My sister’s stalker

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He accosted her on the street and forced her into his car. She went to the police and they did nothing

Cary’s classic column from Thursday, May 24, 2012

Dear Cary,

My younger sister is a 21-year-old college student who is “trapped” in an abusive relationship with her ex-boyfriend, who is 35 years old. She first met him when she was 19, fell in love with him and eventually moved in with him. After they started living together, she discovered that he was emotionally and verbally abusive, to the point that after six months, she had had enough, broke it off and moved out. The problem now is that for over a year, he refuses to accept that their relationship is over. Although he has not physically abused her, he has “forced” her into his car, screamed at her in public, in front of her professors and classmates, snatched her cellphone out of her hand to see if she has been talking to/texting other guys. He stalks her, physically, following her around town, staking out her apartment, and electronically, constantly checking her cellphone, email, Facebook, Amazon accounts, etc. (During the time that they were living together, he managed to get access to these accounts, and somehow manipulate the password access such that he continues to have access, despite my sister’s attempts to change passwords, etc.)

At one point things became so bad that she went to the police to file a report. She told me that the police were very unhelpful, reluctantly took the information, and seemed very unlikely to do anything unless/until he threatened her with physical harm. She says that she feels powerless to escape. At least that’s what she claims. I say this because she is by her own admission “not 100 percent certain” that she never wants to see him again. She is certain that there is no romantic future for them, but she claims she still has enough of an emotional tie to him that she is not entirely sure she wants him entirely out of her life.

Because they both live in a small college town, she cannot avoid him. He has no problem causing scenes in public which, to avoid, causes my sister to yield to his demands to talk, which often lead to screaming, crying fights, including threats on his part to commit suicide if she does not maintain contact with him.

She has told my parents and me about his abusive behavior, but because she attends school across the country, none of us have seen or can physically confront her “ex.” We are also hindered by the fact that she seems unwilling to do whatever it takes to get this psycho out of her life. It seems like during the time they lived together, he almost brainwashed her into thinking that she will never be able to fully escape his hold over her. We cannot be entirely sure that she is doing her utmost to escape his clutches.

What can I do to convince her that she needs to do whatever it takes to get him completely out of her life? And, assuming I can get her to see the light, what practical things can she do, without jeopardizing her safety, and, as much as possible, avoiding public humiliation and drama, which he has been all too willing to turn to in his efforts to control her?

A Concerned Older Brother

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Dear Older Brother,

One thing that will help is to impress upon her how dangerous her situation is.

As the group AWARE points out, “Stalking is a serious, potentially life-threatening crime. Even in its less severe forms, it permanently changes the lives of the people who are victimized by this crime, as well as affecting their friends, families, and co-workers. Law enforcement is only beginning to understand how to deal with this relatively new crime.”

Send her to the website for AWARE — “Arming Women Against Rape and Endangerment” and talk with her about what she finds there.

Also, womenslaw.org, a project of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, has a good explanation of the state-by-state variations in restraining-order law.

The fact that the police were initially unhelpful should not deter her. She will need to be persistent and thorough, and follow the often maddening and apparently senseless procedures outlined by the courts.

An understanding of how women have been historically denied their rights and mistreated by the courts will also motivate her. Perhaps it will make her angry. Anger may be what she needs. The consciousness-raising that women did in order to gain rights and public understanding took time and involved much conflict.

Perhaps I can also provide a little personal history to show how difficult it can be to disentangle the personal from the political.

When women first started talking to men about our abuses of women, many found it hard to accept that the behavior we had been taught by our older role models was in fact harmful and hateful.

It was hard to change.

Many of us men did change. Some resisted loudly. It was not easy for us to give up behaviors that we had worked hard to master in the first place. What I mean is, when you’re an adolescent boy, you turn to your dad and other older males to find out how to treat women. You ask them what women want, how to treat girls, and in my case, my elder male role models were all sexists.  So they taught us, their sons and nephews, to be sexists also. They didn’t call it learning how to be sexists. They called it “becoming a man.”

And then, after practicing what they had taught us during the sexual revolution in which sexual mores were loose and women were often compliant, we suddenly had to change. Women were suddenly demanding not only equality in the workplace but in the intimate spheres of romance and social life. Suddenly we were supposed to do the dishes and cook.We had not been taught even these elementary tasks of domestic maintenance! We were taught that there would always be women to do it! How crazy is that? And yet it’s true. There were degrees, of course. Some families were less sexist and more sensible than others. But for many, many men, this much was true:

We had to throw out what our fathers and uncles had taught us about how to treat women. We had to defy our fathers and uncles in this very intimate and emotional arena. It wasn’t easy.

Nor was it easy to give up our male privilege. It was not easy to give up our power. But many of us did. We saw that the assumptions we had been taught to make about women were wrong. We saw that how women were portrayed in movies and on television was wrong. We saw how this connected to women’s real unhappiness. I saw this in my own mother and in other women of her generation. I saw it and it hit home emotionally. I saw that how husbands and fathers treated women led to lasting harm. But it was not easy to give up what my father had taught me.

It was not easy and it was painful.

For there were bonding moments between men and boys that, though injurious to women, were emotionally satisfying. Sharing in the snicker and the leer, the knowing comment about a woman’s legs or breasts — these were our initiation into our fathers’ world, and with them came longed-for gestures of acceptance. These pitiful moments served as rites of passage: I whistled at a woman. I guess I’m a man now.

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The courageous work of women over the past century has enshrined many rights in law and custom. Because much seems now settled, it may be hard for younger women to grasp the ways men still use the conventions of romance to oppress them. That’s what this man did. He used the conventions of romantic love to oppress your sister. Now he is using the vestiges of romantic love to render her vulnerable to further attacks. And he has turned to tormenting her in ways that could probably be prosecuted. Yet when she goes to the police she finds herself rebuffed. Here, too, she is confronting the vestiges of a centuries-old center of male power. When a young woman approaches an older policeman to complain of emotional torment arising out of a romantic relationship, vestiges of the old patriarchal order are  reenacted.

So naturally she feels rebuffed. She feels as if her complaint was meager and unimportant. She has been patronized. She has been stripped of her dignity and power. It may sound hyperbolic to say this, but it is commonplace.

Knowing the larger picture can give one courage.

If your sister will educate herself about her history as a woman, she may make connections that motivate her psychologically and emotionally. That is what pioneering feminists did. That is why they met in consciousness-raising circles: They understood that if they were to succeed, they had to motivate each other. It was not only knowledge that they were transmitting, but courage.

This courage is what your sister needs. Women’s groups in her area will gladly provide some of that courage.

As for what else you can do, it might help to actually go there and talk with her. Go to the police station with her. Help her contact a lawyer who can talk to the police and frame the situation in such a way as to get a legal stay-away order.

There was a column a while back in which I was widely viewed to have given a too-lenient view of a domestic situation in which the man displayed traits that to many indicated that he was dangerous. So perhaps I can make up for it this time by insisting that this man’s behavior be treated as dangerous.

You can help by regularly checking in with her on the situation. You can also help by aiding her in changing her passwords. I don’t know the technical situation but it’s possible he knows not only her passwords but her supposedly safe “hints” — you know, the supposedly personal information only she would have. So please consult with someone about computer security and help her change her passwords in a more foolproof way.

In general, commit to giving her regular calls and pep talks to keep her motivated and confident. Visit her if at all possible. Impress upon her the seriousness of this man’s behavior. Be there in any way you can. Help her find a lawyer who can advocate for her in the courts. Don’t be discouraged. Be there. It’s what an older brother is for.

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Why am I attracted to my stalker?

Dear Cary:

I am writing to you for writing advice, more specifically, if it’s ever a good idea to write a fictional story based on an event that has happened in the author’s personal life.

Let me be more specific. For the past six months, I have been the victim of cyberstalking. It began as a flirtation in an online chatroom and transformed into an obsession with me that involved the predator changing identities seven different times in an attempt to gain control over me. What makes it more interesting, perhaps, is my occupation. I am a psychologist.

The details of the stalking are rich, as are the life circumstances in which my stalking began. I am well aware of the potential effects of abuse and have enlisted the support of a supportive therapist to sort out my feelings, which are complex. This complexity stems from my poor decision to allow my stalker to engage me for a month, under the guise of gaining more specific information about his identity, thereby putting an end to this ordeal. Unfortunately and quite unexpectedly, I developed feelings for him and continue to struggle with those feelings.

When I shared the events related to this stalking, both friends and colleagues alike expressed a fascination with the details, often exclaiming, “You can’t write this stuff.”  So should I attempt to “write this stuff,” creating a work of fiction, possibly in the thriller genre, based on a life event that not only happened to me, but that has affected me emotionally?

My first career was as a writer, but centered on writing advertising and marketing materials. The only thing I have published is my psychology dissertation, which was praised for its ability to hold readers’ attention and was written in a narrative style intertwined with an academic style.

My mind has started to explore the possibilities of plot — both based on real events, as memorialized by every email and instant message transcript I saved, combined with a variety of possible fictionalized plot twists and turns I have imagined.

How does one begin a work of fiction? Should I buy a book on how to develop a manuscript? Take a workshop? Hire an editor? And if yes, how?

When one has an important life event occur that has all the makings of a great book or movie, should one keep it to themselves or attempt to share it? Or am I just dreaming grandiose author fantasies instead of dealing with my trauma?

I appreciate your thoughts.

Thank you.

Dr. Prey

 

Dear Dr. Prey,

I’ve been reading The Art of Thought by Graham Wallas and it occurs to me that the reason it has taken so long to write this response is in part because of the “incubation” phase of the creative act. I did write to you when I first got this letter, excited to respond, intrigued with the situation. Then I waited a couple of weeks and was not sure why. Then when I began to draft a response, I needed clarification on a factual question and so I wrote to you about that, and you gave the answer that was required.

As a courtesy to readers, I will just say that I was not sure what the word “engaged” meant. You clarified that it meant you met with him privately in an online chat room. You never met him in person. He did request a meeting, which you declined. You gave me some other details, too, and I must admit I remain fascinated by the story, but want to just limit this to the one unambiguous response that I am clear about.

Now I sit, having been immersed in reading about psychoanalysis on a level I’m not really equipped to understand, and I come to your letter after a good long swim and some quiet time cleaning the kitchen, and it hits me: If you wish to write about this, I think the best form is not fiction but memoir.

You may at first object that you wish to keep your anonymity. Yes, of course you wish to keep your anonymity. And you can. But what is necessary here is to uncover and reveal to yourself your hidden impulses. You wish to understand yourself better. You wish to know why you acted in the ways you did. I think if you ask yourself these questions, and tell yourself the stories you need to tell, then it will become clear to you. And I think the way to do that is in the form of memoir and journal writing.

If you were an experienced fiction writer it would be different. You would be familiar with the way you disguise your own deepest themes; you would know, in some way, what you are saying by your fictional account even as it remains opaque to others. And so that might be a perfectly sensible way to deal with the powerful psychic material that is at hand.

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That might still happen. You still might find what you need by writing fiction. But I have a feeling it would be like trying to express something on the violin, and not knowing how to play the violin. You would have to learn how to play it, first. Whereas, you do know how to write first-person expository prose. You do have a voice already. You don’t need to burden yourself with the conventions of an art form that takes years to master.

My intuition says that the more rough and ready, direct route of writing memoir is the best way to deal with this material. That will mean journaling and recounting the story, going deep and freely into your own most primitive reasons for doing the things you did. Do not worry about protecting yourself at first. Treat the writing as though it were a confession, in the fullest, most profound sense. Pour yourself into it. If it helps, in the realm of a confession, to tell it to some imagined wise confidant, then do that.  Tell everything you know about yourself. Tell the pain. Tell of the fear behind the pain, or the pain behind the fear and fantasize about the ways you have found to alleviate it. What is your big pain? What is your big fear? I feel confident that the series of actions you took is related to your core fear. This is a story that has probably been repeated in your life. So tell the story. Begin with your deepest fear or your deepest pain and just confess it all.

Of course I don’t know what that is. You may not know yet. It may only emerge as you continually ask yourself what it is. This may be a route to finding that out. I can’t even guess. But the mystery is there for you to solve.You can solve it in the privacy of your own writing, which is a soul-searching practice. You needn’t publish what you produce. But you could. You could publish it under a pseudonym or you could publish it under your own name. That would be up to you. But I urge you to first write it as though it will never be seen. Write it as though it is your own secret, agonized journey, your own revelation.

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The bride fired her bridesmaid — me!

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, DEC 10, 2009

I guess I’m guilty of conduct unbecoming a bridesmaid — but I thought she chose me for who I am


Dear Cary,

I was asked by a dear friend to be her maid of honor. I was immediately a little worried. I’m not into traditional wedding fanfare. I’m kind of like the stereotypical guy in that respect: Tell me where to go and what to do, and I’ll do it. Plus, the wedding has been on a rushed schedule at a time when I have a lot going on in my life too. Add to that the fact that the bride and I have been drifting ever since she met her fiancé, about a year ago. The two are inseparable and not that social; I’ve just naturally spent more time with other company. Maybe my biggest mistake was not expressing my concerns when I was first asked. But I’ve been a maid of honor before and it’s gone fine, and I imagined this would be the same.

You can see the train wreck coming. Fast-forward to a month before the wedding: I get a scathing e-mail from the groom without the knowledge of my friend (I’m certain she did not know), stating that it’s time to “talk to me about my role as maid of honor” and maligning me for my many failures in the role. The e-mail was snide and contemptuous, questioned my values, and accused me of being “irresponsible,” “unaccountable,” “selfish,” of “not caring” and not being true to my “compassionate progressive values.” He said I misunderstood or underestimated the role, and that he couldn’t understand my lack of involvement or inquiries about the wedding planning. He ended by saying he had no faith that I’d show up for rehearsal and that he didn’t care anyway.

It felt like having the wind knocked out of me. So, I responded immediately, cc’ing my friend, basically saying “WTF?” (probably should have waited until I had a cooler head, admittedly). A few more e-mails ensue, I try to defend myself and point out that the groom’s e-mail was totally inappropriate and graceless, and my albeit defensive response is construed as a statement that I feel like the wedding is a burden, or that it’s all about me, and my friend’s whole family and the rest of the wedding party are royally pissed at me because of my response to the groom’s e-mail. So, my friend boots me from the wedding party because “others” don’t want me in the wedding anymore but says I can still come as a guest. I tried after my initial defensive response to be as apologetic and deferential as possible just to try to salvage things (trying to take the high road), but to no avail.

If the bride and groom’s actions sound irrational and extreme, it’s because that’s exactly how I experienced them.

After all the drama, honestly, my first reaction to being ousted was relief. A couple weeks have gone by, and now I feel totally pissed off. The truth is, I tried. I participated in planning and throwing a shower, and a bachelorette party, I got gifts, tried on dresses, etc., rearranged work responsibilities to make all the events … by no stretch was I the model maid of honor, but frankly I can’t imagine treating anyone close to me the way I’m being treated, especially someone who’d been doing things for me all summer — even if I found those efforts disappointing. And maybe this sounds like a lame excuse, but she never once expressed any hopes or expectations for what I would do. The missive from the groom was the first word ever uttered to me. I feel totally hung out to dry.

I was gracious when she dumped me, and we both tried to spin this as not an indictment of our friendship, but more and more it feels like one. Neither of us have reached out to the other since the “break,” and yesterday I reaffirmed my commitment to go to the wedding in an e-mail to see if I’m still welcome (still trying to take the high road) and received no response. It took her three days to write a tepid response that I can still come.

Our mutual friends agree I’ve been treated badly but think I should suck it up, and for the sake of the friendship put on a smile and go to the wedding. They think she’s stressed and under the influence of an overzealous fiancé and family, and that I’ll earn respect by showing up for her.

I have valued this friend. But the more I reflect on this situation I feel so angry and misunderstood. I feel I am owed an apology. It deeply offends me that my friend hasn’t stuck up for me, hasn’t acknowledged anything I actually did do for her, and doesn’t empathize with my point of view at all. Even though she blames the discord on the feelings of her family, I believe that they take their cues from her, and she could have stuck up for me as her friend.

How do I go to the wedding in these circumstances? But how do I not go, if I want to preserve a chance to salvage the friendship? Is there anything worth salvaging?

Maid of Honor Never Again

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Dear Never Again,

I have long labored under the illusion that when a bride chooses a maid of honor she is expressing her esteem and love for that person, declaring her to be part of her intimate circle of friends and family and pledging, symbolically, to include her in the new life that begins with the ceremony and will continue for years afterward.

I did not realize that choosing a maid of honor was equivalent to hiring an unpaid event planner on a probationary period, pending her demonstrated competency and loyalty to the company, lacking which she could be fired like a janitor from Manpower.

I guess I was wrong, and so were you. You thought you were chosen for who you were, for how she holds you in esteem. It turned out that you were hired provisionally on a trial basis and dismissed when your performance was judged subpar.

Knowing that weddings are pageants of power and status rather than declarations of loyalty and love can perhaps dull the blow. You can say to yourself it’s just another bullshit social competition. Also, some of the pain we find in adult friendships and social conflicts can be traced back to childhood. But that does not make the pain go away.

So just exactly what happened here? What was it about this friend that you liked so much? Did she make you feel special in some way? Did you feel when you were with her that you were the most important person in the world to her? Did her loyalty indeed shift suddenly and completely to her husband? Certain people make us feel wonderful when we are the subject of their attention but leave us devastated when, with a guiltless, frictionless, sociopathic cool, their attention shifts to a new object of reflection. Such people do not form deep bonds and cannot empathize; their relations with others are reflections of themselves. When you are giving such a person what she needs, that is, reflecting back to her a suitable image of herself, then you are her favorite and she loves you as she loves herself (ha ha). When you express yourself, however, or deviate from the image of herself she sees in you, then she turns away to find a more suitable reflection of herself.

Perhaps that is what happened. Perhaps you were the victim of a person with narcissistic tendencies. After all, a modern American wedding is a narcissist’s dream. Such a wedding ignores the great fact of all rites of passage: that while something is gained, something is lost. It only celebrates and does not mourn.

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Rather than accept the reality that not all of her friends are perfect reflections of herself, and not all of her friends exist solely to support her narrow view of who she is, which would have been an adult approach, your friend retreated from reality. The loss she might have accepted she instead transferred to you. She made you lose, rather than face reality.

It is ironic that the one ritual that is supposed to usher us into adulthood is so festooned with pastel fantasies of preadolescence. It is also an indictment of our culture. Covering ourselves in the rituals and symbols of childhood, we blind ourselves to our coldest and most bloody conquering, muttering silly platitudes about God and country while blithely marauding across the planet, conquering and destroying all that is not Disney.

By acting in such a way, the bride turned away from maturity. You, on the other hand, can use this event to grow stronger and wiser.

Painful as this is personally, I hope you will examine in detail what friendship means to you. What traits do you look for in friends? What do you value? Who among your friends is truly your ally? Who would come to your aid in a crisis? Who values you for your uniqueness and cares about your feelings? And who seems to be hanging around you only for what they can get? Who steps forward and offers help when you are in a jam or feeling bad? And who seems to be around only during the good times? Did any of your friends tell the bride what they thought of this action?

As for your own character: Each of us must know our strengths and weaknesses. Next time someone asks you something like this, you have a chance to say, Sorry, I’m not sure that’s for me. There’s no shame in that.

Lesson: Beware the narcissistic bride. If you displease her, she will inscribe the scarlet F for Fired on your forehead.

Since it’s been a few weeks since you wrote me, I include your addendum here:

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UPDATE: Dear Cary — So, I did go to the wedding, sat with our mutual friends, and was basically ignored. This was a few weeks ago, and she and I have had no contact since. I have mulled whether there is anything else I can do, but I think now the ball is in her court, and I fear that this friendship is over.

My friend and her husband are decent, reasonable people. I honestly do not know how they justify between themselves this sustained anger at me. My only suspicion is that the groom is very possessive, and as my friend’s closest girlfriend, I wonder if that was threatening to him (subconsciously, as he would never admit that to himself). He does not like her doing things without him. She accommodates this, realizing it’s an insecurity but also flattered by the depth of his love and need. I feel that he set this whole thing in motion with his explosive e-mail, and that my friend lacks the perspective right now to look objectively at what he did. I believe she sees his letter as an act of loyalty and love.

I have two rival impulses at this point: I still want to express to my friend my point of view, which I never did for fear of “ruining” her wedding. It also makes me sad to lose her as a friend. But I think this is out of my hands. I actually think the person who holds our fate in his hands at this point is the husband. And that pisses me off and makes me want to walk away. I don’t know that anything good would come of trying to talk honestly with my friend. But it feels bad, too, to walk away without an honest conversation.

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I’m losing it in public

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Airport foul-ups, traffic tie-ups, rude taxi drivers … I’ve had it!

Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, JAN 20, 2009

Dear Cary,

I am married with three children, and have a responsible and professional job as a writer that puts me in the public eye a bit. The other day I took two of my kids on a weekend flight (to meet my wife and the other kid) and we flew through the Marine Air Terminal at LaGuardia. I chose to drive in part because that terminal has a really cool short-term parking lot, close to the terminal. We could get out, and stroll right onto the plane.

But the parking lot was closed for repairs and it threw me. We had to go to a farther-away parking lot and take a shuttle bus and I couldn’t stop complaining. When we flew back, I couldn’t find the shuttle bus back to the parking lot. I dragged my kids from one part of the terminal to another, complaining to everyone I could find, asking why they had to close the parking lot, how inconvenient it was for me. The signage was unclear, and I sort of knew where the bus stopped, but I insisted on walking over to the taxi dispatcher to find out where the bus stopped, instead of waiting for it, and sure enough while I was complaining to him the bus came and we missed it.

So we took a cab and the cab dropped us off across a busy street and I dragged my kids across and another attendant asked me why the cab had done that. I started ranting, of course, about why they closed the parking lot. He said, “Don’t do this to your kids, man. Don’t do this in front of them. I am 60 and I have grandchildren.”

I tried to argue with him that I was right. That they shouldn’t have closed the parking lot because this was the one time I would be using it.

He said, “Everybody gets inconvenienced. Get over it. Don’t do this to your kids.”

I exploded. “I will NOT get over it!” He gave up listening to me.

And only then — did I feel happy.

Walking the final steps to the car, my oldest child started complaining on my behalf. “They should never have closed the parking lot.”

And only then I was able to say, “No, that guy was right. I was wrong.”

But I know this pattern will happen again. It happens just about every day. Some little thing is wrong with the world and I cannot stop ranting about it. A computer breakdown, a car breakdown, a problem with a call center, a credit card slip-up, a piece of lousy signage. Something. If it doesn’t work smoothly and easily, frictionlessly, I can’t bear it. I only feel better, it seems, when I have made someone else as uncomfortable as I feel.

And then I feel better.

I don’t know how long people will tolerate this or if I’m doing damage to my kids. I know I damaged my relationship with my wife this way. But I don’t want to stop. This seems like a much better way to deal with the problems of life that I can’t control. The only other alternative is to give in, accept it. And I won’t do that. It feels like losing.

What do you recommend?

Ranter

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Dear Ranter,

Well, I’m going to say this to you even though it sounds like a dumb cliché. It’s something those of us in recovery say to each other. We say, “To surrender means to go over to the winning side.”

We willingly abandon “our side” because “our side,” for all our loyalty to it, is given to behaviors that are, at their core, selfish, juvenile and kind of crazy. We are initially afraid to go over to the other side. We don’t know what it’s like over there. Our side at least is familiar. But we surrender. When we find ourselves in intolerable, hellish conflict, we surrender; we admit that the airlines are bigger than us, that the manufacturers of ceiling light fixtures and track lighting are bigger than us, that the designers of mass transit hub signage are bigger than us. We admit that no matter how crazy it seems, maybe there is something to be learned here. Maybe there is something about patience and acceptance.

All the same, I celebrate your spirit of outrage! I do not see how anyone with a critical intelligence could go through one day on this planet without being appalled and outraged at the world’s failures to live up to our expectations — and to its own potential! But the world ignores our memos pointing out its manifest sluggishness to correct deficiencies, its shortsightedness in planning freeway exits, its seeming indifference to quality control and continuous improvement, and the lack of proper signage in public transit stations. The world stares back at us like a sullen teen, reveling in its own incompetence.

I’m getting steamed just thinking about it. Take track-lighting components. It’s a long story, but I’m finally installing some track lighting in the kitchen that I bought three years ago and had installed elsewhere in the house before the remodel. Sunday I was sitting on the ladder looking at two T-connectors I bought three years ago, and I was remarking on how well-made they were — how, in my admiring opinion, they were better than they had to be. I was quietly rhapsodizing about the brilliance of America’s manufacturing tradition, picturing some worker  constantly improving the product, constantly thinking how to keep the production consistent. The T-connector I was looking at was a thing of beauty and utility.

So I go to the store to pick up a couple of straight connectors and the first one breaks. I get it replaced and the new one is completely defective. I attempt to modify it so it will work and the copper tab breaks off. I’m going to have to go to the lighting store on Saturday for the third time. So I look up what I can on the Internet about the company, trying to figure out what went wrong.

I have no idea if the quality of its track lighting components has anything to do with its acquisition by another, larger company, and the departure of its CEO and his replacement by a longtime executive of the acquiring company.  Maybe I just got a bad batch.

But in my head a story forms. Primitive people such as myself are known to make up stories to explain our experiences. In the story I make up, after being acquired, the company had to meet shareholder expectations and consequently the expensive longtime workers were laid off and younger, cheaper workers were hired, and they figured, hey, how hard could this be? They found cheaper, faster ways to make these little straight connectors, which is fine for them and their bottom line except making them that way means they break easily and so people like me buy stuff that breaks and we have to go back to the store three times. And we get angry and who do we get angry at? The store employee? The store employee can’t do anything about it. Maybe we should be mad at the person who is making half a million dollars a year running the company. And maybe we should say a prayer for all the longtime skilled workers who lost their jobs and lost their houses and packed their cars and left the industrial Midwest for California — Cupertino or Mountain View or Hayward. And maybe we should mourn the priceless knowledge and expertise that has been lost in the bullshit diaspora of the skilled American worker, now seeking work in Cupertino or Mountain View or Hayward, because rumor has it they make things there too, and the skilled worker who used to make real things that work well and don’t break is trying to explain why that knowledge is so valuable, and the financial wizard running the company is looking puzzled.

“What did you do in your last job?” the financial wizard asks.

“We made good things that worked well and we sold them,” says the worker.

“What was your growth model? How did you maximize shareholder value?” the financial wizard asks.

“We made good things that worked well and we sold them. What else do you need to know?” says the skilled worker.

But here is the thing, my friend. I share your outrage about shoddy manufacturing, poor transportation services and inadequate signage in public transit hubs. But you and I need to shake it off and move on.

Another example from my recent experience: Over the holidays I was delayed in my  flight a full day each way. Flying from San Francisco to Fort Walton Beach, Fla., the takeoff of the final leg was delayed eight hours, and then, late at night after a long day, after flying an hour out of Houston toward Fort Walton, we turned around and headed back to Houston. Around midnight, we hapless travelers lined up at the customer service desk in Houston. Because it was a weather delay, and out of the company’s control, the person behind the counter handed me a toothbrush and said, Good luck finding a hotel.

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I felt powerless, insulted, deeply abandoned. I was still recovering from surgery and was in pain. It sucked in so many ways I don’t even want to go into it.

But what was my role? My role was to recover and move on. My role was to surrender — that is, to go over to the winning side. And what was the winning side doing? The folks on the winning side were going about their business, treating these delays and mix-ups as the natural friction of the world. That’s what most of this stuff is, I think. It’s entropy. It’s the world’s natural resistance to our will. We push and it pushes back. We work toward order while entropy works toward chaos. Your will works against the grain of the world and the world resists and out of that resistance comes friction, heat and dust.

That’s not to say you have much choice. How can you avoid creating friction unless you are a monk who never leaves the house and never has a better idea for how to do things? The question is: Is your will the harmonious will of a wise self guided by its sense of its proper place in the world? Or is it the distorted will of the ego and its need for symbolic satisfaction? How can you tell? Sometimes through prayer and meditation and the occasional stroke of good luck one can know whether one is just exerting the idiotic, self-important, power-hungry will of the ego, or is doing the right but difficult thing and just encountering the natural resistance of the world. Sometimes.

But sometimes stuff just has to get done, and you will be in chaotic, insane friction with the world, and you have to put on your dust mask and your safety goggles and get the job done. You may be moving a tree stump. You may be creating a new company. You may be trying to get your kids on the plane. There will be traffic changes and holes in the ground. There will be friction as you rub up against the world, as you abrade the world and the world abrades you back. Such is the state of air travel today. Such is the state of home repair. Such is life. You encounter resistance and setbacks and howlingly insane incompetence and covert resentment from service personnel and all manner of cultural revenge and subterfuge and psychological sabotage and you have to take the hits and pick yourself up and keep moving toward that hill. You have to recover and keep going, with a smile. It’s never going to stop. It’s not going to get any easier. We have to surrender, shake it off, remember what we’re here for, and get the job done.

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My husband won’t touch me — what can I do?

I want desperately to have a child, and so does he.

Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, FEB 23, 2005

Dear Cary,

I am married to the man of my dreams — except for one thing: He won’t touch me. I’m not just talking about sex; I mean he’s averse to basic human contact. We’re down to a chaste kiss as he leaves for work, an occasional hug when I ask, and sometimes another chaste good-night kiss before he turns his back to me and falls asleep.

We’ve been together for almost 14 years (we’re both 37) and married for 12. We don’t have any children, although we married each other in part because we thought we’d have great kids together. We met in graduate school and reasoned that we’d get our careers off the ground before trying to start a family. More than a decade later, we’ve stopped even trying.

I think passion and romance are the sweetest stuff of life; he finds them completely unnecessary. When we were dating, he was a reluctant lover, always telling me, “We’ll do it after exams” or “It will feel more right after we’re married.”

For the first several years of our marriage, he blamed my weight as the sole reason we were not having sex. Let me clarify that I am an attractive woman with a beautiful face, long blond hair and a curvy, voluptuous body, which many men find very attractive — just not my husband. He told me about five years into the marriage that he’d felt deceived, that he’d believed I would change and lose weight. Of course, I’ve always said I wished I were thinner. At one point I lost a lot of weight, and nothing changed. However, at some point he did stop openly criticizing my body.

Several years ago, I went against all of my morals and upbringing and had an affair. I told myself it was my husband’s fault that I was forced to get my needs met elsewhere. But I was racked with guilt the whole time, and ultimately I ended it, resolving to try to make things work with my husband. A year later, it was still not working, and I separated from him. Only after the separation did he accidentally find out about the affair, and it was a wrenching experience for us both.

For a year we lived apart; I wound up driving home every weekend to see him. Because we just plain missed each other, we reconciled. But he warned me that his intimacy issues might be even worse than before my affair or the separation. Still, I wanted to try to make it work, and so did he.

Fast-forward three years later. It’s like I’m living as roommates with a best friend who is totally supportive of me emotionally and professionally, but not physically. He is my rock, my companion, the one I want to grow old with. Still, I don’t want to have a platonic marriage.

We went to a marriage counselor after our reconciliation with clear instructions that our objective was to find a way to be intimate with each other. The therapist said that our marriage appeared normal — if we were in our 60s, not 30s! During the second session, the therapist said he would only continue to see us if divorce were on the table. That was the last session we had with him.

Since then, we have near-weekly conversations about how to fix our little problem. We talk; I inevitably cry; he says that he doesn’t need intimacy and he’s sorry that I do, but he can’t give it to me. We’ve tried talking about this at other hours, too: on a Saturday afternoon over a game of Pente, over a bottle of wine at our favorite restaurant, in the car on a road trip as a philosophical discussion.

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Some people might ask if maybe my husband is gay. But he denies that he’s attracted to men and says that he likes to look at attractive women (implicit in that statement is that I’m not included in that group). He says it boils down to the fact that he doesn’t really like to be touched or to touch other people, and that he feels emotionally dead inside. I have a nephew with Asberger’s syndrome, a mild form of autism, which among other things makes people ultra-sensitive to touch. I see a lot of similarities between my husband and my nephew, and I wonder if he might be afflicted with that disorder, too. I do know that my husband’s first and only other love really devastated him when she ended their relationship when he was 21, and I’ve wondered if that was the cause of his intimacy issues. But he said he was like this with her, too.

Every once in a while (three times last year), my husband takes pity on me and says that it’s time to reset the clock. That means we do the deed. Then I can no longer say, “Come on, honey, it’s been three (four, five, six) months since we made love,” since the clock is reset to zero. After such a resetting, it is an unspoken rule that I am not supposed to ask again for a really long time.

Cary, if I didn’t love this man, I would just leave. But he is wonderful to me in every other way. We are great partners in this thing called life, and we really get each other as people. I don’t want to leave; I want to break through these intimacy issues.

Please don’t tell me that I should get my physical needs met elsewhere. I’ve worked hard over the last three years since the reconciliation to rebuild trust. But for all of my self-denial, I feel like it’s getting me nowhere. I’m starting to go a little crazy from being starved for simple affection. And, yes, for sex, too. And deep down, I fear that I will never have a family, something which is extremely important to me (and, I thought, to him).

My heart is breaking over the loss of so many important dreams. I may never become a mother, I may never have a family of my own, I may never again know sweet intimacy between a man and a woman, I may never even have another passionate kiss.

I can roll with things not being perfect. But he turns his shoulder to me every night when all I want is for him to take me into his arms and show me his love. Is this too much for a good wife to expect?

Mrs. Heartbroken

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Dear Mrs. Heartbroken,

It sounds like what you are going through is very painful. I know how desperately you are seeking a solution. But I do not think that a solution will arise until you look at the situation in a new light. I suggest that you ask not how you can get your husband to give you what you need, but what the meaning of your suffering is and what you are being called upon to do. Once you discover what you are being called to do, and accept that as your fate, you will find it easier to surrender, to stop fighting, to do what has to be done.

What your suffering means, I think, is that life wants to come through you. You are stopping it by remaining with your husband. That is why it hurts you so much. That is why you are suffering. It hurts to deny life. Of course it hurts. It’s meant to hurt. That’s how life tells you what it wants. You’re leaning into a wind full of needles. You’re defying something that wants to be born.

There is a baby that wants to be born, but there is also a happiness that wants to be born. There is some contentedness that wants to be born. And there is a man somewhere who wants to make you pregnant and raise a child with you. He’s banging on your window but you can’t hear him or see him because you’re frozen hard to your husband. Until you tear yourself away you will remain stuck, deaf and blind to your destiny. Of course, it is your choice whether you leave or not. I know you have said that divorce is nonnegotiable. I also know that nothing we say is irrevocable, and we cannot know the future or our own capacity for sacrifice and pain.

I think you will leave your husband eventually, or you will collapse around the emptiness. I only think you should leave him while you still have a chance to raise a family. It will hurt to leave your husband — it may tear some of your skin off, as though you were frozen to a January lamppost. But it would hurt more to stay. And I do not see that you have any choice, if you are to accept what life is asking of you.
Perhaps you feel that leaving your husband for purely personal desires might seem irresponsible. But these are not personal desires. These desires are universal. They are transpersonal. It will be easier to see that if you think in terms that transcend the individual self. Consider the awesome force that wants to move through you, to use you as its avenue of fruition; consider your needs for intimacy and affection as the way this force expresses itself. Think of the child who desires to come into existence.

Why is that so far-fetched a notion? We happily grant that when someone dies it’s beyond our control. Yet when life insists with a terrifying power on having us for its purposes, when some unknown being insists on disrupting our plans in order to be born, we find that strangely mystical and abstract. What is abstract about the force that through the green fuse drives the flower? Why is it so far-fetched to imagine that life wants to move through you, but that you are blocking it, and that is causing you pain?

It seems a shame that you and your therapist were unable to continue beyond two sessions because the question of divorce was deemed nonnegotiable. Shouldn’t everything be on the table in therapy? Isn’t the purpose of therapy revelation and change? How can the unexpected be revealed if you think you know what you want, and if you rule out certain options? I think if you rule out certain conclusions, you undermine therapy’s capacity to surprise, to unearth unexpected meaning. But perhaps that therapist did not have the right approach for you.

Divorce needn’t mean that your husband disappears from your life. If the bond between you is spiritual and familial, as it sounds like it is, you can maintain that bond. Your relationship needn’t simply end; rather, think of it as being transformed by grand, elemental powers. He will probably want to know this child and to remain your lifelong friend. Perhaps he can be like an uncle to this child.

Why life chose you, who knows? But I can’t see much profit in resisting it. It’s obvious that, painful as it may be, you have to leave this man and seek someone you can raise a child with.

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A bohemian in the Cheesecake Factory

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I’m an INFJ working undercover at JCrew/Abercrombie/Banana Republic/Sephora/Barneys/Apple/Eddie Bauer Town

Cary’s classic column from Tuesday, Dec 7, 2010

Dear Cary,

I’m a worldly, well-traveled, experienced and vibrant woman, still young (age 55), I have a wide network of interesting friends, a talented, caring and loving husband and a young adult daughter (who I raised alone) who is holding her own and doing well. I was blessed (I guess) with physical beauty and I have a strong and elegant personal style. I was fortunate to retire with a full pension almost two years ago and set upon a life of leisure while pursuing my art as an avocation, have held two successful gallery exhibits and produced a book as well, which has been very well received in my Rust Belt American city. I am an INFJ, if that tells you anything. The most marked characteristic to me is that we are only 3 percent of the population.

I consider myself to be very strong and am a survivor. I won’t go into my past except to say it included a measure of poverty, violence, loneliness and estrangement from family.

All of that has been long worked out. I truly believe that I am firmly on the path of being the woman I would have wanted to be when I was younger and full of doubt, avoidance, fear and uncertainty.
I believe those are traits that I still have — they are human traits, after all — and even when I feel overwhelmed by such emotions I am able to put them into context and move on.

I recently began working again, part-time, at a small retail establishment that is a corporate entity of her sister stores. It’s located in an affluent suburb in a pretty little shopping district that was built for just this purpose: retail. A pretty, little fake town with nice shops selling expensive goods: This is how the shopping district is set up. It’s pleasant and pretty and in my view it’s all pretend. Or it’s not. It’s all about marketing and spending money and capitalism. It is fascinating and when I go to work I feel as though I’m a cultural anthropologist visiting JCrew/Abercrombie/Banana Republic/Cheesecake Factory/Sephora/Barneys/Apple/Eddie Bauer/Brooks Brothers Town.

I see this as an opportunity for personal growth in getting along with people, especially women. In my real world the people I know are bohemian, earthy, acerbic, witty, creative, artsy and outrageous. My new work world is not like that. I feel that my challenge will be in honing my skill at interpersonal relationships. I have always been a square peg in a round hole, even among the boho crowd. I’m good with that. However, I am concerned about workplace relationships. The woman who hired me is lovely. I’m not worried about my boss, I’m worried about getting along with co-workers, all women.

I want to fit in, without fitting in, if you know what I mean. Already I am trying to squelch my internal critical dialogue of what I observe around me. I am also blessed (I guess) with the ability to see scenarios as they really are and to see people as they really are, i.e., I’m perceptive. Sometimes this makes me judgmental and I internalize that dialogue. I am now in an environment where my wry observations, sardonic wit and sarcastic barbs would most definitely not be well received.

I can control myself, no problem. My challenge is to learn to internalize acceptance of what I find to be icky: namely, entitled, outer-ring suburban McMansion, probably racist, certainly Republican (that is the demographic of the area), greedy, hypocritical and clueless. See, already I’m sounding harsh. How do I stop?

I really appreciate this job, even though the hours and wages are meager, because I believe it is giving me a valuable opportunity in navigating interpersonal relationships, including honing the art of diplomacy. These would be skills that I could apply in many different places for the rest of my life. How do I not fuck it up?

The Outsider

Dear Outsider,

They’ll assume you’re one of them until you bring in a painting.

So don’t bring in a painting. Keep the paintings in the trunk of your normal automobile, which they’ve seen you drive up in.

Don’t pose as normal, though. Pose as eccentric in a normal automobile. If you pose as normal they’ll know right off you’re weird. If you pose as eccentric but they see the normal automobile, they will believe the normal automobile.

You can’t fake normal.

It may be idiocy but it’s a finely calibrated idiocy you cannot fake. Look at Sarah Palin.

They’ve got too much experience. They’re like native French speakers.

It would be better if you rode bulls and drove stock cars. But your eccentricities can work. You can pose as the rebel insider.

You can do this easily. Just pretend. Keep in mind that you don’t have to hide everything; some of your activities will seem interesting to them until they learn enough to be confused.

Because you don’t belong, you’re going to work hard to appear to belong. Because you are skilled at appearing to belong, and because you are analytical and thoughtful, and because you know you are an outsider, you may appear to belong more than those who actually do belong.

This is the drama of the outsider.

Your difference makes a difference. But the difference to them is not as great as the difference to you.

You think they notice but they don’t. You think they know because to you it’s so friggin’ obvious. But they have not been issued a clue. They were not issued a clue and are not aware that a clue is available free on the Internet or at any public library.

So they will be astonished to find you’re not staying for life. “Oh, but you fit in so well here!” your boss will say, giving unconscious voice to the doubts that were there all along.

You will be mystified by their inability to see through your ruse.

One danger in giving this performance of fitting in is that you may appear weak. Someone may try to manipulate or bully you. That’s where the bull-riding story comes in. Or the story where you slit someone’s throat. Or a cop in the family. Some drama of throat-slitting or bull-riding will be a prophylaxis. It will sound eccentric, but since it’s violent, it’s permitted. That’s also where protection comes in.

Did I mention this is prison?

In prison you find a buddy. Figure out who has the power and make that person your buddy. Then, even if they do figure out that you don’t belong there, you’ll be protected.

I should have gone to my aunt’s funeral

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I could have gone, I should have gone, but I thought about the money and my other plans!

Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, APR 25, 2008

Dear Cary,

I just got done listening to this beautiful essay on NPR. Someone wrote in to say, “Always Go to the Funeral.” I’m writing you because I didn’t go, and I feel terrible about it. My aunt Miriam just passed away. She wasn’t really my aunt. I never knew how she was related to me. I used to call her “Grandma Miriam,” and later it was “Auntie Miriam.” She always gave me good Christmas presents.

I wanted to go to the funeral. Part of me did, at least, but part of me thought of all the obligations and plans I had already made (training course, baseball game, weekend at my boyfriend’s) and I didn’t want to cancel all these things. And then there was the money. I live in New York and most of my family is in New Mexico. I tried the bereavement rates and the discount carriers, and the cheapest flight I could get was $470.

I told myself, “Put it on your credit card. Think of all the useless crap you waste your money on every day, you can afford this.” But I didn’t want to spend the money. And then I thought of the dozens of times I had promised myself, “Always put friends and family before money.” And I asked my boyfriend for advice, and he said, “That’s a lot of money. It’s OK not to spend it.” And I asked my sister, “Is it OK if I don’t go? It’s just so expensive.” And she said it was OK. So now here I am. It is the morning of the funeral and I feel awful. I should have gone.

I could have afforded it. I’m loaded with credit card debt, but I waste my money on so many unnecessary things. This would have been a lot at once, but it wouldn’t be outrageous. Hell, I’m planning a summer vacation in New Mexico where I plan to stay at a fancy multi-star resort. I could have afforded it. And yet I didn’t go. And now it’s too late to change my mind.

I feel so much regret. And this regret makes me turn inward. I look at my life, and I wonder what I’m doing here. I love New York, but things like this make me wonder how I can survive so far away from my family. I miss them all the time. I don’t know what I’m doing in this city, in this job, so far away from everything. I earn money, and I spend it on rent and food. And the food is terrific, but what am I doing here? Why didn’t I go to the funeral? I want someone to say, “It’s OK.” But then I would know that they were just lying to soothe me.

Coulda Been a Mourner

Dear Coulda Been a Mourner,

When we are stung with regret about an action we have taken or failed to take, often our first thought is, Why?! Why did I do that? Why did I not do that?! Why?!

Why is not always the best question to ask. It is often better to first ask, What? For Why? presumes we already know the What? but we often don’t. Not really. Not fully. Not in the deep and lasting way fitting to an occasion we will remember the rest of our lives. Much of the Why? can be answered if we fully explore the What?.

So let’s ask, What? What happened? First, your aunt died. Your aunt died and news reached you — a relative called you and told you, or you received an e-mail. And then what happened? What did you do next? Did you sit down and feel sad? Where were you? Did you feel fearful or conflicted? Did you call someone close to you to talk about it? What feelings came up?

Write about that moment when you got the news. Put aside some time to do this. If it is hard to find the time, then consider the hours or days you would have put aside to go to the funeral, and put aside just a fraction of that time to write down your recollection of events. Put aside, say, just two hours when you can be alone and recollect it. Begin writing and do not be concerned about the quality or accuracy of what you write. Just keep the pen moving, or the fingers typing. Try to move forward in time through the events. Write about how you got the news, and what you thought about, and who you talked to, and what you remembered of your aunt. If things from the past occur to you as you write, put them in, but keep moving forward. Write about the activities you had planned for the period of time your aunt’s funeral would have been — the baseball game, the training course, the weekend at your boyfriend’s. Do not shame yourself for wanting to do these things. They are good, human activities. Write about those activities and how much you like them and how much you were looking forward to them. Also write about the $470 ticket to New Mexico, and your experience talking to airline reservation agents about bereavement fares.

It may help to write this in the form of a letter to a friend or relative. Or you may want to address it to your aunt. If you find you have specific things you want to say to your aunt, you can address her in the course of writing the letter even if the letter does not begin, Dear Auntie Miriam. Just say, by the way, Auntie Miriam, I wanted to tell you this. That way you can say things to her in the letter that you might have wanted to say, and if you want to ask forgiveness for not attending the funeral you can ask her forgiveness. She would probably understand. The dead are wise. But they don’t know everything. She might have been wondering where you were. So just tell her what happened.

Don’t worry about being correct. Just be complete. Put it all down: when you got the news, in what manner the news came to you, what you were doing when you got the news and where you were, who told you, what you felt and what you did. Try to remember the feelings you had and what went through your mind.

When you have written all this, then find a time to read it aloud to a close friend or family member, someone who will not judge you but will thank you and support you. Or, if you prefer, read it aloud alone, perhaps addressing our aunt as you read.

The simple truth is that you are experiencing deep regret and deep loss and you are trying to handle it. Funerals are one way to handle this but not the only way. It isn’t that you made the right decision or the wrong decision. You can’t change the fact that your aunt died and that you did not attend the funeral. This is what regret is like: Something has happened that really, truly, utterly cannot be changed. It is done. It is over. And we played a part in it. We chose a path and that choice cannot be changed either.

You are experiencing the loss of your aunt. But consider this: Losing someone is more like missing their funeral than attending their funeral. So what you are feeling is closer to the raw, irrevocable realization of death than what you would be feeling if you had gone to the funeral. In making this little mistake you have gained something irreplaceable that will serve you the rest of your life. Now you see why we have funerals. They help us get over it. They replace the dead with a convocation of the living. They help us avoid the true irrevocable silence and absence that is death. So it is good to go to the funeral not because we offend the dead with our absence. Funerals are very boring to the dead (they laugh about it later, at the after-party, and they make fun of our clothes). Instead it is good to go to the funeral because then we do not have to face the terror of our ultimate nonexistence alone in our apartments.

So next time someone close to you dies, you will know: Take the easy way out. Charge the bereavement fare to your credit card. Go to the funeral and be among the living. But please know that you are not a coarse, unfeeling person, that you have not offended her, that you are not lacking in human decency. You have done nothing wrong in missing this funeral. In fact, by writing out what happened, you can memorialize this event and honor your aunt in a way that is unique and that adds to her memory.

So think of it this way: Rather than attend the palliative event like the rest of the family, you unwittingly stuck your head out the window of the car and took in a full face of death at 70 miles an hour. Now you know what that’s like. It’s better to go to the funeral. But the funeral is not for the dead. The dead don’t need funerals. We the living do.

A student has approached me about his crisis of faith

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Should I tell a fundamentalist Christian student what I really think?

Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, JAN 27, 2006

Dear Cary,

I am a doctoral student/teaching assistant in English literature at a prestigious public school on the West Coast. Yesterday evening, one of the students from my Harlem Renaissance literature course Instant Messaged me and asked to meet for a talk. As one of the younger and more approachable T.A.s in my department, I tend to forge close relationships with my students, so I agreed. I arrived on campus, we plowed through the obligatory small talk about finals, the library, etc., and then he confessed the genuine reason for the late-night summons: a spiritual crisis. He belongs to an evangelical Christian church with small Bible study groups, and evidently he is at the point in his spiritual development where he is expected to go off and lead his own study “cell,” as he called it. He is not sure that he wants to do so, but he cannot discuss his doubts with his family or church friends because they would regard him as “spiritually done.”

Cary, I don’t know what to do for this young man. I am a pro-choice, Nader-supporting, Bush-loathing, lapsed Catholic New Yorker who lives in sin with her boyfriend. He knows this — why did he come to me for advice about his Christianity? I imagine you’ll suggest he did so because he wants an outside point of view, and I concur, but I don’t know how to be an objective source of support for him when I find Christian evangelism so repellent. I don’t want to encourage him to abandon his faith. Yet this is a young man who has lived in the same conservative Orange County community his entire life, who has never traveled anywhere outside of California, who leaves our vibrant campus (and his friends) every weekend because his church would frown upon his attending services elsewhere. It seems to me that he is sacrificing so much for a faith that has been stamped upon him rather than chosen freely — truly freely. I’m trying to be supportive (e.g., I encouraged him to seek out members of his church who reached the Bible study crossroads and opted out), but I have the feeling that he approached me because he knows I will ask tough questions about his faith. What should I do?

Trying to Save the Saved

Dear Trying to Save the Saved,

You have been approached as a sympathetic person but also as a representative of the academic tradition. Your different roles require different responses. So I suggest you respond in two ways. But be careful. If you have a copy of written guidelines governing relationships between teaching assistants and students, read them over. Think about whether there may be anything in this conversation that is recommended against. Think about the possible consequences.

Then, as a sympathetic peer, be honest with him, but stress that this conversation is strictly in confidence. If he wants what you have, which is a secular life, share with him its advantages and disadvantages. If you have from time to time wished that you could take refuge in an absolute faith, if you have at times called out to God and felt that you were heard or not heard, if you entertain certain beliefs as many of us do, tell him this too.

But do not neglect your duty as an academic, which is to aid the development of his mind. That means helping him think critically. If you were a priest or a minister, your duty would be to try to bolster his faith, to turn him away from doubt and toward devotion. As a representative of the tradition of intellectual inquiry and rigorous examination of ideas, your duty is just the opposite. Your duty is to prod him toward doubt. Because doubt is the basis of critical thinking.

So prod him toward doubt and see how his faith responds. But do not do this in any obvious, hectoring or badgering way. Instead, do it by simply asking questions.

Perhaps his faith is weak and dying. If so, perhaps that is as it should be — perhaps it is an inferior faith, a faith shallowly grounded, or not grounded at all but grafted onto his skin by charlatans whose own faith is only skin-deep. One doesn’t know until one probes, with seriousness, with an open mind.

It’s not your job to soft-pedal the academic tradition. Nor, in my opinion is it your job to be an “objective source of support.” It’s your job to help him learn to think critically and grapple intellectually with difficult questions.

If you think he needs other kinds of help — counseling or psychotherapy — then point him to sources for that. What you offer is different, and it is priceless and indispensable.

I’m obsessed with being a hipster

 I left my heart in Williamsburg, though I’m secretly a nerd.

Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, APR 12, 2007

Dear Cary,

I am obsessed with hipsterdom. I don’t know why, or what to do about it. I am not a hipster. I never have been. But I have always been on the outward edges, knowing what hip is, knowing people who were hip, while remaining nerdy myself.

When I was younger, back in high school, I hung out with the punks and indie rockers, but I myself wore Nikes (instead of Converse) and ran cross-country (instead of skateboarded). At the not-particularly-hip college I attended I dated one of the few indie rockers there, and got a deeper knowledge of rock and punk and post-punk and indie-hip fashion. But I still wore nerdy shoes and laughed too loudly at corny jokes.

After college the indie-rocker and I moved to Williamsburg, Brooklyn (before it exploded of course), and I learned to appreciate grit and dives and PBRs and irony. But still, I was a nerd.

While living there I hated Williamsburg because I always felt judged. I hated walking down the street in my dorky clothes with my dorky gait and my dorky smile. And I had no creative, impressive job to justify my presence there. I didn’t meet too many people. I became miserable. Eventually the indie rocker and I broke up and I moved to a less hip part of Brooklyn, a part where people do their own laundry and where the sidewalk is not a fashion parade. In this new neighborhood I don’t feel self-conscious when I walk to buy groceries.

The breakup meant the end of a lot of friendships, and I felt like I had to start from scratch. The people I’ve since made friends with are sweet-natured and forgiving of nerdiness– that is to say, they are not hipsters. I also have a new job working with some of the kindest people I’ve ever encountered, and I’ve been dating a caring and considerate gentleman.

I think that I should be happy to be in more comfortable surroundings, yet I feel so dissatisfied. I go to my job with my wonderful co-workers, and I judge them for listening to Coldplay. I judge my kindhearted friends for not having dark-rimmed glasses and Vans. I judge my neighborhood for not having galleries, or the right ZIP code.

I should be happy, but instead I achingly obsess over Pitchfork reviews and Vice Do’s and Don’ts. At work I sit in front of my computer and listen to people talk about Nine West heels and 401Ks and I just want to drink whiskey till I die. I want to read Kerouac and smoke cigarettes until my lungs are black and filthy.

I am so dissatisfied with my unhip life. Leaving Williamsburg and breaking up with the ex seem to have severed every connection to “cool” I ever had. Sometimes I feel like Eliza from “Pygmalion.” I wish I had never known what hip was, so I wouldn’t have to miss it. I am angry that this discernment exists in me, and that it goes unvalued and unused. I am also disgusted by the creeping feeling of superiority it gives me over my acquaintances.

Yet I can’t seem to let it go. And it’s pathetic, because I don’t have the hipness to back up my tastes and judgment. I am still the same nerdy person I always was. I haven’t improved my fashion sense. I don’t do art; instead I work a boring job at an accounting firm (does it get any worse than that?). I still don’t like calling sarcasm humor, and I still laugh too loudly at corny jokes. Worst of all, I’m getting old, and even the oblivious know that hip has an expiration.

Why do I yearn for this thing that can’t and won’t bring me satisfaction?

Tragically Unhip

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Dear Tragically Unhip,

You yearn for this thing because humans need to be a part of a tribe, or family, or belief system. This need is felt in the heart. It is an old need. Before, when we lived in places, this need could be met by places. But we don’t live in places anymore. We live in the electronic wind. We live in twitters and tweaks and snippets. We live in dream sequences and stream of consciousness. We live in downloads and compression. We live at 120 miles an hour. We live in Sensoria, Ill.

We live in synchronicity. As an example, as I am sitting at my desk attempting to respond to your wonderful letter this morning, the cellphone rings. It is a person who wants me to speak at a meeting tonight. This is synchronicity, the mundane magic we live in. It is the milk being delivered by a milkman who knows just what to deliver though I didn’t write an order down. The milkman knows. The phone rings.

Then the other phone rings, the land line, wirebound, copper-blooded, primitive. It is my friend, best man, rock journalist. He is making good on his promise to take me to see Iggy Pop April 21 at the Warfield. We will be going backstage.

You must excuse me, I don’t usually do this, but, trust me, I read him your letter over the phone because I knew he would get it. I trust the moment. I know he is going to write my column for me this morning.

He says, “I love that letter and totally empathize, but she’s looking at it from the wrong end of the telescope.”

And then he tells a story about interviewing Margo Timmins of the Cowboy Junkies 20-some-odd years ago and getting the impression that she was married to the bass player and writing a piece for a major daily and then going to see them at the Great American Music Hall and sitting at a table with friends and acquaintances. Timmins stops the show mid-set.

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She speaks his name. She says, “He wrote this really great article in the paper, but there’s one major fuck-up. I really like my bassist but no way I want to marry him. Man, you screwed up.”

He was sitting with a group of friends and a new date. It’s easy to imagine how he felt. So he goes backstage after the show and apologizes for his error. The door to the dressing room slams shut. “Sitting next to the door is a young Sean Penn. He says, ‘I’ve got something to say to you.’ And everybody got quiet. ‘If you ever fucking get your facts wrong again, I’m gonna tie you to a chair without food and water for a week — just like they say I did with Madonna.’ And the whole room burst out laughing.”

So, what is the point? What is the message? The message is that there are those who are big-hearted enough to put aside their pretensions and participate in what they love, risking shame and humiliation and heartbreak, but making genuine contributions and genuine connections. And there are those whose act of adoration is emulative, who love the pop cultural artifacts just as intensely as my friend but who remain fans at a distance. However you want to worship is cool. But at the heart of it must be a love of the thing.

You yearn for beauty and the intoxication of cool, the automatic, nonlinear, simultaneous cultural recognition that is an ancient phenomenon of tribalism, or belonging, or religious ecstasy. You feel joy when you see certain fashions and hear certain music. When you feel this joy, it is so intense that it actually makes you want to to be that thing, embody it, give yourself over to it, as though it were sexual ravishment. But you cannot. The thing resists you. There are practical considerations. You cannot be in the van with the thing because the van is full. But you love this thing, the way it makes you feel. It seems to recognize you as who you are. It is exactly the sound of your own heart. So you emulate this thing

Eventually, if you’re not careful, you come to feel that you own it. You elevate it above all other things. You do not want anyone else even to touch it.

Fandom can be beautiful and innocent. But it can lose its innocence and become aggressive, exclusive and competitive.

When Oprah Winfrey recently endorsed the writing of Cormac McCarthy, it troubled my friend at first. But he shook it off.

“Hip is communicable,” he says. “Cormac McCarthy is not mine. He belongs to anyone who can catch the disease.”

Keeping others away from those you love does not put you closer to them. But if you spread your love, it grows. So do not hide what you love. Instead, leave clues on your desk and in your clothing. Let people know. They will find you. They might get turned on to things you love.

And there are more ways than ever today to find what you love. You don’t have to live in a small town in Georgia to find Pylon.

My friend is old-school. He goes to record stores and uses telephones. So the other day he’s interviewing the lead singer of Love of Diagrams, the band from Melbourne, Australia, and he is curious to know how the band came upon the music of Pylon, the band from Athens, Ga., that was active in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

On the Internet, of course, says the singer. “It said click here if you want to hear Pylon, so I clicked there.”

She clicked there. That’s how it works.

So click there. If your love is true, click there. If your jones is genuine, click there. You can find a way of working in the world that puts you closer to the things you love. That is the answer to your question, I think. That is the solution to your yearning.

So now your assignment is to rearrange your life so that you participate in what you love. It might mean you become an A&R person or a publicist. It might mean you become a bartender in a club. It might mean that you find a day job that lets you follow the things you love. My friend, for instance, has arranged his life so that he can be a contributor and a participant. He interviews everybody and knows everybody. Is he a hipster? I don’t know. He works as a desk clerk in a hotel. He does what he loves.

That’s it in a nutshell: This yearning is genuine and ancient. Hear it. Honor it. If you don’t, Sean Penn will tie you to a chair without bread and water for a week, just like they say he did with Madonna.

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My dad threatened to shoot us all and chop us into pieces

Write for Advice

I’m not sure how much filial devotion
I owe my father, now that he’s talking
about buying a rifle.

Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, APR 4, 2007

Dear Cary,

Since our mother’s death four and a half years ago, the burden of caring for our elderly father has fallen to my siblings and me (particularly my oldest sister and my brother). When my parents retired they moved far away to a rural area in another state, which is difficult to reach by plane and is easily an eight-hour drive. My mother was never particularly happy there, and we were never very happy about having to travel so far to see her. Nevertheless, my father’s law ruled and she remained there until her death, lonely and isolated.

My father, to put it bluntly, has never been a particularly likable person, and he has alienated virtually everyone he has ever known. He is narcissistic and selfish, self-pitying and mean, insulting and dismissive. He has virtually no friends where he lives and is barely tolerated by his neighbors and fellow churchgoers. None of us feels any particular bond with him, outside of a feeling of obligation that we must care for him. All of us have admitted to each other and ourselves that we do not love him.

From afar, my sister pays his bills, makes his doctor’s appointments and schedules repairs for his tractor and appliances. My brother, who is disabled and doesn’t work, has made several extended-stay visits with him despite the severe emotional toll these visits take. Though we have persistently lobbied my father to move closer to us since my mother died, he has stubbornly refused to acknowledge his dependency on us or the excessive toll caring for him is taking.

In the last several months a few events have happened that have pushed the situation to a crisis point. First, an aide we hired to come to his house to assist him with medicines, buy groceries, etc. has become a romantic obsession for him. This came to our attention after he asked her to buy condoms so that they could “have sex ” because he is “in love” with her. Since she entered his life, he has attempted to transfer all of the duties my sister had been performing for him (and before that, our mother) to her, and became very irate when we interfered with this make-believe relationship by limiting the amount of time and types of activities the aide could perform. Next, his license was suspended (and will soon be revoked) because he is not fit to drive, an event we hoped would “wake him up” once and for all to the situation he is in, but it only gave him an excuse to rely more heavily on his aide. When she is not available, he continues to drive, putting at risk his own life and the lives of countless numbers of people unlucky enough to share the road with him.

Last weekend my sister and her husband drove down to his house to disable his car and ask him once again to come back with them, but unsurprisingly he refused. Then, he got it into his head that my brother-in-law must be at the bottom of this conspiracy (when in fact he has only been an exceedingly patient observer) and came after him with fists up. My brother-in-law restrained him, telling him he didn’t like the way he was treating his wife and the rest of his family, to which my father replied, “She’s my daughter and I’ll treat her any way I like.” When they decided to leave, my father ran after them, telling my sister that although she was once his “favorite” he didn’t love her anymore, and that he was soon going to buy a rifle and kill us all and chop us up into little pieces.

To say the least, we are fed up and disgusted. After the considerable investment of time and emotional energy she has contributed to our father’s cause over the past few years, my sister is devastated. He was a shitty father always, but when our mother was alive she was a buffer between him and the rest of us. It has only been in the last several years that we’ve had to face, so starkly, how much we truly do dislike him.

The question is, what to do? If he won’t help himself, and refuses to let us help him, what obligation do we have to bend to his whims? We can no longer care for him from where we live, and we no longer want him to move closer to us. It may sound cruel, but as the situation is not likely to get better, we would prefer to distance ourselves from it altogether. If he wants to be alone and as isolated from us as he is from the rest of the world, what obligation do we have to subject ourselves to his abuse and disdain?

Practically Fatherless

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Dear Practically Fatherless,

I would say you have very little filial obligation at this point, aside from the bill paying and medical scheduling that your sister is already doing. Because the relationship with a parent is felt to be so special, we sometimes neglect to consider the ways in which it is just another human relationship that must conform to the same norms and standards that every other human relationship conforms to. We overlook behavior that is in fact beyond the pale and intolerable, and that leads to insoluble conflicts and impossible situations.

It is understandable that you feel the age-old pull of fatherly gravity, that you are susceptible to an ancient wish to make things right. But not only do your well-meaning efforts meet with resistance — they seem to make matters worse. So remember this:

Your father is still capable of making choices. They may be bad choices, but they’re his choices.

In this case, he chose to chase the car down the road, threatening to buy a rifle and shoot you all and cut you up into pieces.

His threat may indicate that he is mentally unstable and in need of care. So I advise you to consult local psychiatric social services about what you can do in this regard. For while your obligation to involve yourself further may be limited, you do have an obligation to understand the legal and medical situation, so you can make informed choices. If he were willing to give up certain of his rights, by appointing someone his guardian and/or assigning durable power of attorney to someone, then you would have certain powers to conduct his financial affairs and restrict his movements. In this area, in addition to consulting with social services, you should get a full accounting of your legal rights and responsibilities from an attorney with experience and expertise in elder law. The SeniorLaw Web site lists many resources. An aging person, with certain indications of dementia, does not proceed neatly one day from “competent” to “incompetent.” Rather, for a period of time one is lucid at times and not at others. So I think unless and until he is declared incompetent, you must judge him by the standards you would use to judge anyone else.

All this becomes moot once he buys the rifle.

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Few prospects are more chilling than filicide. And, as this short monograph on Answer.com reminds us, Freud maintained that where there is a prohibition, there is a wish. Else why the prohibition, eh?

And parents do not just kill their little babies. They also kill their adult children. According to “Classifications and Descriptions of Parents Who Commit Filicide,” a research report authored by Linda Cylc while she was doing graduate work in psychology at Villanova University, “fathers generally kill older children. Murderous fathers frequently have histories of drug and alcohol abuse, previous criminal records, and very high levels of environmental stress, and the murdered children often have had previous injuries (Palermo, 2002; Stanton & Simpson, 2002) … One more stressor seems to be important; fathers who kill their children are very often going through a separation from their wife or other marriage/relationship problems, and this can be seen as an additional risk factor (Marleau, et al., 1999).”

So do what you can, and absolve yourself of guilt. Consult with legal and social services to get a firm understanding of what your options are. Try to define a trigger point at which you would petition the court to have your father declared incompetent. Otherwise, stay out of his way. And warn the neighbors!

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