I am a lone cow

 
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Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, APR 18, 2003

Is it reasonable to expect a happy love life, or in the end will it just be me, Aunt Zoey and a few too many cats?


Dear Cary,

I am a 29-year-old woman about to begin a doctoral degree in a field that truly moves and inspires me. I am lucky to have a close inner circle of genuine friends and a larger social circle full of interesting and varied people. My family is warm, loving, enjoyably eccentric and supportive. I am healthy, smart, driven, and am told I’m attractive and entertaining. I am extremely satisfied with and grateful for the direction my life has moved in over the past few years. So please understand that when I refer to being alone, I realize that I am surrounded by a whole lot of valuable platonic love.

That said, here is my issue. In my late teens and early 20s, I had two meaningful romantic relationships. Both of them ended tragically; the first man died suddenly in an accident and the other had resurfacing memories of childhood sexual abuse, then descended into a downward spiral of alcohol and denial, and away from me. Both relationships and their aftermaths led to a lot of learning and a redirection of my life for which I am exceedingly grateful. However, close to five years later, as I approach 30, I’m realizing that I have been alone for quite a stretch now, have had no real prospects, and I’m starting to get a little worried. Were those two relationships in my early adulthood useful, but aberrant, romantic occurrences in a life that will mostly be lived alone?

A few months ago, the tragicomedy of how perpetual and expected my aloneness has become hit me right between the eyes while attending a family wedding. See, our place cards had been rubber-stamped with either a cartoon cow or fish to indicate what we were having for dinner, and guests were grouped on their place cards as couples, rather than as individuals. On my left, my father and his longtime girlfriend shared a place card stamped with a cow and a fish. To my right, my brother and his longtime girlfriend had two pink cows, stamped side by side. On and on around the table, little cows and fish, holding hands, dancing, gazing at each other, contemplating their futures. And the image on my own card — a lone cow in the middle of a vast white space — stared out at me in this lost way that inspired laughter in the moment and tears later on that night. It was then that I realized that at most family events over the course of my life, the only people who have been reliably alone have been my 55-year-old Aunt Zoey and me. She has been a Lone Cow for as long as I can remember, and it’s important to note that her aloneness has not been by choice.

A few of my male friends (all in relationships) have offered their take on my situation. They say that they found me to be very attractive but simultaneously intimidating when we first met. They think I often attract men who have ego issues and are interested in “conquering me” to see if they can get the confident girl who has her shit together as a way of proving something to themselves. That theory doesn’t seem to hold water when I consider the vastly different types and personalities of the men I’ve briefly dated, but at the very least, it’s a kind way of saying, “It’s them, not you.”

So now my dating life consists of long stretches of nothingness interspersed with a parade of men who start out by being wowed by me, then pursue me ardently, then, as they get to know me more, lose interest and march right off the face of the earth. This is especially painful because I don’t feel I’m pulling any punches or putting out a false front. It’s as if the lack of skeletons in my closet and all the time I’ve spent figuring out who I really am has become a liability.

I guess I’m just asking if there’s reason to be hopeful about a substantial future love life, or if really, the hard, but more truthful answer is that I just need to make peace with the possibility that I might stay alone. That I might just be one of those people for whom the romantic relationship thing doesn’t pan out, to the confusion and consternation of all those who love me. That in the end, it might just be me, Aunt Zoey, and a few too many cats. Please, if I’m doing something wrong here, lay it on me.

The Lone Cow

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Dear Lone Cow,

My prediction is that you are going to end up very, very happy, in a deep, complex and loving relationship that lasts a long time, but it is going to happen slowly, and if you succumb to impatience, the waiting may test you to the limits of despair. You are young; it may be hard for you to imagine how much life lies ahead, but believe me, there is a lot to come. So you have to concentrate on the process, and make sure that you are having a good time now. And you have to guard your heart.

A lifelong wish that we know may or may not be granted can be a haunting, threatening presence, always there to undermine our faith in the future, always threatening to verify our deepest suspicions of our own unworthiness. Or it can be something on which you build a happy life that does not depend on its being granted, but only on the continuing search for it. That, I think, is the key: to make sure that the search is its own reward, and that during the search you are protected from its ups and downs.

Take fishing, for instance. If it were just about catching one fish, there would be no fishermen. It wouldn’t be worth it. But fishing, even though it is uncertain in its particulars, can be depended upon to be a fairly pleasant activity even if no fish are caught; it also can be depended upon to yield at least a few fish from time to time. Likewise, dating can be a pleasant activity even if, for a while, one candidate after another proves not to be the lifelong mate you seek.

I would suggest two things: Don’t go out with any men who don’t make you happy. Now, with fishing, or playing tennis, or finding a mate, a lot has to do with how you handle not catching anything, or hitting the ball in the net, or being rejected. The key for the long term is to avoid destroying yourself in retribution for your own small failures. In the case of love, I know how destructive it can be to want something so badly, to get your hopes up, to give yourself body and soul to someone and then to be disappointed, or to lose them to illness or death, or even to be intentionally abused or mistreated. It can ruin your appetite for fun.

Fun, nevertheless, I believe to be the key. Protect your heart for the long haul; don’t be greedy or impatient; don’t let yourself be enchanted; make a fortress around your feelings.

Now how, when the essence of love is surrender, can one find love if one is living in a fortress? Because once you build this fortress, you can step outside it and have adventures; you can take risks because you know you have a sanctuary you can run to in a storm.

The other thing is that the process must be enjoyable; you must ensure that it is. If you’re going out with men solely to find one mate, then every time you don’t find that one mate you have failed. In that way you can destroy yourself, and continually wound your heart. But if you go out with men to have fun, and make that a condition, then whether you find a mate or not you have not wasted your time, you have not wounded yourself. So I would make sure that you only go out with men who amuse you, who are kind to you, who represent an improvement in your life, with whom you feel happy in the moment.

If you make your own momentary happiness a prerequisite, then I think when you do find yourself alone, it will make sense to be alone. Because you will be able to look around you and see that your solitude is preferable to the company of an unpleasant man. And I would also take steps to increase your enjoyment of solitude, so that a fear of loneliness does not drive you to choose a mate before you’ve found the right one.

Eventually, because of the odds involved (which I think increase dramatically in grad school, what with all the smart, like-minded men around), and because you are such a treasure, you will eventually find yourself in that deep, lasting and long-wished-for relationship.

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The bosses used to monitor us on video from home

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Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, APR 21, 2008

I hate my job and hated my last job and feel like a failure. But is it my fault?


Dear Cary,

I find myself running in circles, around and around inside my head. I just started a new job and I despise it. Everyone was so excited for me to start, believing it to be that much-longed-for next step in my career. I’ve spent so many years sliding from industry to industry, trying on this hat and that hat, hoping for something that will fit just so. All of this has been to no avail.

I started the new job last week and quickly realized that it wasn’t for me. After hours of soul-searching and a long discussion with my boyfriend in which he played devil’s advocate I saw that I couldn’t do this job. I went through all the permutations of why I was uneasy with the job, sussing out whether it was nerves from being in a new environment or if it was the actual job itself. It was the pressure of getting that sale right then over the phone as well as the fact that I found the product (not to mention the sales method) shady at best.

My problem is, my last job I left because I couldn’t handle the pressure of having my bosses constantly down my throat, watching the cameras from home and picking apart every last thing that I’ve done.

In the discussions with my boyfriend last night I began to fear that I was finding excuses for leaving jobs with some pressure involved in them. Or if it was that I wasn’t in that right position for myself. Or if they really were bad jobs.

I spend so much time second-guessing myself that I no longer know what my real gut reaction is and why I’m having it. I think I’ve come up with the answer, but I’ve then become so paralyzed that I’m not sure what I’ve done and why I’ve done it. I’m lost in this sea of confusion that I don’t know how to swim out of.

A few months ago I made myself a promise to be kinder to myself, to find time to create a calm environment in the hopes that it would provide a clearer viewpoint. I promised myself that I would reconnect with myself and with my body and with my environment so I would be able to get and stay calm.

From when I was 13 to 22 I was battling depression, suicidal tendencies, panic attacks, general anxiety and recovering from a nervous breakdown I had when I was 18. I’m proud of where I am now, that I’m alive, smiling, and able to accept the love of my boyfriend and I’m able to give him my love back as well (which is quite something to say considering where I was at before).

I’m now 24 and I suppose much of what I’m going through is part of the aftermath of all that time just trying to heal myself enough to function. But all that time spent picking myself apart has left me with a bewildering sense of displacement. I wish I had some overarching idea of how I view myself and view the world around me. I really wish that I had some self-confidence that everything would be OK. Most of all I feel like a disappointment to myself and those around me. I’m that brilliant girl who could do anything but couldn’t get her act together. And I feel like I’m never going to pull it together. That I’m never going to be able to have a life that’s mine.

I’ve thought about running to some far-flung location to escape, I’ve thought about getting a cheap apartment somewhere, living quietly in a quiet home, with little contact with the outside world. I know that neither of those options fixes my problems; that they’re physical manifestations of what I emotionally want to do. As awesome as that all sounds, as much as I keep telling myself “you’re only 24, you’ve still got tons of time ahead of you,” I feel so much pressure that I’ve built up for myself, hurdles that I just can’t see myself vaulting. Where do I go from here? What do I do?

Wrapped and Confused

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Dear Wrapped and Confused,

You are a rare individual. It is good to be rare. It is better to be rare than to be ordinary. And yet since you are rare, an ordinary job won’t do. You need a rare job. Rare jobs are hard to find.

Most jobs suck. When you were in school, didn’t you take MostJobsSuck 101? Most jobs will not bring you happiness. It may be that you will have to be an entrepreneur and create your own wealth.

You must assert your right to exist and to be as you are. You must assert your right to feel as you feel. You must say to yourself, If I don’t like this job, maybe it’s because this job totally sucks ass! Maybe that’s why! Maybe this country is going down the toilet and maybe that’s why I feel lost and alienated and afraid. Maybe I’m not the problem.

Try that, would you? Just try saying to yourself, I’m not the problem. I didn’t create this world. I didn’t make these rules. I didn’t come up with this asinine idea of bosses monitoring employees by video from home. It’s nonsense! I have a right — moreover, a duty! — not to participate in such nonsense. I’m better than that. I’m a free citizen in a democracy. I have some rights. I have a conscience. My conscience is outraged by this. No one should have to put up with it.

Try saying that to yourself. Try shouting it out loud. You are in a shitty situation. This job of yours sucks. Who says you should do this job? Let them find someone else. This job is not for you. Any job where the bosses watch you on video from their homes is a job in a totalitarian atmosphere. So if you fail at such a job it is perhaps because you value individual freedom and dignity.

So why do so many young people seem to think that the problem lies with them? The problem is not with you. The problem is that a lot of things in the world really suck. So try to enjoy your life. Don’t worry about succeeding. It is a sucker’s game. Until you can find something that you genuinely enjoy doing, do not assume that employers and institutions are on your side. They are not looking out for you. They are looking for suckers.

I fear for the individual lives of people in this country when it is permissible for employers to spy on employees at work from the comfort of home. That should not be permitted. It is an outrage.

So please do not turn your anger on yourself. Do not accept this. It is bullshit.

How does it happen that we are robbed of the ability to register our outrage? How does it happen that we turn this outrage inward when it should be directed toward the men who are doing this?

If I may vent just a little: I myself get great help from the psychological professions, and — as I was telling my therapist yesterday — I basically think everybody ought to be in therapy! Nonetheless, our social and economic struggles produce a proud pain, a noble pain, and this pain ought not to be medicated but celebrated. It sounds as though you treat your own pain as a sign that you are still ill. On the contrary, it may be a signal that you are healthy. You are fine. You just need to get out of there!

If you must work for money, for the time being, get any kind of job. Work in a coffee shop. Sell surfboards. Meanwhile, study money. You may be the kind of person who will never be happy in a job, being told what to do, what hours to keep, when to go to the bathroom and when to go to lunch. Study money. Learn how money works. Get your own.

And who are all these people you are supposedly disappointing, anyway? Stop living for them. You are God’s child, not their child. You are a child of the universe. You are made of the stars and the moon and the earth; you are a person, unique and unprecedented in human history.

You must assert this or they will take it away from you. Do not let them take this from you. It is not theirs to take. It is yours.

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Shorter, Newer, Differenter

We changed the WordPress theme. You noticed? Also:

Cary Tennis is writing a new, different Since You Asked column:

  • More questions
  • Shorter answers
  • Mostly about writing and ideas but also other things
  • Basically: It’s way differenter!

Why?

  • Who’s got the time?
  • Long sentences: hard to read on phone
  • The kid just wants to do new things

The “Since You Asked” advice column ran on Salon.com for 12 years. It was a rare and beautiful thing. Like all rare things, it arose from rare circumstances. Circumstances change. Really: That’s done.

Now stimulate Cary’s intellectual and literary interests by writing letters to him about the most interesting things you are doing and the practical obstacles you encounter and how you overcome them.

Write about writing and books and poems and technology and the business of publishing and also about:

  • Urban Planning and Traffic
  • Real Estate Prices in San Francisco
  • New poetry
  • The Ocean Beach/Outer Sunset neighborhood
  • Paris
  • Tuscany
  • Great short story collections
  • Fiction and poetry readings
  • Cool bicycles
  • Alternative energy sources
  • Other things I might not know anything about but am still interested in, like … shoes!

See, Cary  grew up reading Faulkner and Henry James. So long sentences come naturally. But he always thought, I’ll never become a stodgy old guy. I’ll always try to adapt and participate.

Who knew culture would change so much so fast? But it did. So stay nimble, big guy. Stay interested. This is an amazing time to be alive.

Sure, some changes suck. Feel free to write about changes that suck.

But life is short. There’s always breakfast at Outerlands.

What else was great this morning:

Dammit, don’t tell me I need to be more “assertive”!

 
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Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, SEP 15, 2004

You’d think a Ph.D. in Renaissance literature from an Ivy League school would count for something in the business world.


Dear Cary,

On paper, I am talented, bright, creative … almost perfect. I am 33 years old; I have a Ph.D. in Renaissance literature from a prestigious Ivy League university. I’ve been married for 10 years to a wonderful husband. However, if you met me, you would not be able to surmise any of that based on how I look and act.

I work as a copy editor for a small company. I have the most credentials of all my co-workers and yet I am constantly passed over for promotions or leadership roles in projects. Time and time again, my reviews have indicated that I need to be more assertive and confident. I’m very shy and rarely speak in meetings.

I was the same way in graduate school. Yet not only did I manage to earn my degree, but I also taught undergraduate classes and presented papers at conferences. Basically, when it was time to perform in public, I somehow gained the strength and got through it. But these experiences seemed like walking on fire. I dreaded them. After graduating I had several promising interviews for teaching jobs. But I failed horribly and never received an offer. Five years and several degrading jobs later, I am now in my present position. Instead of being proud of my education, I have come to resent my Ph.D. I feel like I wasted those 10 years on graduate school. When I meet new people, I no longer tell them I have a doctorate for fear that they will look at me like I am a freak.

I want desperately to be confident and possess the spirit and aura that befit my achievements. I know I can do better, but I am paralyzed. I’ve taken more public speaking and assertiveness classes than I can count. They have not helped. I’m beginning to think it’s genetic and I am destined to be underemployed and miserable forever. Please tell me I’m wrong.

Cubicle Dwelling Ph.D.

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Dear Cubicle Dweller,

Of course you don’t have to be underemployed and miserable. You just need to find a place where you fit in. If I were to meet you on the street, I’d know for sure, but just from your letter, I’m going to guess that you are an introverted intuitive type. That would explain a lot — why you were so successful in academia, why your interviews went poorly, why you’re slaving away in a job that you’re probably doing very well but not getting credit for, and why people keep telling you to be more assertive.

If my hunch is correct, telling you to be more assertive is like telling a cat to bark. It’s not that you lack self-confidence; I’m sure you’re quite confident in your own abilities. But you’re stuck in a world whose symbols are alien. Business is burlesque! Competence is signaled symbolically. You go around acting all confident and assertive and people go — Look! She’s confident and assertive! We’d better promote her! Business is filled with people who aren’t really thinking straight. It’s full of voodoo. If I were you, I’d get back into academia fast.

But first, let’s talk about your type. Perhaps you have never given much thought to your underlying type. Perhaps “type” seems mundane or shallow; perhaps you find the idea distastefully deterministic. Perhaps you think of Jung as cultish. But I have found it useful to learn about Jungian types as they are simplified and codified in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.

The introvert is the ruler of a vast interior dominion. For the introvert, everything happens there. Who else would get a Ph.D. in Renaissance literature? Who else would live in a world accessible only through art? We extroverts out here in our hiking shorts and blazers don’t get to see what’s going on inside that head — whose eyes are sometimes cast slightly downward as if trying to see inside themselves. It bugs us that we can’t tell what’s going on in there, and that she won’t just come out and explain how she got to where she is. When the introvert speaks, sometimes it seems to come out of nowhere. What is she talking about? It seems as though she’s jumped from A to Z.
The introvert doesn’t share her feelings with us in that easy, cooperative extroverted way that we snowmobilers prefer. She’s not going to say, Hey y’all, come on in, let’s all do therapy together, let’s tinker with my dreams! Paradoxically, the introvert doesn’t really notice her interior world as something distinct from who she is; to the introvert, the interior is real. We extroverts crow about our grand excursions into psychic space, but we’re just tourists there, handling every object with dumb amazement: Look Ma, I’ve found an intuitive connection! The introvert sits on her porch and watches with detachment — or perhaps mild annoyance — as we bumble through her domain.

You get what I’m saying? Some of it may ring true, some may not. There are degrees. I’m winging it. That’s my talent. I’m an improviser. It’s an extroverted talent. I don’t mind getting up here and winging it. I’m a bit of a showoff, something you probably don’t like in a man, but there it is, we’re different. The thing is, though, I know who you are. And I know you don’t belong in an office full of people who think you should be more assertive.

So if I were you, I’d begin looking again for employment in academia. If you cannot find a teaching job, take another job in academia. That is where you thrived. That is where you belong. That is where you will be appreciated. If you can’t get a job in academia, then look in fields where intellectual talent is valued above a go-getter’s bravado — in research, for instance, or publishing, or journalism. Look for a firm where others with advanced degrees also work; chances are if they are happy there, you can be too.

And then, once you’ve secured a new job, go to your old boss and say, “Hey, motherfucker, get this: I don’t do ‘assertive and confident’! I quit! I’m an introvert, damn it!”

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My family is living in a pigsty!

 
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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, FEB 10, 2005

My mom’s a slob, my sister’s a loser. What is wrong with these people?


Dear Cary,

My question is a simple one of whom to be mad at.

Here’s the background: My mom has always been a horrible housekeeper. My dad actually left her because of it — he would come home from working 50 hours a week and then clean on the weekends. My mom would instead read romance novels, talk to her friends in Ohio, and dote on my younger sister and me. After my dad left, the house got messier and messier — the carpet discolored, the dishwasher broken since 1992 (it’s still there). I was kind of an introvert until I hit college and didn’t see anything out of the ordinary about this lifestyle.

My sister never went to college. Let me rephrase: She went to five certificate programs ranging from massage therapy to fashion design, never graduating from anything, until she went to a two-month pastry chef program and finished — hallelujah! She moved out at 22 with her boyfriend and got a job in the big city, and we all thought she had grown up. Unfortunately, she quit under mysterious circumstances (reportedly, her “crazy” boss was about to fire her for being lazy), the boyfriend went to AA, and she moved home into the basement.

In this house live my mom, my weak grandma, who is starting to get some pretty depressing dementia, my sister and five cats. I came home for a month-long stay from my home in New York. The house has been more neglected than I can possibly sum up. My sister and mom both chain-smoke, so I’ve been cleaning cigarette tar off the walls. I’m finding cat poop in random corners. There is junk everywhere. And to top it off, when I was washing the walls, my mom asked me to get a few dark spots from the skin oil of our dog where he used to lay — our dog died two years ago.

I could live with spending my visits cleaning if it weren’t for my sister. She’s 24 and my mom keeps spoiling her. Cooks for her, pays her phone bills, buys her whatever she wants with the money she’s working a 40-hour job for. My sister has proceeded to turn the house into her personal frat house. Her boyfriend spends the night, she leaves her dirty dishes next to her unmade bed, she leaves towels smudged with her eye makeup throughout the house and leaves my mom to return her movie rentals. She has a minimum-wage job at a bookstore and is now taking mythology classes (mostly online so she doesn’t have to go) at the local community college with the intention of becoming a therapist.

After a few weeks of cleaning, I told her how much it would mean to Mom if she helped out. She agreed to help, then covertly left the house only to call me at midnight from the big city — she and her boyfriend were drunk and needed me to pick them up.

I’m pissed at my sister for refusing to care about our home or her life. Maybe I sound jealous of her carefree lifestyle, but I got my butt in gear and learned to cook my own meals years ago. I’m also pissed at my mom for letting my sister walk all over her and not just kicking her out for her own good. My mom protests that when she asks my sister to clean, she just won’t do it, so it’s worthless to ask. I’m also conscious of being the “successful” daughter with a master’s degree and a fancy life in NYC, snubbing my nose at their lifestyle. I’d pay for their maid if I could afford it.

I’m worried that at this rate my sister will never learn a sense of responsibility. She’s 24 and has had two abortions. I’m worried that my sister will get killed in a car accident — she’s already been in two — which would crush my mom. I’m worried that my sister will come to me to support her one day when our mom dies and I will have to say no, get a life.

Any advice would be greatly appreciated!

Cinderella

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Dear Cinderella,

If your question really is whom to be mad at, my answer would be: Don’t be mad at anyone. Leave them alone. Go back to New York and quit trying to fix your family. They are responsible for themselves.

But I sense you are asking more than just whom to be mad at. You are asking why the situation is the way it is and what, if anything, you can do to fix it. What is your role in this, and what are your responsibilities? How can a person of good conscience just abandon her family when it’s clear that things have gone wrong and they need some kind of help?

First, try to put yourself in their shoes. Think how you would feel if your sister and your mother showed up at your home in New York and started cleaning your apartment and rearranging your stuff. You would feel that they didn’t respect you, that they were overstepping their bounds. My guess is that your attempts at helping them are making them feel small and inadequate, and they probably resent you for it.

Next, consider what they might be getting out of living the way they do. Why, you may ask, would anyone in her right mind choose to live like that? And who, having been shown there’s a better way, would continue?

Well, we all do things that don’t seem to make sense to others but that give us what we happen to need. It can be maddening, I know, to watch someone do something one way when you know it would be much easier and smarter to do it a different way. But often the benefits of our seemingly absurd actions are known only to us — and sometimes we ourselves do not really understand what we are getting out of it.

A family is a dense, complex web of dependencies and interdependencies. It is a nurturing place but also a dangerous place, full of threats to our egos, to the way we think of ourselves. There may be individual pathologies at work as well — you mentioned your grandmother’s dementia; perhaps there is depression and drug abuse at work with your mother and sister.

Because the family is such a dangerous place, we all figure out ways to protect ourselves from each other. The dreams, ambitions and shortcomings about which we are most vulnerable are the very ones that we keep most carefully hidden from the family’s view. So it’s no wonder that our actions often seem inexplicable and baffling to the family: Afraid of ridicule, we go to great lengths to disguise our true objectives and our true failings. That is why it is so difficult for one family member to help another one recognize and deal with a problem such as drug abuse or alcoholism: You are trying to help, but you are perceived as a threat.

Not only can your well-intentioned aid be seen as a threat, but so can be your worldly success. Faced with the success of a sibling, we are driven to differentiate ourselves, lest we feel bested, overshadowed. But we must not acknowledge that we are differentiating ourselves in reaction. That would be tantamount to admitting our weakness, our jealousy, our resentment and fear. So we pretend that we are just doing what we’re doing.

Sometimes we go overboard in this symbolic differentiation: If you are going to become the secretary of state, I will become a crack head. That will show you. If you are going to be a pot head, I am going to become a Republican. If you are going to go to New York and become successful, I am going to go home and live in the basement with five cats. That will demonstrate … what? That you’re not right about everything. That you don’t know everything. That you’re not the boss of me.

And so it goes.

To think that you can walk into such a system and fix everything by cleaning the cigarette smoke off the walls is very human and very understandable but quite clearly doomed.

Why not, instead of trying to fix your family, try to understand what emotional needs they are getting met, and what deep and universal values they are exhibiting — for instance, the value of tolerance and patience, of unconditional love. And the love of place and togetherness. No matter how screwed up things seem, they are at least together. They are a family. What is this saying to you? Might it be saying that there are some things even more important than getting your butt in gear?

This may help you stop being mad at everyone. After you stop being mad, please do consider what forms of practical aid you can offer. A regular cleaning service, if you can afford it, would be ideal. And if there are clear clinical pathologies present, then consult with appropriate specialists.

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Turning 50: It’s all downhill from here

 

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Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, OCT 6, 2009

I’ve got only a genetic disease and old age to look forward to


 

Dear Cary,

I have been reading your column for a while and always find your advice useful in a roundabout way, but I especially find it honest.

I’m going to be turning 50 this year and have learned I have a fairly rare genetic disease that will (and, indeed, has already begun to) cause great suffering in the years to come, though it likely won’t end my life prematurely.

Unfortunately, I have seen what this disease has done to my father, who is now in his 80s, and I have no desire to go through the endless hospitalizations, treatments, etc., that he endures just to keep on living. I feel tense and anxious most of the time, and also sad.

I’m realizing, however, that the disease is not the only factor in my feelings. Frankly, life in middle age is a tedious, boring chore. I become sad when I think back to my 20s, which was really my peak — a series of endless mental and physical challenges, pleasures and obstacles to overcome.

I’m stuck in an unchallenging but well-enough paying job that I despise. Leaving it would mean competing with people half my age for less pay, and I probably can never get health insurance again, so that option is out.

My home life isn’t much better. I’m stuck with a partner who offers, at best, extremely mediocre sex once every couple weeks. I watch porn to remember the types of adventures I used to have in real life, but it only makes me more sad, angry and resentful.

I’ve given up most of my hobbies as they were fairly pointless wastes of time. Even volunteer work became unsatisfying. For every person or animal I was able to help, there were hundreds of others for whom I could do nothing.

My one true pleasure, hiking in the hills with my dog for hours on end, ended when the dog became severely ill and I had to euthanize her a month ago. Yes, I could get another dog, and yes, I realize everyone anthropomorphizes their pets, but this dog was indeed unique and irreplaceable and her spirit is sorely missed. Her sweet nature and enthusiasm could melt even the most cynical heart.

Well, I will stop with this pity party, but it seems to me that nature had the right idea with human life spans that used to be so short. Now it seems we get 30 or so good years, then 50 years to sit around and wait for the inevitable.

In youth, there is excitement of the unknown. Unfortunately, at this point, I pretty much know how my life is going to go: a slow, steady, physical decline; deaths of more friends and loved ones; and a relationship that will become nothing more than buried resentment over a complete lack of sexual fulfillment.

Frankly, I see very little to look forward to, and I’m not even sure what I’m asking you.

Nothing to Look Forward To

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Dear Nothing to Look Forward To,

Well, my friend, I don’t have the skills to persuade you of what I intuit, or the power to compel you to do as I ask, nor do I have the kind of deep responsibility toward you that a family member or loved one might feel, so I am just going to say what is clear to me and hope that you can overcome the voices in your own head telling you the contrary long enough to act on my suggestion. First of all, and I don’t know why I really want to say this, but I’m just going to trust the impulse: You are going to be taken care of. You’re on a road. You’re not just a forlorn sack of chemicals in a marriage; you’re a human being; you’re a person; you’re a being; you have a place in this world. I also feel this: I feel that you are grieving. You may be depressed, but “depressed” feels vague. To me, you are grieving. “Depression” feels like the damming-up of that grief, not the grief itself. You are grieving the loss of your dog and your connection to nature. You are grieving the loss of your dog and your connection to nature but you are also berating yourself for your grief, perhaps to protect yourself from its full, wracking extent.

You also sound like you are grieving for your youth. For that I salute you. Yes, I salute you. Why don’t more of us openly grieve our youths? Why don’t more of us admit that when we wake up one day and find ourselves no longer 20 and hard, indefatigable and quick, irresistible all night, a world ahead of us just for the asking, etc., etc., (I’m not trying to lyrically eulogize it; I’m just trying to name it), why don’t more of us admit that we are filled with a deep and painful sadness? Why don’t we have rites for this? Why do we have to say goodbye to our youth alone, in the shame of our advancing decrepitude?

(I tried to do this publicly, in a way, seven years ago, back in 2002, and indeed it did help to acknowledge publicly that I was no longer 20, although of course it did not arrest the arrow of time.)

You are grieving the loss of your youth and the loss of your dog and you are also living in fear of the future.

That makes you a perfect candidate for membership in the moment.

So, my friend, make your application now!

Yes, you, my friend, are a perfect candidate for membership in the moment. There is always room for one more. So welcome. Come on in. Welcome to the now. Welcome to the now that’s up on the trail, the glistening, humming, vibrating, iridescent, incalculable, inescapable now: Welcome to this very moment, wherever you are. Unless one of us is traveling faster than the speed of light, you and I are both inhabiting this mathematical simultaneity we call the now; we are in it, you and I, right now, so it might be said, though it sounds silly, that we are even together in the now, that as I sit near the window of the cafe in early morning, shivering in the first frost (there was ice on my truck this morning, for heavens sake!) and wondering idly why the employees have the windows and the door open (I know, it gets hot back there) that you and I are, in this moment, perhaps sharing a breath; perhaps as I breathe in you are breathing in too, and the innumerable creatures and souls who also inhabit this moment are also breathing in or breathing out, and the unfathomable underpinnings of our enterprise are operable; the equations and magics of chlorophyll and ganglia are in effect; the infinite, expanding factory of existence is running all night; it’s all going on right now. Welcome.

In this moment you have many choices. You can concentrate on the breath alone, climbing the breath like a rope into the heavens, following the breath back to the beginning of time, rising and falling with the breath like a column of smoke, with every inhalation and exhalation rehearsing the beginning and the end, the creation and the obliteration of the cosmos and the beginning and the end of your life, your wakefulness and your sleep. You can do that in this moment. You can do that in this moment and it may free you momentarily from your stranglehold on the future, or the future’s stranglehold on you, or however you want to place subject and verb in expressing that asphyxiating entanglement.

You can also in this moment allow thoughts of your next move to arise. You can, for instance, determine to contact a cognitive therapist and see about pruning some of the vines.

Yes, you can also in this moment choose to contact a cognitive therapist and get to work on that pattern of thinking that has overtaken you like a vine overtaking a healthy tree. You are wrapped in vines of dread, vines of grief. You are wrapped in vines. You have fed them and given them a home and now they are suffocating you. But you are not yet so completely entwined that you cannot reach out just far enough to gain the attention of a skilled cognitive therapist who can show you how to clip the vines back and get some air.

It is both the joy and the curse of this job that I cannot make you do this. If I could make you do this, my job would be unbearable; every time I failed to make someone do something I would be burdened; every time someone exercised their freedom of choice I would be a failure. Every time someone failed I would fail as well. Luckily, that is not the case. I can say what I say and that is that. We are just two living strangers inhabiting the same moment. It is as though you might overhear me in a cafe advising someone else to go get some cognitive therapy to clip back the vines of depression. I am speaking to the wind. That is fine. I am happy doing that. I am happy speaking to the wind.

But I speak hoping you will overhear me and take it to heart.

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Desperately unhappy in the top Ivy League school

 

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, APR 22, 2008

I want to work in New York publishing, and I know this is the route, but I’m miserable and depressed.


Dear Cary,

I am a freshman at the top Ivy League school in the country, and while this has never been easy, or, to put it more accurately, not too traumatic, recently things took a turn for the worse. Now I can’t imagine how I am going to survive until the end of the semester, much less three more years.

I’m from Los Angeles, a place with which I very strongly identify (which I discovered only after I moved to the Northeast). While I was really into journalism in high school, my true passion has always been creative writing. I had a lot of choice senior year, and it basically came down to the premier private university on the West Coast or on the East. I chose the East, mainly because I was really impressed with the sheer opportunity that comes with going to a school like this, but also because I was (and still am, although not as much) interested in getting into the publishing world of New York, both as an editor to pay the bills, but then hopefully as a writer myself. Having begun an internship at a literary magazine here I now know that my first estimates were accurate: If this were something I wanted to pursue, I would have no problem getting the connections I might need to succeed through this school and its alumni network. (Seriously, words cannot explain the alumni network. You eat breakfast in the dining halls and look up into intimate portraits of the presidents.) But since beginning here I’ve also become a bit rankled (and, if you can’t notice, a little bitter) at this empire that, under the pretext of academia, stretches to every office, every field and every department in the world. I just suppose that my experience here has tempered my previously bewildered awe for this place.

My freshman year so far has been something of a disappointment. I find myself coming up short on everything I’ve done here. Up until now it’s just been the work, and the unending papers and deadlines. Last semester I took only three classes but ended up writing 17 papers. I get really stressed under pressure and the weather just upsets me in general (the long, cold winter where everything looks dead is not something I enjoy). This semester I sought out student health services therapy for my depression, which had been ongoing for about a year before college, and while it wasn’t exactly a grand panacea, it did help somewhat to talk over things.

But even all of this was endurable because my dorm life had been relatively OK. I don’t have a lot of friends because first semester any participation I might have had in any writing organizations was stopped by the fact that I was already writing two papers every week, and I didn’t want to write more “for fun.” Also, I’m really quiet and introverted by nature, and my self-confidence in new social situations is lacking. So basically I didn’t really branch out a lot but that was OK, because I had made really good friends with my roommate and a couple of other friends in housing. However, ever since winter break I had considered the possibility of transferring, because even though I had made a couple of good friends, I am mostly miserable on campus.

I feel completely invisible here, like no one notices me or everyone looks through me as I walk around campus, and I feel my minority and female status has a lot to do with it. More than once I’ve wished that some fortunate and not too fatal accident/disease might land me in the hospital to relieve me of my responsibilities and let me somewhat gracefully bail out under an acceptable circumstance. While my grades last semester were fine (I got a 3.5) this semester is going quickly and neatly down the tube. I got an extension for this eight-page paper due two weeks back but still have yet to write a word. I’m barely toeing the line in a chem class and my languages are suffering as well. I’ve thought about dropping the class with the paper due as I’ve yet to read any of the book on which we are to have a final in three weeks, but each time I have been talked out of it, or talked into hanging on for a little bit longer. I’ve talked to my dean and my mom and my therapist several times about this, but they don’t seem to understand that when I say I’m sinking I mean I’ve already drowned. I feel awful about everything.

My dorm life too, which I had once depended upon so much, also recently imploded. Basically the major thing that happened was that my roommate, with whom I usually get along very well, became really upset with me because I didn’t give her enough advance to tell her that I didn’t want to enter into the housing draw in a suite with her because I didn’t want to room with another person who we were supposed to be rooming with. She said some things (including that she couldn’t trust me anymore). I didn’t say anything, mostly because I was feeling so guilty myself about it because she was completely in the right and I was in the wrong. Yet I just couldn’t room with this other girl next year. It would be a suite, always type-A, high energy, partying and drinking, and I’m just way more chill, more relaxed, than that.

A week or two later nominally everything had been settled, as we had the room draw and she got a single and I got in with these other girls who are pretty chill and low-key as well, except my roommate and I are still not talking. I had apologized the day of and then about a week after, except nothing came of it. Except the worst part about it was the way in which I was so totally dropped from the group, and people with whom I had been really close friends, even better than with my roommate, wouldn’t even greet me as we passed in the hall. It felt awful. At first I avoided my room completely, and I didn’t have a place to crash on campus except various common rooms and libraries. I felt so totally isolated. I remember going to a pizza parlor that day and sitting there for three hours and not ordering anything, just slowly turning over my own depression in my head.

The most disturbing thing about the situation, however, is that this happened basically once before, when I was in high school, over a journalism position for editor in chief with another girl who used to be one of my closest friends.

Over spring break I finally got up the courage to apply for transfer to the West Coast school I had turned down once before (I did this before the whole rooming thing happened). I don’t want to run from my problems, and I harbor no illusions about how much better life there might be than life here, except the way I figure it, even the worst there is better than the worst here because my friends and my family are nearby, and it’s not freezing six months out of the year. I just have no place here anymore, and I’m really alone and isolated and depressed nearly all the time. I don’t know what to do, and I certainly have no idea how to begin making headway on my homework. Most days I feel accomplished if I just go to class. I feel as though I can’t do anything, much less think, much less write. I feel like I can’t do anything right.

So I suppose the reason why I am writing is to ask your advice on how to continue on with the semester and general thoughts on the roommate situation and whether I should transfer back to the West Coast. I’ve never been one to read advice columns much, but I’ve read a bit of your stuff (well, OK, a lot), and I’m rather encouraged.

California Dreaming

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Dear California Dreaming,

I suggest that before you go back to the West Coast, try something new: Try really taking care of yourself. If you can really take care of yourself, you can get through this. And if you can get through this, you can have your dream of working in the New York publishing business. Or you can do whatever else you want to do, if it turns out that’s not your first-choice dream.

By really taking care of yourself, I mean giving yourself not just what you need but what you want, and more of it than you are used to giving yourself. If you are under a doctor’s care for clinical depression, continue that routine. But along with whatever you are doing with the doctor, try really taking good care of yourself physically, emotionally and spiritually.

After all, you are a California girl. You know how to do this. There are probably activities you used to take for granted in your California life that kept you sane and healthy. When did you feel happiest in California? What were you doing? Were you going to the beach? Were you in the sun? Were you getting massages or meditating? Were you dancing? Were you driving? Make a list of the activities that used to make you happy.

And then for six weeks do the following things. Exercise three times a week for at least half an hour. Eat three meals a day that include fresh vegetables and fruits and enough protein. Take a daily vitamin supplement with extra minerals and B vitamins. Get eight hours of sleep a night. Once a week, get a massage or sit in a hot tub or sauna or all three. If you come from a religious practice, do your religion. If you have a favorite food or meal, eat that favorite meal. Get your nails done. Have a facial. If you like animals, find some animals to be with. If you like to swim, swim. Consult your list of things that make you happy and do those things. Don’t worry about what other people think. Just follow your instincts and give yourself what you need.

If your grades slip a little, that’s OK. If it would make it easier to drop one course, go ahead and drop it. Meanwhile, establish a routine that keeps you in top physical and emotional shape. Do it as a program. Keep track of your self-care activities in a journal. Write down each day the things you do to keep yourself in good shape. Take note, in the journal, of any improvements in mood or attitude, but do not expect any overnight changes. You have been running yourself ragged for so long that it may take longer than a month to feel any genuine improvement. That’s OK.

Perhaps you can also adopt a new set of beliefs to get you through this. Try these new beliefs out: “It doesn’t matter how people treat me day-to-day. What matters is how I conduct myself. If I conduct myself with dignity and self-respect, and if I take care of myself, I will be fine. I do not need everyone to like me. I know what I want. If I take care of myself and work toward what I want, I will be fine. There is enough time for everything. I do not need to rush.”

Keep your mind on what you want. Establish some goals that make you happy to think about. If you want to be an editor and writer, what publishing house would you like to work for? What would be the titles of some of the books you would publish? What authors would you like to work with? But perhaps your East Coast experience has soured you on that dream. If it turns out that what you would rather do is work in the Los Angeles film business, then begin visualizing that in the same way. What directors would you like to work with? What movies would you like to produce?

Meanwhile, ask your therapist how to minimize the stresses you are most prone to. Ask what forces might be working on you that you are not aware of. For instance, you say you are introverted, but sometimes you sound like an extrovert. It may be that you have needs you are not fully aware of, and that you are incurring stresses because you do not take these needs seriously. Perhaps you have a higher need for approval than you realized. Perhaps you have a need for solitude but also have certain traits of the typical competitive, power-motivated extrovert. Winning does seem to suit you.

Explore these things. But do not expect quick answers. Just explore them to see if you can identify areas of stress that you can eliminate. This is all in the interest of taking good care of yourself while you work through this four-year program.

Do this and see how you feel by the end of the year. Take the summer off and enjoy yourself. Come back in the fall and do it again.

And if you do all these things and you still hate it there, no problem. You can always move to the West Coast and finish up there. Nothing wrong with that. The main thing is to learn to take care of yourself.

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