I’m an artist about to explode

Cary’s classic column from Wednesday, Oct 26, 2011

Don’t get in my face! I’ve made enough compromises


Dear Cary,

I can’t do everything and I am pissed off that I can’t. I am also preemptively pissed off at your peanut gallery since they trend anti-artist and tend to take a sadistic glee in other people’s hard knocks.  I just wanted to give them the middle finger before I get on with my letter. Yeah assholes. This is me. Writing to Cary. STFU.

OK cool. Just between you and me, Cary, in that Internet way: I got a terrible review at work. In fact, I am about to have a meeting with my boss about it in two hours.  I work for a nonprofit. I HATE MY JOB, although I don’t really have anything against the org — or even my boss really. I am an artist. I work really, really hard to keep that dream alive. My artwork is the car I’ll never own, the house I’ll never own, the baby I’ll never get to have.

I am my own sugar daddy. I work 55 hours a week. I make totally decent money. In fact if I don’t screw up, my org is very generous with the 401K. I have to work here long enough for it to vest, though. My health insurance is off the hook too. Like shit I can and do totally see a doctor on a regular basis. It is rad. Oh, did I tell you that my student loans rival those of lawyers and doctors and I have never been late or missed a payment ever? Yep, I got that going on too.

The second I leave the office it’s like a parallel universe. I wear incredible shoes (thank you, inner sugar daddy!!) and blue glitter eyeliner. I help run an art gallery. I make and show large-scale installations that will never sell because it matches no one’s couch but whatever. I exercise and make amazing homemade ice cream to balance it out. I research and write grant proposals regularly. I take occasional classes on the weekend to learn new skills. I read a lot of art books because I happen to write art book reviews. I collaborate on art projects with my awesome boyfriend and we stay up too late because we are never finished talking.

I never get enough sleep.

So I am veering dangerously into burnout cuz whoops you actually can’t live two opposing lives for years on end. And I am furious. I’m furious that I’ve been playing this game for so long and still haven’t won. Furious that the system will tell me to sacrifice the life I actually love for work. Furious that my student loans are so enormous I can’t really afford to burn out. Furious that I don’t really have time to see a therapist since going to a therapist will take me away from my precious art-making time. Furious at whomever is going to tell me stop buying expensive eye makeup from Sephora because I could be saving more. Goddamit, people, how hard is it to understand that you have to spend more on makeup because that’s the only way you are going to get the exact shade and pigmentation you want? I am furious that I try so hard to make artwork and I simply just don’t have the time and energy to make it my best.

And now I have to sit and listen to my boss tell me how much I suck at a job that I guess I’m supposed to be grateful for. Fucking perverse man.

I need a little tenderness.

tuscanad_sept2016

Dear Needing a Little Tenderness,

Well, you came to the right place for a little tenderness mixed with rage at your tormenters because I am just back from leading writing workshops at the Sun Magazine “Into the Fire” conference at Esalen and still flush in the spirit of acclaiming and applauding all creative endeavors and all people who — and here comes the convoluted rest of the sentence  — endeavor them in whatever hell of nonprofit, politically correct, ego-manipulating, do-goody church-disguised-as-public-service to which they more-or-less willingly donate the marrow of their souls all to service their enormous college debt!

Debt! This debt! This massive debt of a generation! How was this fraud perpetrated upon an entire generation? This generation did not deserve to be saddled with debt. This generation deserved to be given horses to ride and blankets to sleep under.

(Beneath the stars of America the beautiful.)

But look what happened! And look at the crass and hectoring sadism of hecklers hurling rocks and bottles from the safe shadows of Internet anonymity at anyone who dares to speak honestly about his or her own true nature. Of course we know it’s projection for protection; we know that each person harbors his own artist/child who would speak up and proclaim its messy incompleteness of self and its own strange longing for expression if it hadn’t been wounded and filled with fear by family ridicule and school regimentation. We know that. So we try to be generous. Still, there are limits. We don’t have to smile and tolerate it. We can hit delete.

But look what happened! We should have been protesting all the time! We should have protested when we saw it coming! But we were too busy cultivating whatever semi-safe niche of cultural compromise we could find that offered a livable wage and health insurance! We were too busy surviving! Like you are!

And thus, surviving, are we sucked dry. Thus are we drained of our vitality. Thus are we lulled to sleep.

It is heartening to see the protests erupting around the country and around the world. These things are connected: The discontent of artists, the gloom of student debt, the crushing burden of housing costs, the rage at our nation’s foreign policy, the stupidification of our schools, the increasing concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few cunning philistines, the whole thing. The whole mess. It’s all connected. It is a Zeitgeist of obvious unfairness and wrongness that fairly screams out, This shit is just wrong! And thus it is perceived easily by any human.

So yeah.

How did it happen that a whole generation now lives in servitude to private lenders through the subterfuge of a supposed generosity? How the hell did that happen? It is mind-boggling. I can barely contain …

Anyway, I’m for you and I’m all for us artists. We are making it however we can. We are making it in whatever strange niche we have burrowed into. We are making it in whatever gallery to which we donate our hands and hours because we only feel completely alive when hanging something on a wall for others to look at or putting some handmade vision of torment and loveliness in just the right slant of skylight sun.

I’m all for us. I’m all for those of us who are only completely alive when alone in a room putting words together in ways that have never been done that way before.

I’m all for those of us who are courageously fulfilling a whispered instruction to go forth and create.

I’m all for those of us who are different, those of us who believe things that might sound crazy, things we can’t explain yet believe to be true and which we continue to see in our dreams. I’m all for those of us who will no longer apologize for being beautiful and true. I’m all on the side of the strangely deranged, the misguided and quietly stubborn defenders of obscure happiness.

I’ve made my compromises too. I worked at Chevron for five years to pay the rent. It wasn’t anybody forcing me to do that. It was my big idea to make peace with The Man, my big idea to try to do everything, have a marriage, have dogs, have a job, have a house, make prose and poems, live at the beach, all this of which I complain bitterly from time to time, this was all my idea. So I make my angry peace with it. I make my peace but I salute those who protest, and I will be joining them as soon as I am able.

So how long can you go at this pace before you break something? In my experience, when you start asking how long can you go it’s time to pull over for a nap so you can keep your eyes open and don’t run into the back of a truck.

Artistic ambition should come in a bottle with a warning label: Do not exceed recommended dosage. Side effects include distorted perception, melancholia, sudden rage and smudged eye shadow.

Or, in the immortal words of Pete Seeger, “Take it easy. But take it.”

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Am I fickle?

Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, MAR 5, 2003

I am exhilarated by the chase, but once I catch the girl I lose interest.


Dear Cary,

I’ve realized slowly over the last few months that I am one of those guys who is exhilarated by the chase but disappointed by the prize. My relationships never last for more than a few months because I lose interest in the poor girls so quickly once they’ve been “caught.” It has gotten to the point where I am sometimes glad when my pursuit of a girl does not work out because I can still care for and about her. I’ve pressed the pause button on anything that has the potential to become a romantic relationship for now because I’m worried about what this says about me. I’ve just gotten out of college and looking back this has been a pretty rigid pattern for me. Is this something I can expect to grow out of? I don’t know what to do aside from acknowledging that there is a problem.

Young and Fickle

tuscanad_sept2016

Dear Young and Fickle,

Yes, I think you will probably grow out of this. Or, more accurately, your social life and your work life will solidify, and the networks of people you associate with will grow more regular. As that happens, it will make less and less sense to pursue a woman only to seduce her and then leave her, because you will want her to become part of your social circle. You will want to have the added enjoyment of her becoming friends with your friends.

You may be surprised to find that at times you are actually bored with your girlfriend, yet at the same time you do not want to leave her, because you have become accustomed to her company, your friends like her, and if you ditch her you will incur anger and recrimination not only from her but from your friends. Bit by bit, it just starts to seem like it isn’t worth it anymore, all the drama and pain, when you can’t go to any bar or club without running into some girl you’d rather not run into, all the dislocation, all the toothbrushes and underwear you can’t remember whose house you left them at, all the CDs and shoes and stuff.

So you’re going to probably end up with some girlfriend that you can tolerate long enough to end up really caring about, and then you don’t want to leave her and make her cry and have her throw things at you and have all her friends hate you and say bad things about you, so you’ll try to psych yourself for a long-term relationship. And that is when you will learn to modify your behavior a little, to appreciate things about her that take time to know. And then you’ll find that things get better if you stick around. And that is how society works to civilize young men and protect young women from their savage predations.

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My children were abused

Cary’s classic column from  Monday, Aug 12, 2013

I live with an awful history, and sometimes it is too much for me


Dear Cary,

I am writing with a problem that makes my heart physically ache.

Let me briefly lay the groundwork first, and then I will present the problem. I was married for almost 20 years to a man who had three children from his first marriage. We had three more ourselves, and I legally adopted my oldest stepdaughter when she turned 18. My stepchildren’s mother is extremely abusive, and all three of them were physically, emotionally and/or sexually abused by her or her relatives. While I understand that she herself was a victim of the same behavior from her own family members, I cannot condone the perpetuation of the cycle. My adopted child (now 34) has worked really hard to separate herself from the traumas of her youth, only now to find that her father, my ex-husband, has now replaced her mother as the perpetrator of abuse in her life.

This daughter has a nice husband, a steady job in a call center, and a lovely son from a previous relationship. She also suffers from a mysterious auto-immune disease and severe chronic pain that nothing alleviates. She has mental problems that show up as bipolar but are probably more like PTSD. The more I study about bodywork, the more I understand that these conditions are outward manifestations of everything she has suffered and continues to suffer at the hands of her natural parents.

My firstborn was molested by my stepson, and raped by a neighbor’s grandson, but when we found out (years later, since she was too ashamed to tell us) my husband dismissed it as normal children’s sexual exploration. I caved in and never pressed charges. I will regret forever that I was not able to a) prevent it and b) stand up to my then-husband and do what was right by our daughter. It took me years also to grow enough of a spine to file for divorce. (As you might correctly surmise, our relationship was a perfect match of emotional abuser and willing victim … until I finally broke and had to make a change.)

Despite these things that happened, believe it or not, I do not regret my marriage. We had a marvelous time for a good long while. I learned about not only practical matters (confidence with power tools, for example), but even in the disintegration of the relationship I learned a lot: to stand up for myself, to make changes, to be really honest and intimate in ways that I never was able to before. I had to go through the fire and the dark tunnels and every other metaphor of shame, guilt, depression, etc., and find my strength there.  By going through all that, plus therapy, plus going back to school, I was really able to change myself for the better. Relationships with my children, my parents and my friends all improved because of me learning how to communicate.

What my ex will never comprehend is that the divorce itself was actually an act of love and compassion on my part, because neither of us could be our best person with each other. My hope was that both of us individually could be better people, better parents, happier and more functional than we were as a couple. He was, however, devastated and retreated into self-medication with alcohol, medical marijuana and opiates, as well as bad-mouthing me to his entire family and our children.

The problem as it stands now is that my ex-husband, who is chronically unemployed and now lives on disability, continues to rain abuse on his eldest daughter, most recently accusing her of dealing her prescription painkillers to her 14-year-old brother (my youngest child), being a heroin addict and flaunting her “wealth” in his face (because she occasionally buys him groceries and little gifts). Out of all six of his children she is the one who has been most steadfastly determined to be kind and loving and financially supportive of him, and she receives for her efforts only more abuse and pain. My biological children all refuse to see him or speak to him. I have a hard time watching him deteriorate this way. There seems to be nothing left of the man that I fell in love with. And of course, my children have lost their father, not to death or disappearance, but to some mental illness that prevents him from being a loving parent. This hurts me the most.

Is there any other advice than “let go”? Cut all ties and never look back?

I apologize for the very long letter, but I felt that I needed to explain myself thoroughly. I hope you might find the chance to answer this letter among so many others that call out for your attention. At the very least, writing this has been helpful to ease my mind and my heart.

Best wishes,
E

Dear E,

It makes sense that you would want to cut all ties and never look back. But that is probably not possible. It wouldn’t work. You are tied to these people. They are your family.

But you can make adjustments — as you seem to have done already.

In a practical sense, you can do more of what is working and less of what is not. Make that your daily method. In the morning, think about what is coming up in the day, and find time to do more of the things that work for you, and try to eliminate the things that don’t work. If you can avoid seeing certain people in the family whose presence distresses you, then avoid them. If you can write more letters and contemplate your life more, if you can spend more time with supportive friends, then do more of that.

You can be strong for your daughter. You can advise her to cut ties with her father, because he is only bringing her grief. And you can protect yourself. You can, in a sense, abandon these people. Recognizing that there is nothing you can do anymore, you can step back. I know that probably sounds trite, like just “let go.” In fact, what I am saying is that “letting go” is a positive thing but it is not an abstraction; it is a constant practice.

How do you get through such things? This, right now, is exactly how you get through it: You tell your story. You do what works. If writing this letter made you feel better, then write 10 such letters. Write a hundred letters. Write every day.

You know that there is no one complete solution to life’s suffering. But there are changes you can make. And you have to keep making them. You have to keep making adjustments because new things will always arise. Your ex-husband may continue to get worse. Your daughter may suffer continuing bouts of terror and depression and trauma. So you have to keep doing the things that work for you, and do more when you can.

You can also strengthen your capacity to hold and process the feelings that do come up; you can strengthen the way you hold the memories you have. You can strengthen your inner self so that when you think of these things they do not rock you back on your heels. You can learn to see the patterns in all this, to understand how it fits together. And you can also learn to honor the darkness, the ways in which there is no pattern but only evil. You can learn to respect the presence of evil; if not honor it, at least to abide it, so you are not surprised by it or defeated by it, so you can look it in the eye and be stronger than it.

This means calling upon your warrior spirit, your spirit of pure survival. Lately I have been thinking about the warrior spirit in all of us, the aggressive spirit. If you can think back to the act of being born, you can remember that when we are born we are fighting to the surface and we are pure aggression. We want to survive and that is all. We want to come into the world and that is all we know. This birth memory can serve you well. Remember that part of you that is pure survival instinct. It is strong.

So, no, I don’t have any great solutions, other than to trust yourself and the solutions you have already found, and to do more of what works, and less of what doesn’t, and trust your instincts about how to survive these terrible things, and look for the strength in yourself; feel the strength inside. Revel in your own strength, so when awful thoughts and memories arise, you can contain them.

There is no complete solution to living with awful things that have happened. There is only how you live with it day to day, with a strong, vibrant warrior’s spirit.

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Where is my home?

Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, APR 19, 2006

I’ve uprooted myself over and over again in a short time. Now I don’t know where I belong.


Dear Cary,

Two and a half years ago, I left New York to move to Chicago to be close to my family. I was burnt out from working too hard and my mother had breast cancer. I telecommuted from home and attended a seminary at night on weekends. I was happy.

My mother’s cancer went into remission and my company decided to rein in the telecommuters. I was offered the choice of returning to New York, going to California or going to Dallas. I chose California. It had its ups and downs and I wasn’t always happy, but I really grew there. But after a painful breakup and an increase in layoffs at my company, I chose to respond to a job offer in the Netherlands. I got the job and moved here last summer. I was not prepared for the increase in racism, ethnocentrism, and the general anti-immigrant climate that is sweeping much of Europe. The more I got over my loneliness here, the more I realized that I had no long-term future here (due to extremely restrictive government policies) and there wasn’t much joy in the day-to-day. On several occasions, I was told that this was not the country for me and that I should return to the States. After one time too many, I quit my job, and am now packing up for my return.

But I know you can’t go home again. Yet, that is what I am trying to do. I am trying to figure out how I’m going to rebuild my life after having started over so many times in such a short time. And what am I going to think of the Midwest or East Coast after my experiences in California and Europe? Can I really stand yet another trip to Ikea to furnish my entire flat in one go for under $1,000? Can I keep investing in places and lives not knowing if I or they are going to come or stay? Nothing feels permanent anymore. I feel like a perpetual transient, yet that is never what I intended to be. What I want is a place to call home, but I don’t know where that is anymore.

I admire people who go away and always have a place to go back to. I am in awe of those who are constantly on the move and never return, yet never seem to break. But I seem to be neither of those kinds of people.

So here I am in Europe trying to force myself to pack to return, but not really wanting to. Unfortunately, it’s not legally possible for me to stay. What do I do? How do I orient my thinking so that I can move on and value the experiences I had?

The Wanderer

tuscanad_sept2016

Dear Wanderer,

It makes sense that you feel the way you do. You have been a transient. Nothing has been permanent. So nothing feels permanent. You feel like a perpetual transient. You don’t know where home is anymore. And you feel caught between a committed state of nomadism and some kind of rooted existence.

So how do you orient your thinking? I think that first you just acknowledge that what you are feeling is appropriate. It is a reflection of reality. It would be strange if you didn’t feel this way. And it is natural that when you look to the future and imagine more of the same, you say, I can’t do this forever. Of course not.

Sometimes when we are in a situation that seems intolerable we forget that it is a story and it does have an ending. Stories begin with disruption. In your case your mother got breast cancer and that uprooted you, started you on your journey.

Then there are ripples of that original disruption, and complications and revelations. You went to the Netherlands and found the natives unfriendly. You went to California and ate delicious fruit. You had a breakup that you learned from. But always you were trying to find your home.

You haven’t just been wandering. You’ve been responding to trouble — first your mother’s trouble, then the needs of work. You’ve made choices, but in a narrow realm defined by powerful forces beyond your control. So it would make sense not only to feel homeless, but powerless too.

But here is something key to remember: The fact that powerful forces have narrowed your choices doesn’t mean that if you had the freedom to choose to live in Maui or Santa Barbara or anywhere you wanted, that you would feel at home. Rather what seems to affect your happiness is the kind of limits you are dealing with, and their source. Where the job has limited your choices, it has led to this chaos and isolation. But where it was your mother’s condition that limited your choices, somehow that led to happiness. While caring for your mother, you found a life that worked for you. You felt at home. Interesting.

Many things make up a home. If we are accustomed to thinking of home as an ideal environment, freely chosen, a place that reflects our dreams and aspirations, there is one element that might seem surprising or counterintuitive: Home is often a place we do not choose. Rather, home is the place we have to be. Our very first home we do not choose. And after we emerge from the womb it is still many years before we will live in a home of our own choosing. When we finally exercise our choices, we often think that what will make us happy is a home that suits our aesthetics, or reflects our values, or is in the image of what a home should look like. And so we move into this idea of home and start rearranging furniture. But we are unhappy in this idea of a home. We are unhappy in this place we have chosen for ourselves. Why is that?
I think it is because of the overlooked element of necessity and service. To be a home, a place must choose us. It must require something of us. It must need us.

In what sense is this true?

Well, home is where we give up our separateness, and we do not give that up easily. It must sometimes be taken from us by force. We cannot will ourselves to merge with the landscape. We are pulled out of ourselves not by the beauty of the landscape but by the fact that it requires us to dig a drainage ditch or fell some aging trees. That is why one can move to a beautiful place and be beautifully unhappy. Beauty alone does not suffice. What we need is what needs us, something that requires our presence, something that will bleed us of our insularity. It can be a landscape; it can be a community; it can be both.

I see in California many pretty houses. I see people go in and out. I wonder whether the landscape has invaded their dreams. I wonder if their mothers live there.

I hope your mother is OK now.

So we do not choose our home is what I mean. It chooses us.

It sounds to me like your home is in Chicago. That is the place that chose you. That’s where your home was the last time you were at home. I would start there.

Now maybe you will go back to Chicago and find your home is gone. Perhaps your mother does not need you there. What then? Then I think you have to search for the elements of home somewhere else: service, commitment, family, spirituality. Where are you needed? Choose the place that chooses you. That will be your home.

I’m a condo parking-spot hoarder!

Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, FEB 29, 2008

I have two spaces and only one car — but that doesn’t mean you can just use my spot!


Dear Cary,

I’ve lived in the same condominium complex off and on since the mid-’80s. I live in my family home, which I bought from my mother when she recently remarried. For 20-odd years, my townhouse has been full of family members, but since I bought it a year ago, I live alone.

Here’s where the issue comes in. Parking is a scarce commodity in my complex. Each unit is allotted two spaces. My township frowns on overnight parking on all city streets, so that’s a limited option for residents and their guests if there are more than two cars in a household. Because I live alone, I have one spot that is usually unoccupied. I don’t often have guests over. Needless to say, my neighbors have noticed this. I have tried to dissuade people from parking in my spot by leaving notes on their cars if I catch them in my spot. I am reluctant to have anyone towed if I can avoid it, so I usually stick with the notes as a deterrent.

There is one group of neighbors in particular who have an interest in my spot — a townhouse owned by a single woman who has a roommate, a boyfriend and many guests. She has asked before to use the spot, and I’ve let her. Lately, though, she’s been using my spot without asking first. It has been a problem because those were the rare cases when I actually needed my extra spot, so I had to walk over to her house to ask her to move. (That really irked me. I shouldn’t have to involve my neighbors in my plans to use my own spot.) The neighbor has also broached the subject of renting my spot in a few months, because she plans to have her boyfriend move in.

Here’s where I stand. I don’t want to rent my second parking spot. I don’t want to have my spot be the neighborhood guest spot. Not because I’m a greedy, horrible spot-hoarder (I hope!). It’s because what I value most about my living situation — living alone, owning instead of renting — is a sense of autonomy. I love that I don’t have to consult anyone else about my plans relating to my living situation (as long as my plans don’t cause a public nuisance, of course).

So I resent that my neighbor’s plans to have her boyfriend move in now make the boyfriend’s parking issues my problem. I resent that I am being put in the position to either have to say yes to be a nice, good neighbor, or say no and be a big old bitch.

I like not having parking issues — that’s the one perk of having to shoulder all of the responsibilities of homeownership alone. If I have a friend over, or a service person comes to call, there’s a spot available. But if my spot is shared with the whole neighborhood, that means that I have to involve them in my plans when my spot is needed. I don’t want that. I also don’t want to rent the spot, because if my situation changes — say I have more regular guests or acquire a roommate — my neighbors’ parking issues become my problem. I’ll have to feel guilty about the fact that X won’t have anywhere to park when I rescind the spot.

I just don’t want to be involved. I’d prefer it if the extent of my involvement with my neighbors was to say “hi” in the parking lot. No more, no less. Beyond that, I don’t want to be affected by developments in their household. I have no control over their choices, so why should I have some responsibility toward them?

So, my questions — Am I a big old spot-hoarding bitch? Am I being a bad neighbor? Am I obligated because the request was made and I do have a free spot? I feel like I am, and that there’s an expectation that I’ll agree to their requests. And I resent that, because if someone makes a request with the expectation that I’ll say yes — well, that’s not a request, it’s a veiled demand.

(I’ve noticed that I’ve written the word “resent” a lot. That’s the crux of this. I resent that I have to think about this. I resent that I have the choice of being either a bitch or limiting my own options by giving up my spot.)

Parking Spot Hoarder

tuscanad_sept2016

Dear Parking Spot Hoarder,

Put a plant there.

Call it “The Greening of the Parking Space.”

Who can argue with a plant? Who is going to drive over a plant? Who among your (I am guessing) politically correct neighbors is going to argue that a car is more important than a plant?

If you put a plant in the space, you are doing something amusing with the space. If you want to let someone park there, just tell them in advance, “Move the plant.” Moving the plant requires a little more psychological involvement than just pulling into the spot. It requires touching somebody’s plant. A stranger is not likely to feel comfortable doing that. It’s almost like they’re touching you, moving you. The plant is an intimate stand-in.

Believe me, I thought this whole thing through and wrote a ton of analysis before arriving at this. Then, because it’s journalism, I put the nugget right up front. So if you’re in a hurry, you could just take the nugget and go. Put a plant there. QED. Yep, I told you Cary Tennis was crazy.

But if you’ve got some time, or are curious about the various things that go on in my head, read on.

An analogy: If you had a detached house with a driveway with room for an extra car, would you let your neighbor park his car in your driveway? Probably not. He probably wouldn’t even ask. It’s obviously your property. The space is visually connected to your house. So one regards it as your domain.

So I’m guessing this condo parking spot is visually separate from your condo. Like, you probably can’t see it from your kitchen window. So to an onlooker it feels like just one anonymous parking space in a sea of parking spaces.

Another analogy: As to the argument that you’re not using it so why shouldn’t she: Well, if you have money in the bank and you’re not using it, does that mean somebody else can just come in and borrow it until you call them and tell them to please put it back because you need to use it? No. Owning it means it stays there untouched until you come to use it.

But you sort of can’t blame people, right? They look at an empty parking space and they think, “You’re not using it.”

But you are using it. Your use of it does not consist of always placing a car in it. Your use of it consists of having it always available to you. I get that.

But it’s hard for some people to get that. There’s this cognitive leap that must be made. Admittedly, it is a small cognitive leap. It has to do with property rights and condo laws and stuff. In fact, that is what really interests me — how your problem illustrates cultural attitudes toward property rights.

We Americans are half-rancher and half-villager.

Being half-villager and half-rancher, we have conflicting desires. We want to be part of community but we want to use our God-given property rights to set ourselves apart from it when our convenience requires or our legal prerogatives allow. It throws into relief just how deeply emotional and contradictory is the right of property itself. Yes, you can own that spot. Yes, it can remain empty. And yes, its remaining empty seems absurd when there are people who need to park.

It hints at the underlying uneasiness we have about property rights. How absurd that one can own a field and let it lie fallow when the poor could grow crops there! That one can own a building and keep it vacant when the poor could live there! That one can own an old house and tear it down when those who lived there before have stored precious memories there, when the community itself has rested its memories in that building; that one might own a marshland where beautiful birds nest and in one summer dig canals into it and place timeshares there when the birds have been there for millions of years; these are all the things that our property laws allow. And they offend our sense of justice. And this parking matter is a microcosm of that: Private property rights are in conflict with emotion and what seems to be common sense.

And, you know, this whole municipal business about no overnight parking on the streets, that’s just to ensure that households do not grow in number, to enforce a kind of economic discrimination, you know, making sure that only people who can afford their housing on one or two salaries can live there, and giving the area a kind of English village look, and making sure that no red-blooded males move in and start working on their cars in the yard. In the reputable social classes, everybody takes their cars to a reputable mechanic, right? Nobody works on their own cars in this neighborhood!

And what about the somewhat misguided municipal policies that make owning cars inconvenient in the belief that such policies will bolster use of public transit? I think public transit use increases with the convenience, affordability and safety of public transit; if transit is no good, you’re just going to piss people off by making car storage inconvenient, right? People have to put their cars someplace.

OK, enough about Menlo Park. (I don’t know where you live, actually. I suppose many municipalities have similar laws.)

So I think we ought to face up to what we are, and what we believe. We do believe in the sanctity of private property. And urbanism implies anonymity and isolation from neighbors, and ownership of private property allows for that. We are not one big community. So get it clear with your neighbors: That parking spot is yours, and if you want to keep it empty all the time that is your legal prerogative. And if you want to put a plant there … well, good luck with the condo committee and its bylaws!

Anyway, it was my meditation on fallow cropland that gave rise to the idea of putting a plant there. There must be certain plants that thrive in parking spaces! What about a Lotus? Or a Caryota? That sounds like a car that I would drive!

Like I say, who can argue with a plant?

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I’ve been lying to my family: I never actually graduated!

Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, AUG 4, 2008

I lied to shut them up but now I can hardly live with myself.


Dear Cary,

I need your advice on a problem of my own making. You see, I’m a liar: I’ve been lying to my parents, my sister and everyone I know, including my husband. I’m not lying about anything criminal or terribly immoral, but I have backed myself into a corner.

I don’t have a college degree yet. That is the source of my lies.

I lied to my family because they were asking me all the time if I had graduated and adding to the negative feelings I already have about not finishing. (It’s no exaggeration to say it came up in every conversation with my parents and sister for the past four years.) Long story short, my college career was basically cut at the knees when we moved from Boston to Phoenix for my husband’s job. This was good for him but not so good for me, as the only school here didn’t have equivalent courses for transfer, and to start over again was just too much in terms of time required, money, and so on. It was just easier at the time to get a job. I did, at one point, go back to my alma mater and complete one more semester, but it wasn’t quite enough to finish all requirements.

Now I’m tired of lying and deflecting questions. I’m tired of feeling like I have this awful cloud hanging over my head. I’m tired of hiding and feeling like a failure. So how do I tell my family the truth? And when I do, how do I face them with the admission I’ve been lying all this time? It’s so silly and stupid; I’m an intelligent, educated person and I realize that a piece of paper is not going to validate my existence. My fear is that they are going to lose respect for me, be disappointed, and, I guess, judge me as less-than. How do I face their recriminations? I fantasize about telling them all, but I just can’t seem to find the right moment. Will I ever?

Thanks for your time and any words of advice,

Liar

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Dear Liar,

The matter of how to tell them is simple. We will get to that. But the lying is complicated. A lie is a tool of power and control. We achieve a result. They stop asking us.

But then the lie pains us. We dread the future. We dread coming face-to-face. We dread their finding out who we are.

Here is who we are: We are changeable, fearful, inconstant, moody, irresolute, conflicted. We do the best we can. We do not always measure up; we take shortcuts; we are sometimes lazy; we forget things and our logic is not always clear. Sometimes we do not really like the things we say we like; we say we like them because it is easier. We are not everything you think we are. We are less and we are more but it’s too hard to explain. You wouldn’t understand if we tried. You wouldn’t even stay for the ending. You would nod and say you get it when you don’t. You don’t even begin to get it. So we lie to keep it short. We lie to keep you at bay. We lie because it hurts to not get what we want.

And what do we want? What would we want if we thought we could get it? That’s a good question. We would want, perhaps, acceptance with all our faults? We would want, perhaps, acknowledgment? What would we want?

Whatever we would want from the family we are lying to, let us face this truth: We probably won’t get it. What we want is probably beyond their power to provide. They don’t have it to give. They don’t know what it is. They never got it themselves and they get along fine without it as far as they know. They don’t even know how it feels to want it. So we can never get it from them.

OK, here is a truth you may find amusing. In 1978 my father gave me money for graduate school and I bought a few pounds of pot with it and put the pot in the trunk of the car and took off from Florida to California. Along the way I smoked a good bit of the pot. I became paranoid. In Georgia I was already so paranoid that I stopped at UPS and shipped the pot the rest of the way to California. The pot never got to California. A note from UPS came in the mail saying the package had been damaged and the contents had been destroyed. Ha ha. Up in smoke. Obviously my efforts at concealment had been insufficient. I was out of money. I had to work as a bike messenger while in grad school. For a long time I never told my dad this. Finally one day I did. He just looked at me funny.

OK, here is something else. After all that, after all he did for me, I never actually got the M.A. I passed my orals and had my thesis approved. There were 17 typographical errors to fix. This was in the era of typists. The typist cost money. I delayed. Plus I had one incomplete. Tuition cost money. Again I delayed. That was 27 years ago.

Recently a kind professor attempted to rescue me, to arrange for me to get the degree. She pulled me into the boat. I fell out of the boat again. I am unrescuable. I am full of holes and soggy with water. Though I have changed my ways, not everything can be corrected or erased.

My wife sticks with me. People come to my aid. Things happen slowly in my favor. But there will always be more lies, more lust for control, more fear of how I will feel if this person says that, if that person says this, if that person thinks this or that. What you see is what you get, a dreamer who cannot finish what he begins, a lurker, a stay-at-home, a shuffler down Mission District sidewalks dreaming of the perfect burrito, a halfway poet who inserts his lines into prose, a struggler, an effusive mime, a juggler going for the jugular, a dog-lover who forgets to feed them and recently forgot them in the truck almost overnight: What? Where are the poodles? I left them in the truck!

So what I demonstrate to you is my mode of confession. I do not tell all but I admit what I am, my flaws, my forgetfulness, my nature. I do not pretend I am much better than this. I leave the being better to others who are better. I am middling. I muddle. I applaud at the right places in order to not unduly embarrass those around me. I get by. I leave a trail of unfinished business. I track mud through the house. This is me. Or this is I. Which is it? I am supposed to know but I am not sure. I prefer, in fact, what is wrong. So it goes.

You have the chance here to just get real. Write them a letter and spill it. Don’t worry about what they think. You can’t control what they think. They are many miles away and it won’t help you. Here is how you do that. Find a quiet half an hour where you can work without distraction. Say, you make an appointment with yourself from 3 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. and you sit down somewhere and do not answer the telephone and you get a good pad of writing paper and a pencil or a pen and you just write them a short note telling them the truth.

You mail it.

It’ll be fun. You’ll feel different afterwards. Your life will be a little more interesting. It will be something to tell.

One more thing before I go, as the dog is growing restless:

Thank heavens for time. Without time, everything we do and feel and say and remember would all be balled up right now in some horrid, intolerable present. As it is you can use time to your advantage by putting out the truth now and then allowing time to coat and soften the truth with its balm of forgetfulness so the truth comes not so much like a slap but like a series of little breezes blowing in off the ocean (and what is it that has brought these breezes together so?), or a series of communiqués, letters the relatives receive and ponder, and wonder should they say something to you about it or should they ignore it? The ball is in their court. You dare them, as it were, to take the next step. And then you stand your ground, the newly gained high ground.