walking back to my hotel room where the band downstairs in the bar was playing “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” last night which I enjoyed very much before lugging my two huge suitcases up three flights of stairs (room trois cent trois, and what, monsieur, is this thing you are calling an “elevator”?) … after which, all of that, today, a few moments ago, I luxuriated in a very powerful stream of hot shower water for more time in the shower than one would spend in San Francisco’s drought, and then I found the cookies. We had packed a bag with all the leftover food from the chateau and there in the bag were Sablés nappés; Chocolate noir. Pur beurre.

I just happened to be in my underwear.

That’s how travel happens.

I’ll let you know if any really bright authors say any really dumb things.

I feed the poor but eat with the rich

Write for Advice

 

Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, AUG 21, 2007


We do our Christian charity and then drink mimosas at a fancy hotel up the street. And that just seems so wrong!


 

Dear Cary,

A few months back, I joined a church group that goes to a homeless shelter once a month to prepare breakfast for about 200 street people. This group has been doing this for several years. The work is hard: We get up early and shop for all the food, haul it to the shelter kitchen, and prepare the meal, serve it and clean up afterward. We spend a good four hours from start to finish. We make cauldrons of coffee and juice, large casseroles of scrambled eggs, sausage, and cheese, plus toast, pancakes and fruit. The food isn’t fancy, but the people we serve seem to like it and appreciate our efforts.

The 10 of us in the breakfast group are good friends, and we are the typical white upper-middle-class liberal do-gooders. My problem is that after we finish serving and cleaning up, no one eats at the shelter or even really associates with the clientele. It apparently is a tradition that once the kitchen is cleaned up, the whole crew walks several blocks from the downtown shelter to a very nice hotel, where we pay $30 a person for a fancy brunch buffet. The price goes up if one orders mimosas and Bloody Marys, and most people do.

I suggested that after we have served the last person in line, we should prepare a plate for ourselves of the food we cooked and join our clients out in the dining room. The response I got from my fellow crew members caused me some dismay. Nearly everyone curled their lips and acted as though I had suggested that we lick the floor. “Eeeyew, I don’t like the cheap cheese in the casserole.” “I only eat low carb (low fat, low calorie, low whatever).” “After four hours, I just want to relax and let someone clean up after me.” “I figure that after a morning doing this, I deserve a reward.” Frankly, I think that most of the group is scared of street people and only want to hide in the kitchen or behind the service counter … God forbid they sit elbow to elbow with someone who hasn’t bathed in a week.

This seems horribly patronizing or condescending or “Lady Bountiful” to me. We are good enough to buy, prepare and serve you food but we are too good to eat it with you. The irony of us making cheap food for 200 (and yes, we buy discount ingredients … generic brands, not brand names) and then dropping the same amount of money or more for a white-linen brunch for 10 seems to be lost on my co-workers. I have begun boycotting the brunches and joining the shelter folks for breakfast, but no one from the crew has joined me.

Am I being a pill? Is it any of my business where my do-gooder friends want to eat, or how much they spend on themselves? I don’t want to stop working at the shelter; these people need to get fed, but I hate the feeling of us-and-them. I wonder if I am being hypocritical, thinking that it is noble of me to spend an hour chatting and eating with homeless people instead of eating off china plates and sipping really good coffee, and then getting into my hybrid and driving across town to my house.

Bleeding Heart Liberal

Dear Bleeding Heart,

I’m not a religious person but I’ve heard a few things about Jesus.

Jesus stood alone, and that is part of his allure. He stood alone against the crowd and he stood with the poor. There was a higher principle at work than the principle that governed the flow of money and goods in society. It was something about how every person no matter how low has a chance for transformation and miraculous salvation. About the eternal life bit, you believe what you like. To me it sounds as if he was offering a second chance, how everybody no matter how fucked up has a tiny speck of divinity that you can see if you look for it and hear if you listen.

So about the whole going for mimosas after feeding the poor: It isn’t about whether it’s noble of you. This is not salvation on the points system. There is something more profound at work here, and I admire you for being open to it.

A good and just society would feed and house all its people. A society that is rich and powerful and has not found a way to use its great wealth and power to feed and house all its people fails this fundamental test in a spectacular and historic way. I fear that such a civilization will be mocked and scorned by future generations.

Since our government is the principal organ by which we exercise our vision of a good and just society, this failure is primarily a failure of our government. So any institution outside our government that steps in to help is to be commended. What that institution’s members do after providing this service to the country is no concern of those of us who are not dishing out the food. They can go bowling or go fishing or get drunk and pick up hookers. They’ve done important service and we owe them gratitude.

That is the big picture. You are doing a good thing and where you eat afterward is up to you. But what is important is that you yourself are feeling a pang of moral conscience. It isn’t so much about these other church folks. What they want to do is their business. What’s significant is that you feel the tug of conscience and you have a spiritual thirst.

So the question is, what good will it do to sit down and eat a meal with some people who don’t have enough money to keep a roof over their heads? Why would you do that? Would it be an act of charity or an act of ego? Is that even a meaningful distinction? Would you be appreciated or would you make everyone uncomfortable? Would you be eating with the poor just to show up your church buddies? Would you be doing it to achieve some kind of moral street cred? Are those meaningful distinctions? And would you be able to restrain yourself from picking food off other people’s plates? And is that a meaningful distinction or just some nonsense thrown in so this doesn’t sound hopelessly grave and pompous?

Well, bottom line, I think that when such moments arise we trust our instincts. Because as humans we seek integration of the vast, many-faceted pattern that is our being. And the parts of us that we don’t fully understand, or that are buried or undeveloped, signal us in primitive ways, through signs and encounters, through instinct, through happenstance and mishap and magic. In the struggle for integration of the self we proceed by signs. Sometimes it’s moving too fast to work out on paper. A highly intuitive person, for instance, may see in a flash that his place is alongside the poor, not in the hotel with the mimosas. He may see it all in a flash and have to go with it. There’s no time to explain! Just stay here! Really, though. There’s no time to explain! Really.

Anyway … I got off track reading Jack Bauer lines. Look: We all get off track sometimes, OK? I’ve got to sit down and eat with these people! There isn’t time to explain!

The thing is, what you may not have considered is that while you think you’re the one who holds all the cards, the topsy-turvy truth is that these people at the homeless shelter have a lot to offer you. You already know how to drink mimosas. But do you know how to stay dry in the rain? Have you ever known hunger? It is a good thing to know, what hunger feels like. It is good to know the terror of finding yourself alone on the street with no food and no money and no idea where you are, knowing no one, having no phone numbers to call, having no sister or brother to drive and pick you up, having no parents to call upon, no children to call upon, no friends, no employers, no agencies. That’s a good thing to know. It is a good thing to know what it feels like to wait and wait on a corner until you finally just fall asleep there on the cold, hard sidewalk. It’s good to know when was the first time you realized you didn’t have an address. These are things you might talk about as you eat your substandard cheese.

It’s good to acknowledge, also, that what you are talking about is revolutionary consciousness. You are having a moment of revolutionary consciousness, in which higher principles have come to life for you, and you see them in conflict with how life is being lived, and you ask if you have the courage to follow these higher principles. I think you do. I think it is a revolutionary consciousness that can be expressed in a quiet, humble, Christian way, just by sitting down and sharing food with people.

He e-mailed us to say, “I’m dating both of you”

Write for Advice

 

Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, JUN 16, 2009

I thought I liked this guy, but his message to me and the other woman he’s dating seemed pretty tacky.


Dear Cary,

I value your advice and read your column all the time. Anyway, after a long hiatus, I dove into the dating pool. I heard that my longtime friend Bob’s cute brother Sam was newly single. I sent him a card telling him that if he’d like to see a movie sometime or have lunch to call/e-mail me. Bob cautioned me that Sam was newly divorced and maybe I shouldn’t take action. I decided to anyway, even though I respect Bob’s opinion about most things.

Anyway, I really fell quickly for Sam. We couldn’t see each other very often because we live two hours apart and as a single parent I could only arrange to see him maybe once a month at most. The few times we saw each other lasted for several hours … we had so much to talk and laugh about — incredible chemistry … and we had frequent e-mails/phone calls in between … it seemed like we had a rare connection, at least to me anyway.

Then, I get an e-mail that he just started seeing someone that lives in his building. Now, get this, he e-mails me and Suzy on the same e-mail at the same time … as in “Margaret and Suzy, I am seeing you both … like you both … want it all out in the open …” I thought this was in really poor taste … didn’t seem to go with the thoughtful person I knew.

Anyway, I tried to be classy because, well, he could have continued seeing both of us and maybe I wouldn’t have found out … so in a weird way, I did appreciate his clumsy honesty. I told him that I couldn’t see him while he was seeing someone else; physically and emotionally I just wasn’t cut out that way and I wished him well.

He has since e-mailed me that I was the most genuine person he has ever met and that his time with me couldn’t be compared, and he signed it “Love, Sam.” Part of me wondered, What the heck does this mean? But the logical side of me decided to just ignore the e-mail.

Not sure if I will ever hear from him again, but I do miss him. If I do hear from him, is he worthy of another chance? I think so, but sometimes I have such huge rose-colored glasses on when it comes to romance that I set myself up to get slam-dunked. And I felt so sad about all of this.

This guy made me wonderful dinners. Made me CDs of my favorite songs. Loved to slow dance … I felt so at ease with him … but since he decided to see someone else I have to wonder if it was all BS.

I hate to think so. What do you think, being a man and all?

Puzzled

Dear Puzzled,

What I think, being a man and all, is that sometimes women spend too much time trying to figure out what we men are up to and not enough time trusting their own judgment. I think you’ve already decided what to do. That e-mail struck you as manipulative and invasive and strange, and it put you off.

Yet you crave his attention. Craving his attention is not a good basis for a relationship. Craving his attention is like needing a drug. He made you a nice dinner. He says nice things to you. Those things — the slow-dancing, the CD, the dinner — those are not the relationship. They are relationship-oriented products. He has shown himself to be an adequate producer of relationship-oriented products. You haven’t really encountered him as a person yet; you’ve only encountered him as a competent dispenser of feeling-like substances.

Not to say that all courtship behavior is a sham. Courtship behavior and its attendant relationship-oriented products make it safe for men and women to dance together. But within the slow dance and the dinner is supposed to be some relating. You have to sense there’s a man you like in there somewhere. I’m not sure you do. I feel more like you were so fragile and hungry that you fell for the appearance of something — for the relationship-oriented products he is able to produce. And that puts you in a dangerous spot because, as you say, you are a person who has such “huge rose-colored glasses on when it comes to romance that I set myself up to get slam-dunked.”

Some people call that “having boundary issues.” Having boundaries is about knowing your weaknesses and protecting yourself.

There’s nothing wrong with feeling fragile and hungry. It happens. We’re in a fragile, hungry time. I suggest, however, that you never allow yourself to become so fragile and hungry that you go against your own core values and instincts.

As a man, I can tell you that sometimes when we want a woman to do something, we produce our best relationship-oriented products and present them to her as if they represented our current feelings toward her. But what they actually represent is how we think we might feel once we get what we want from her. Once we get what we want from her, we might feel like a slow dance, like a diamond, like a rare filet mignon. But in the beginning it’s not poetry; it’s sales. Relationship is knowing and accepting another person. You have to like the guy. He has to not creep you out.

So what do you feel about a person who would send the kind of e-mail he sent? Some people might actually like it. But I think your reaction was like the reaction many women would have, which was that it was just tacky and strange. So trust your own response. I think you’ve already decided what to do.