Category Archives: Advice

Advice and things about advice

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My queer radical feminist peers are aghast that I want to marry

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, JUN 8, 2006

I’m only 21 but I’m itching to get hitched!


Dear Cary,

For slightly over a year I have been in a serious relationship with the best human being I have ever met. He’s principled, loyal, wickedly funny and just the right kind of twisted. We have friends and pastimes in common. We get along with each other’s families. We fight productively and civilly, have a cat together, banter, and crack each other up. I could go on and on, but you’re just going to have to trust me on this one — we’re solid.

We’re best friends, and we’ve started talking about getting engaged within the coming year or so.

The inevitable wrinkle: I’m 21.

I know that a few decades ago I would be prime marrying age and a while before that I’d have been considered a spinster, but these days nobody gets married at 21.

Or, let me rephrase that. Liberal upper-middle-class university-educated alt-culture feminist intellectual daughters of feminists and intellectuals don’t get married at 21.

My friends have uniformly responded to any mention of marriage with either abject horror or resigned sorrow. (My best friend and honorary gay husband is a notable exception. He loves my partner and has cheerfully agreed to be my future best man.) My social circle at school is made up mostly of queer, radical feminist, and/or polyamorous hippies living in the most left-wing city in Canada. Discussions about marriage tend to focus on its insidious role as a tool of social control in the hands of patriarchs, religious extremists, capitalist whores, the family-values gang, right-wingers and other shadowy demons of the first order. Walking into the “Womyn’s Centre” with an engagement ring on to visit a friend (a room my partner’s Y chromosome disqualifies him from entering) would be a profound act of social suicide. My older friends, mostly 30- to 40-year-old teachers, poets and activists, are too enamored of my youthful freedom to bear talk about settling down. Even my mother, who is gagging for grandchildren, said she couldn’t believe I was her daughter when I said I’d give the hypothetical rugrats my partner’s last name.

Feminism aside, there’s the age issue. Another leap of faith I’m going to have to ask you to take is to believe that I’m not your average 21-year-old. Growing up as the daughter of two black sheep who called their parents on alcoholism and childhood abuse has left me with a very strong understanding of what it means to create and maintain healthy families as well as a lot of emotional and communicative skills learned from therapists and my incredible parents. I’m still changing, but I know myself. I’ve lived alone for three years, I’ve traveled, I’ve pursued education in an area I love passionately. My partner is a new and wonderful part of my life, not the end of it. But people talk like I’m going to join a nunnery or sacrifice my sense of self on the altar of matrimony to become a brood mare. OK, exaggeration. They tell me I’ll regret it. But it still makes me angry.

My partner, being male and 33 with no previous relationships and no children, is facing opposite pressure. After having been treated as somehow broken or defective for years, having a steady girlfriend has done nothing but help his social standing. He lives in a world of couples, and he’s no longer the odd man out. His family, god love ‘em, and especially his twice-married younger sister, are prone to making thinly veiled comments about us getting married and popping out spawn. As you can imagine, pressure to have kids is totally new to me, and hard to handle.

I guess my question isn’t whether or not I should get married. I’m pretty solid on that — I love him more than I knew I was capable of, and marriage fits into my values, my religion, my needs, my lifestyle. It doesn’t feel like a choice, it feels like an unimaginable blessing. My question is how to handle the pressure coming from all angles. Is there a way to filter the other voices and keep some clarity about the matter?

Or, if you’re feeling more adventurous: Is there a way to reconcile feminism and young marriage? A way that sounds snappy and can be used as a comeback the next time someone sneers, “I never thought I’d hear you talking like that”? How about a nice way to close the topic when his sister says, “Well, for at least one more year I can say I’ve made all the grandchildren in the family”? Is it possible to have the community involvement implicit in a public ritual like marriage without all of the judging, bitching and wheedling, or should I suck it up and get used to it?

Nesting Up North

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Dear Nesting,

I can’t think of anything more radically feminist than doing what you want. What else, fundamentally, have feminist women worked so hard for? Was it the dream of feminists that one day any woman who thought to make choices on her own would be scorned and shamed by other feminist women? Was that the idea?

I thought the idea was that women could gain the freedom to make their own decisions — on their own, when they want, regardless of age, social background or possible economic repercussions.

Social movements arise because of individual suffering. It is individual suffering multiplied many times, but it is individual and profound. When many people suffering in their own personal way recognize a set of external causes, then it is possible for them to work together to change the circumstances of their lives to benefit all of them. The civil rights movement and the feminist movement arose because individual people felt deep personal suffering and found the proximal causes of their suffering in social, economic and legal circumstances. They worked together to change those circumstances.

Working together requires individuals to sacrifice their individuality for the benefit of the group. But that is a practical necessity, not an ideal. The ideal is that social movements make it possible for individuals to do what will make them happy.

It doesn’t sound like your peers really understand that. It sounds like you are encountering the kind of in-group social pressure that arises after an oppositional movement becomes the status quo.

You may be too young to remember this, but there was a time when there were no mohawk haircuts in suburbia. Then one day some enterprising young man made it possible. He assembled the tools and materials and made himself a mohawk haircut in suburbia.

A bridge had been crossed.

That bridge has been crossed many times now. Young suburban men who wear mohawks are like docents in a museum, kindly reminding us of our heritage.

Similarly, certain orthodoxies that arose out of women’s struggles for freedom and equality were at one time materially significant issues. Women put off marriage and childbearing and in doing so broke new ground for other women. They changed society’s expectations. But now those new expectations have become entrenched as a new orthodoxy.

You may delay childbearing if you wish. That is an important freedom. But you do not have to.

It’s more complicated than that, I realize. Social struggle does not end with victory and a parade. But how can we be expected to make symbolic actions of self-denial when happiness stands grinning on our doorstep, jangling the keys?

In my book, any social movement that does not recognize that needs to do a little more criticism/self-criticism.

Somebody needs some consciousness-raising!

Um, so, go for it. Marry the dude. Have a ball. Sisterhood is powerful. So is love.

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Can therapy fix my parents?

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, JAN 6, 2005

We’ve been in counseling for about six months now, but it doesn’t seem to be affecting them.


Dear Cary,

You and other sage advice givers often recommend that people seek therapy for their problems, especially when a couple or family needs a mediator to help settle their issues. I’m a big believer in the power of talking it out with a disinterested third party. My question is, how do you know when it’s time to quit?

I’m 24 years old, and have a college degree, a good job and enough friends to keep me from getting lonely. I’ve been in individual therapy for a few years now, and it’s really helped me deal with some self-esteem and emotional issues, many of which are connected to my difficult family situation. I’ve been in family counseling with my parents for about six months. My parents probably seem to strangers like very pleasant people, but they are in massive denial over all sorts of deep-seated psychological issues, and they don’t want to take the risk of trying to deal with them, so they’ve basically shut down emotionally. Being raised in an environment where people were afraid of their feelings has had a profound effect on me, and I have a lot of buried anger toward them for raising me in such a repressive, unhappy environment.

When I was in college, I dealt with them as little as possible, pretty much only when I needed a check for my tuition. Once I graduated and no longer needed their money, they got upset that I wasn’t interested in continuing a superficial, dishonest relationship with them. We started counseling, at my request, because I was hoping I could explain to them why I’m so angry, so that we could be more honest with one another and move forward. However, it’s clear to me that they’re not interested in honesty — they just want me to go back to pretending that everything is nice and happy. They don’t want to deal with their own issues because they’re afraid, and they don’t want to deal with my issues because that would mean they’d have to admit that something might be wrong with them.

My therapist seems to think that they might eventually come around, but he has never met them. The family counselor says I can quit anytime I want, and that I should leave if I don’t feel the counseling is productive, but she has demurred when I asked whether she thinks continuing could be productive. I don’t want to give up on my parents, but at the same time, being around them drives me absolutely crazy (to the point of literally needing to spend two days curled up in the fetal position crying after spending the weekend with them) because either I have to pretend to feel something I don’t, or we end up fighting and they tell me it’s my fault for being “irrationally hostile.” We go around and around and never get anywhere, and I’m constantly upset about it. I feel like I’m wasting my time and energy trying to fix a situation that’s out of my control.

So do I quit? Is there any good reason to stay? And if I do quit, should I just cut them out of my life entirely? Is there something to be gained from putting myself through the pain of dealing with them? And can I fix a relationship with people who don’t want to fix themselves?

Thanks for listening. Even if you don’t answer, it feels good to have been able to ask.

Daughter

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Dear Daughter,

Nice to hear from you. It sounds like it’s too painful for you to deal with your parents right now. Why not take a break from them and focus on other areas of your life? At age 24, I imagine you are entering the workforce and establishing yourself socially and professionally, and perhaps beginning to look for a mate. The kinds of changes you want in your relationship with your parents may be impossible to obtain at this time, while other achievements may be well within your grasp.

So if I were you, I would continue in therapy but put your parents on the back burner. I would define some other goals therapy could help me with, like getting a better understanding of myself, clarifying my purpose on earth and finding out what might be holding me back from truly purposeful action.

If, however, you do come to feel that it’s your relationship with your parents that is holding you back, then try this: Ask yourself not how you feel about your parents but what you owe your parents. What are your obligations at this point in your life? They have put you through college but now you’re on your own: How can you fulfill your obligations?

This is different from asking what your parents want from you. Our parents may want us to fulfill certain unconscious wishes they retain from childhood, from their own relationships with their parents. We cannot help them with that. You can determine, however, what your concrete obligations are. And I think you can probably fulfill many of those obligations.

So what are our obligations to our parents? In general terms, you might come up with a list something like this: To speak with them or visit at least once a month. Not to cause them undue pain. Not to shame them. Not to steal from them. To treat them kindly and with respect. To help them when they become no longer able to take care of themselves. To be a comfort to them when possible.

Beyond fulfilling such obligations as these, we can get into trouble. For not only do you have obligations to your parents, but they have obligations to you. One of their chief obligations is to provide an environment in which you can become who you are. So if you betray yourself, then you betray your parents as well. For instance, suppose you conclude it’s your duty to your parents to become a plastic surgeon. If you are not suited to be a plastic surgeon, then in trying to become one you undermine your parents’ chief duty to you.

So the best you can do, as an adult, is to fulfill your concrete obligations to your parents. The rest — the emotional tenor of your relationship, your compatibility, your taste and politics and ideas, their projected wishes for you — is chancy.

If you can satisfy yourself that you are doing what is right and necessary as a daughter, perhaps it will ease some of the pain that arises when you see your parents. Perhaps it will also allow you to limit your contact with your parents without an undue sense of guilt.

It’s hard at 24 to imagine how a lifetime of experience has molded one’s parents, and harder still to keep in mind that time will continue to change them, robbing them of both their acuity and their rancor. If you simply go about living, you will find that these things take place, slowly but surely, seemingly without anyone’s effort.

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I bought a house and now I’m crying every day

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 Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, JAN 26, 2007

I think I made a big mistake. Home ownership isn’t what I thought it would be.


Dear Cary:

I am 35 years old, and we recently bought our first house. I have cried every day since. Our house is an older fixer-upper. All I could see when we looked at it was lots of potential. Most of my TV time is spent watching shows like “Flip This House” or “Designed to Sell.” They make it look so easy. There were so many red flags, but for some reason I persisted. I was determined I could do it, and now I am consumed by guilt and regret. My fiancé did not want to buy this house but agreed to because he wanted to make me happy.

We were able to get a mortgage, with no money down, that covered the closing costs. We have no savings and love to spend money. I had it in my mind that this would be a good way for us to get our finances in order, as we would have to start saving money. I know this sounds ridiculous, but I was so consumed with the American dream of owning a house to raise my son in and having the dog, garage, etc., that I lost sight of the true picture.

This dream has turned into a nightmare. I think too much emphasis is put on the ultimate dream of being a homeowner. Along with being a homeowner comes great, great responsibility, and this is a very scary thing. I now feel that maybe I am not cut out to be a homeowner. I doubted myself along the way, but everyone kept saying, “You will be so happy,” and, “It is the best investment you will ever make.”

We have the finances to make the payments and start saving, but I still cannot get past the sadness I feel. Looking back, I never had a great feeling about this, but I blamed it on the amount of work we needed to do on the house and the overwhelming task of moving.

I think we could sell and make what we have put into the house so far, and at this point, I am even willing to take a loss. This is a heavy, heavy burden that has left me feeling so empty. Is this something that will pass, or should I try to get out now so I can get my sanity back? I know I used poor judgment and made a mistake that will not be easily fixed, but I don’t want to spend the rest of my life in this lonely, sad place that I am at right now. Please help.

Sincerely,
Melissa

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Dear Melissa,

If you are crying every day and you feel much guilt and remorse, I would suggest getting checked out to see if you are having more than just the usual “I just bought a house” jitters. Do you have someone you can go to — a psychiatrist or clinical psychologist? It might be nothing, but it might be biochemical in nature. It’s always best to find out.

I’m no doctor. That’s why I’m suggesting you see one.

I’m no paragon of emotional stability, either, and I do recall feeling Oh My God What Have We Done after my wife and I purchased our first — and only — house in 1997. There was some feeling also of letdown after intense drama. Houses act powerfully on the psyche, that’s for sure.

So check in with somebody, a psychotherapist or psychiatrist. It may be something as simple as a hormonal letdown after months of anxiety and adrenaline-fueled highs; you may just need to spend a month eating three square meals a day, exercising and getting eight hours sleep.

Barring anything biochemical, perhaps things in your psyche have come together in this house-buying experience in a kind of perfect storm. Houses can bring all our insanities together within four walls, consolidating all our emotional debt into one huge monthly freakout. And maybe that’s what it is. The house could also be a metaphor for your ambivalence about commitment versus staying free, and all your fear about being tied down and not having choices — and you have a son and a fiancé, which indicates you may also be teetering on the brink of marriage/not marriage. Perhaps you’ve avoided this kind of panic before by not pulling the trigger.

But you wanted to see if you could do it and you did it. Good for you. I do that too. I want to see if I can do it because I’ve never done it before and always wondered. Like doing a remodel: Wonder what that’s like. Now I know. It makes your house pretty. But you go insane.

We adults do these things. We move big sums of money around. We make debt. We have kids. We do big adult things that that are hard to reverse. It’s not play. Maybe that’s what makes it scary: Play is reversible; you can start the game over again; you can knock down a Lego house and build it right back up again. But a real house is a house is a house is a house.

Up to a point. You do have a choice. The house is the house is the house — but only if you let the house be the house be the house. You can always sell the house sell the house sell the house. (Is there an editor in the house? Will somebody please stop me stop me stop me?)

The house can go away is what I’m saying, and you will still be the same person. You may be right that home ownership is not all it’s cracked up to be. You can say, You know what, I’d rather rent. Who needs all this responsibility? (Personally, I give serious thought to the joys of carefree apartment living about once a day.)

So take a deep breath and say out loud, I can always sell the house. I don’t have to do this if I don’t want to.

Say out loud: Either way I will be OK.

The house is not going to kill you. It’s just a place to sleep at night.

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My ex-fiancee is engaged to a jackass

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 Cary’s classic column from Wednesday, Feb 25, 2004

Should I tell her he’s cheating?


Dear Cary,

A friend, and ex-fiancée, of mine recently became engaged to someone she has known for only six months. They are planning a wedding only three months from today. When they were dating she never had anything positive to say about him and seemed on the verge of dumping him before he proposed. She has distanced herself from all of her friends because, though they are supportive, none of them think it’s a good idea. But the reasons that she gives for cutting her friends off are the tantrums that he throws every time she speaks to anyone who has ever said anything negative about him. I feel that her actual reason is that she wants to avoid thinking about her own fears and doubts about this man because she wants a successful relationship so badly that her partner is irrelevant.

She and I both know I have a conflict of interest in this. She knows that I still love her very much and had hoped that we could try again. The timing of our relationship was wrong for both of us and it ended badly, but our friendship survived. We are both very much attracted to each other. I didn’t take the news of her engagement well; rather, it led to a pretty intense depression and a lot of messy fallout. Her fiancé used that drama as his justification for forcing her to choose between friendship with me and their relationship. I lost.

But that’s not the reason I’m writing you.

I confirmed something about him that I had suspected for a long time, but it gives me no comfort because I cannot tell her what I know. Since they started dating he has given her lecture after lecture about how faithful he is, how important monogamy is to him, how he has never cheated on anyone he’s ever been with. She didn’t tell him that she had never been faithful to anyone, including me. He picked fights with her in public among their mutual friends over the fact that she is bisexual and that if she pursued her interest in women, she would be cheating on him. He did these kinds of things so often that I began to suspect that he was being defensive.

Tonight I found out that he was indeed cheating on her, and not only on her, but on his previous girlfriend. He left his previous girlfriend to be with the woman he was seeing on the side. There are nearly three months of overlap between the time he started “exclusively” seeing my friend and the time he finally stopped cheating on her. I found this out directly from the other woman. I even know the dates.

I can’t tell her. For one, she has a tendency to shoot messengers so if I’m to have any hope that she and I will end up together it has to come from another source. Two, my motives are suspect. At the same time, if she does find out and also finds out that I knew, she will never forgive me. I try to keep my big damn mouth shut, but she sees through me and will know if I am hiding something.

Do I e-mail him a picture of the other woman with a caption saying, “I know everything”? Do I go to the bar he manages and tell him that if he doesn’t come clean, I’ll have the other woman do it for him? Do I tell her myself and take it on the chin?

At a Loss

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Dear At a Loss,

Here’s what you do: You don’t e-mail him a picture. You don’t confront him at his bar. You don’t put someone else up to it. You don’t take it on the chin. You don’t do anything.

What you do is you let it go. You let her go. You let him go. You let everything go. Do some yoga: That part at the end where you let everything go out of your toes, do that. Sit in a blues club and let it go. Do the breath of fire and let it go. Do the downward dog and let it go. Put on some Coltrane and let it go; take a walk in the woods and let it go; go hunting or driving or running or cycling or whatever you do that stops you from thinking about her and her dishonesty and bad choices and willful blindness. Let it go.

There’s the personal angle and there’s the legal angle. The personal angle is that people make bad choices in their personal lives and it’s none of our business. The legal angle is that people make bad choices in marriage and it’s none of our business except where the marriage, as a public contract, affects children, property, other wives, etc. Just being a jackass isn’t grounds for anything. If he’s already married with kids in Idaho or a rap sheet that takes three minutes to print or three wives in Utah, OK, that’s relevant information that his intended betrothed ought to know. But if he just wasn’t done with all his sexual entanglements before he sexually entangled himself with your friend, that’s between them.

Besides, I have a feeling it’s not her moral choices that are bothering you as much as it is her sweet sex and who’s getting what you used to get. Because why else would you want to get back together with a woman who was never true to you or to anyone else anyway, unless she’s such a salty sweet bundle of lips and thighs that the mere thought of her makes you tingle so badly you need a neurologist or a priest? How could a guy who admits upfront that he’s got only selfish interests and who admits that she never was true to him anyway be deeply interested in the moral problem of infidelity and lies?

So don’t pretend to take the high road just to get to the low road. Whatever road you’re on, turn around and walk the other way. You’ve got no rights in the matter, being, as the poem says, “neither father nor lover.”

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Damaged goods

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, MAR 11, 2004

I got engaged, then found out she is bipolar. How can I break it off with the least amount of hurt for both of us?


Dear Cary,

I am in my 30s and from a religious background where one only dates (limited to conversations over dinner or telephone) with the intent of marriage.

A couple of months ago, I met an intelligent and pretty girl. We got together a few times and despite some differences, I felt that she was the one for me. We got engaged a couple of weeks ago.

Three days after our engagement she started crying about problems she had in her relationship with her mother. Then the next few sentences were a bombshell. She told me how she had battled depression and had been under psychiatric treatment for almost three years. I was in total shock, but kept it hidden from her. I reassured her that there was nothing wrong with her.

That night I could not sleep. Her erratic behavior was now appearing less benign than I believed earlier. The irritability, the sudden crying to the point of sobbing, the racing thoughts, complaints of insomnia, the mood swings.

I consulted a psychiatrist and within seconds of hearing the symptoms, he said that he strongly suspected bipolar disorder. Although it is a treatable mental illness, he said that there was no guarantee that it will not get passed on to the children; in fact there was a high likelihood of that.

Ours was not going to be a love marriage, but an arranged one, based on mutual interest and values. I am not in love with her, although I care deeply for her. I searched deeply within me to see if there was a future for us, but I found that I cannot raise a family where the burden of ensuring the emotional and mental stability had to be disproportionately borne by me. I am fully aware of adjusting myself to accommodate another person in my life and the compromises it entails, but this is more than what I had ever imagined. I stayed single so I could help my family. Since I am done on that front, I want to settle down in a peaceful and stable life with a partner, and not invite another challenge.

I don’t hold her responsible for not telling me about her problems before the engagement as she was very much interested in me and did not want to spoil it. We are all needy and a bit selfish and do things to buy ourselves happiness by sometimes jumping over the moral fence. But at the same time, I do not think that I am under any obligation, emotional or moral, to continue this relationship knowing what I know now. I know she will be very hurt, but I cannot be blamed for that.

How can I end this relationship with the least amount of hurt for both of us? It gives me no satisfaction to end this. I have been locked up in my apartment for the past few days and screening phone calls. I feel the darkness that descends with each night inside me. I just wish all this would end soon.

Hurting

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Dear Hurting,

What’s interesting here is that you didn’t have a change of heart. You had a deal that went sour. Whether you both understood the deal in the same way isn’t clear, but I’m inclined to agree that since she didn’t tell you about her history of psychiatric treatment, the deal is off.

Even if she hadn’t broken the deal, you’re free to break an engagement for any reason. The engagement is a kind of waiting period during which both parties assess their intentions and make sure they’re ready to go through with it. If serious doubts arise, the marriage is called off. It’s unpleasant, but it’s not a moral breach; it’s what the period of engagement is for.

What interests me also is the fact that this marriage you describe as “not … a love marriage” might yet be perceived as such by the woman, because of the enormous forces of culture and gender identity. Even if she is of your culture and knows the rhetoric, she still may see it not just as a business deal in which she bears children and shares in their raising but as the fulfillment of her emotional desires and perhaps, if she is an old-fashioned kind of woman, the realization of her purpose on earth.

It raises a whole host of questions: Is there a written contract for this arranged marriage, or are the terms assumed to be fully understood by the members of your culture or religion? Are you courting only women of this culture or religion? And, may I ask, how are women treated in your religion? Are they afforded equal rights, or are they expected to be subservient to the man? If they are, that could prove to be a grating source of conflict. And what about grounds for divorce? What if, for instance, the woman you marry turns out to be infertile, or to have a high chance of passing on some genetic disorder? Would that then be grounds for divorce? And what about abortion? If, for instance, her role is to provide a child to you, but bearing the child threatens her life, is she expected to risk her life to fulfill her contractual obligation? Is abortion permitted in your religion? I think you need to spell out these contingencies to any prospective bride. And the biological burden is not hers alone: She should be tested for reproductive health, but so should you. If you turned out to be infertile, any prospective wife would have the right to know that.

While I don’t fault you for what you’ve done, I hope you see that if the marriage is to serve certain specific purposes, you have to spell out all the contingencies, and make doubly sure that any future marriage prospect understands fully the nature of the contract. Because if it’s just a business deal for you, it’s also a business deal for her.

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Social cravings

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Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, DEC 20, 2002

I love my girlfriend, but she’s from an unambitious family. What’s an immigrant with a legacy wish supposed to do?


Dear Cary,

I am dating a wonderful young woman who makes me laugh. All the things I hate to do, like talking on the phone, cooking, changing tires, she can do with ease. All the things I am good at — sports, getting diplomas, reading — she has never been naturally inclined to do. I am a 24-year-old lawyer, and she is a 23-year-old administrative assistant.

My entire family, with the exception of my sister, came to this country with nothing and worked our way up. Coming from a small family, I am torn between marrying for love and marrying for perhaps a lesser degree of love with a higher chance of survival. Being young, employed, 6-foot tall and with reasonably decent manners, I am able to meet women and get along with them very well. I predict I can probably date and marry a nice woman with a larger, more established family if I just wait.

I am afraid that if I marry this woman, who lives with her divorced parent, I will harm my future progeny’s chances of success. This sounds rather cold, I know, but I feel a responsibility to establish myself in this country, and marrying a woman with no diploma and few close family members — delightful as she is — seems like taking a step backward. I’m not looking for a Kennedy-type clan, but I suspect that there is no natural desire for children to do well in school or to work hard. Those sorts of values are usually passed down through the generations.

There is also the networking advantage of being in a large family that stresses education. If I marry this woman — and as I write this, I can see her beautiful eyes gazing at me and her amazing way of getting melted butter on toast perfectly, spaced wonderfully next to the scrambled eggs, done just the way I like them — I will have a content, happy life.

If I marry someone a bit more established, a bit more brainy, I may not be as happy or as content as I am with this woman, but I know when I am 70, there will be a greater chance I will be able to flip through the family album and see a large group of doctors, lawyers, engineers, athletes and scientists.

What’s an immigrant with a legacy wish supposed to do?

Old-Fashioned

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Dear Old-Fashioned,

If you are only 24 and already thinking about how you’ll feel at 70, you have admirable foresight. In view of your expansive time horizon, you can probably afford to wait a few more years before settling down, especially since you already have some doubts about this woman. And I think you should. I think you should hold out until you can honestly say to yourself that this is the woman for you.
I wish you luck. I do have some experience, however, with using a girlfriend to try to wedge myself into a new social stratum via her family, and I can tell you that such a strategy is fraught with peril. You sound at once quite knowledgeable and dangerously naive.
Social class is a powerful taboo in America, all the more powerful because it is taboo. So if you should find yourself in love with a woman from a large, powerful family into which you would like to marry, in whose summer houses you would like to sleep, at whose old French table you would like to stuff yourself with Christmas ham, with whose brothers you would like to play touch football on the lawn, beware. If you find that for some reason after many dinners and many lemonades on the deck you’re still not married to her, you may be undergoing a secret WASP torture of silence, the exact methods of which even WASPs themselves are unaware, so sublimely subtle can be the cruelty of America’s casual Brahmins.
If that happens, consider yourself put in your place. Remember, it took the Kennedys a couple of generations, too.

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Free at last?

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Now that I’m finally free to leave my drag of a husband, he’s cleaning up his act. Should I leave him anyway?

 Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, JUN 10, 2003

Dear Cary,

For over a decade I promised myself I would move out of the house the day my youngest went off to college. For years I’ve lived with a drinking, underemployed, pessimistic drag of a mate. Nothing so awful I couldn’t hold out for the sake of the children, but always enough that I knew it wasn’t forever.

Well, the youngest is out the door soon, and my husband, perhaps aware there would soon be nothing to keep me attached, has suddenly become the loving, attentive, sober, amply employed spouse every woman desires. The problem is, I long ago mentally checked out, and can’t seem to emotionally reengage. Does this new behavior count for anything, since it is obviously forced, something he could have done years ago, and clearly fake, in order to keep me around? Should I stay and try to relearn to love him? Or should I remember the 15 years I wasn’t happy and get out now while I am able and while things seem so peaceful? What’s a fun-loving, out-of-love girl to do?

Ready to Run

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Dear Ready to Run,

Yes, I think you should probably leave. It sounds like you’ve built up too much resentment to see things clearly anyway, and I doubt that you’re likely to change.

Ideally, of course, in my universe, people do change; they endeavor to see the truth, full of nuance and paradox. But you’re a real person out there somewhere, not just an abstraction on paper. And real people often do not change, however much we wish they would. My own mother, for instance, bless her 80-year-old heart, still passionately enumerates my dad’s failures as if they happened yesterday, as if they caused every subsequent unhappiness that has visited the world. I can’t change her. I can’t change you. If you truly believe that your husband is just faking his new happiness because he can’t bear the thought of losing you, and that his change is the same penny-ante dime-a-dozen miracle that anybody can turn on or off any old time he wants to, and he could have done this years earlier but didn’t out of some fundamental contrariness, then you really should just leave.

In my ideal world, however, whether you leave him or not, you wouldn’t presume to know your husband’s motivations for his recent change, or for his years of failing to live up to your expectations. You’d recognize that your expectations of others don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. You wouldn’t assume that your husband’s decisions revolve around his regard for you. You wouldn’t blame him for who he is. You’d view these years you spent raising your children with some compassion for yourself and some humility and some perspective.

You would throw away your judgments, your recriminations, your belief in your own rightness. You would take responsibility for your actions and move on without comment. If you have stayed with this guy this long for the sake of the children, you would be proud of the fact that you did it for the children, but you would recognize that it was a choice; it wasn’t something he or the children forced you to do; you did it because it was the right thing to do and you did it willingly.

TuscanAd2016_earlybirdIn my ideal world, you’d have reverence for the sanctity of your own decisions. You’d honor without question that promise you made to yourself long ago. You wouldn’t make it conditional on your husband’s current behavior; you wouldn’t allow yourself to be manipulated whether he’s doing it consciously or not. You’d just move out. You’d just tell him that you’ve got to go.

Finally, in my ideal world, you would have the courage to seek the truth. You would rather know some uncomfortable facts than hold grudges and cast judgments. And so you would entertain the possibility that there are other reasons for your husband’s change. Perhaps, for instance, he’s found another woman and that’s why he’s so chipper. Perhaps you weren’t the only one feeling burdened and resentful and only sticking it out for the sake of the children; perhaps you weren’t the only one with dreams you felt were being stifled; perhaps he was suffocating all that time, knowing you only viewed him as a necessity, a provider of money and a figurehead, an interchangeable accessory to a mother’s life.

But that’s in my ideal world. In this world, I think you should just move out. One request, on behalf of your children: To your dying day, whatever you may feel about your husband’s failures and betrayals, always speak highly of him to your kids.

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I can’t stand losing my beauty as I age!

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 I’m 43 and I’ve always been beautiful, and now I am in a state of shock at what’s happening!

 Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, NOV 15, 2007

Dear Cary,

I am a 43-year-old woman. I have been married and soon will be again. I do not have children.

Without sounding like an arrogant jerk, I am very pretty. I have taken this prettiness for granted my whole life while thinking (somewhat hypocritically) that “looks aren’t that important.” Certainly I have not consciously coasted on my looks — I have held very senior positions in very well-recognized companies. My looks might not have hurt me in my jobs, but certainly I did not coast to the top of a highly competitive field without something to offer other than a pretty smile.

I’ve always known that people admire me for my looks; I’d have to be blind and deaf not to perceive my effect on most men. I’ve always been impatient with women who talk about how “lucky” I am, or men who presume that I can get whatever I want because of my beauty. Even pretty people have to earn a living; even we get taken to task for our capabilities, if we presume to test them, which I have. To that end, I am a well-rounded person — I read a lot, I recorded an album of acoustic songs and sometimes play at gigs. I am good at a few sports — very good at one. I am well-traveled, speak a few languages, and I’m a pretty good cook.

So it’s been with some surprise that, as I entered my 40s, I have realized that my looks are becoming more, rather than less, important to me. I find myself scrutinizing women all around me — usually in a critical way. It’s horrible — I don’t recognize this voice that has suddenly taken over my head at all. It picks apart young women and derides older women. No woman, it seems, is spared from this internal critical monologue. As for women over 50, forget it. I see them dressed up or getting their hair done at my salon, and I think, “Why does she bother?”

I have always been somewhat “low maintenance” — no makeup, simple hair, very little fuss. I like nice clothes but I frequently wear jeans and the kind of clothing you can find at REI. I do not dress to call attention to myself, and I’ve never consciously tried to appear sexy. When the Botox craze first came to light I was horrified that women would do that to themselves. I’ve always been pretty disdainful of plastic surgery, too.

And now, suddenly, I am buying magazines about just these procedures, surfing the Net late into the night, eagerly looking at all the things I can do to myself to preserve my looks.

I don’t understand this at all. It makes me feel miserable about myself. And then I project that misery out onto the world and find myself making up reasons to resent young women and the men who are attracted to them. Which is silly — I don’t blame men my age for being attracted to women half their age. I certainly can appreciate the beauty of a guy half my age. I’ve dated a few.

Is it death that I am afraid of? Or just aging and losing the power of my beauty, the power of being the center of attention even when I don’t seek it? And if it’s the latter — well, why are all of my many accomplishments suddenly not enough?

My boyfriend is two years younger than me. He is very good looking — but looks his age. I have studied the signs of aging on his face and feel nothing but affection for them. His crow’s feet and sun damage do not detract at all from his appeal, in my view. Why can’t I relax and assume that other people can be as forgiving toward my signs of aging as I am toward theirs? I find myself very uncomfortable if someone stares at me. Whereas I used to dismiss it as another guy admiring me or trying to get my attention, now what I think is, he’s noticing the lines on my forehead, or the way my skin isn’t as smooth as it once was.

I read your column regularly and know that if you publish this certain mean men are going to eagerly jump out of the woodwork and gleefully tell me that I am finally getting what’s due me, that men don’t find women my age attractive ever. The thing is, I don’t believe this. I don’t believe this and yet I am afraid that it is so, that if every man in the universe were to take a quiz and be totally, totally honest about what kind of woman he’d prefer to be with, he’d pick “young” over any other attribute. But isn’t it funny — I never felt that way when I was young. In my 20s I always felt at a distinct disadvantage around the older, more sophisticated female executives around me. I never took the admiration of the men around me very seriously — I felt their admiration was quite impersonal, not really directed at me, but at the idea of me. I could have been anyone — there was nothing personal at all in their regard for me.

So what’s causing this terrible antipathy toward aging (and not just aging — female aging)? Why now? And how do I stop this?

Aging Beauty

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Dear Aging Beauty,

I think this is not so much about death as it is about the loss of social power, and, moreover, the loss of a certain daily vitamin of high regard that sustains and energizes the beautiful.

Most of us are only really lovely for a few short years in childhood. But not so for the beautiful. In the day-to-day world, where most of us lose so much of ourselves and are granted so little in the way of courtesy and love, the pretty person absorbs love out of the air, off the street, in the stores, absorbs love like a child cared for by a loving mother and an adoring family whose faces light up every time she enters the room. The beautiful are constantly absorbing love from the world in a way that is scarcely recognizable to others and even to herself — for has it not always been this way?

To accuse you of taking this for granted is needlessly unkind: How could you not become accustomed to it? It is not vanity, I don’t think, but the lucky satisfaction of a natural need to be loved on contact, just as who we are, just because we are there. To whom does this happen otherwise than the beautiful? Only to children! Only a child can walk into a room and find herself a delight to all, having done nothing, having prepared no performance or recited no lines, just because she is who she is, we turn to her with delight and love.

But of course for most of us this period of automatic love and warmth is very short. We soon find that we are mostly a nuisance, and have to work for every smile of praise. But the beautiful? Go to buy a cup of coffee, walk down the street, sit on an airplane — yes you are often the object of boorish affections and resentments, but you also receive a constant hidden dividend of high esteem. That is not to say that you have it easy. I do not mean that at all. I believe everything you say about your accomplishments and I do not for an instant think that your life has been all that much easier, only that you have had this more or less constant vibe of approval, of pleasure in the way people regard you.

And then it vanishes! One day the admiring glances cease!

It may have been happening gradually, but you notice it suddenly, in the loss of a table or an overlooked invitation — We were going to invite you, of course we were, of course, how could you doubt that?

Your notice magnifies it all: Harsh disregard is everywhere now!

You would expect the sudden withdrawal of this wonderful feeling of acceptance to be painful and upsetting. And indeed it is.

So what to do? How to age gracefully? How to adjust to this new world in which your presence is either ignored or treated as a bother, in which your needs are attended to begrudgingly by unconsciously beautiful young things who do not even seem to see you really, who do not even seem to look at you, who make you feel, in a thousand little ways, that you do not belong in their world?

Argh. Well, you could just get plain nasty. You could use your money and prestige to make the lives of others a living hell. There would be some satisfaction in that, you must admit. But it would only make things worse in the long run.

No, I think really what we must do, those of us who experience this jarring shove into irrelevance, this undeserved demotion in the esteem of strangers, what we must do is content ourselves with our pleasures as we find them.

Oh, what a stupid, empty cliché that is! Jesus! Can I do no better than that?

And the truth is, no, not really. I have no solution. This is how it goes. This is youth’s revenge. It was ever thus.

What can you do? You used to breathe in high regard from the very air; it used to be what you swam in. Now it is rare, hard to find, you have to seek it out. It is all around you but you have to dig for it. It is in art and music, in the love of friends, in all the other clichés that I now find spilling out of my brain.

You have to find it in your intimates, in your family, in those who love you and will always love you, to whom you will never be anything but spectacular.

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Demanding the big rock

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 She wants her fiance to spend three months’ salary on her engagement ring. Is that fair to the man?

 Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, JAN 28, 2005

Dear Cary,

About a year and a half ago, my husband’s and my best friends broke up. She was unhappy and disappointed with him; he was rejecting and cheating on her. We all got together and got married at the same time, and they had been together over 12 years. They have a son (whom the husband never wanted) who is now 3. Since then, he has been through a couple of new girls, and she has recently moved in with her boyfriend of about a year. He is the complete opposite of her ex-husband, and is a very good man. I thought he would be her rebound man, since he was the first one after the split and is not really her type, physically or culturally. She has said right from the beginning that she’s not really attracted to him or passionately in love. She has been honest with him about that, but he hung in there. She now says that she loves him, but not like the way she loved her ex. He is good to her, and is trying hard with her son, who is a willful boy, to say the least.

My concern is that she may be in this relationship for the wrong reasons, but maybe I think that because I was raised very differently from her. I never expected a man to take care of me or that I would be dependent upon anyone. My friend sees this man as a way out of a financial hole. While my husband and I were progressing in our careers, our friends were working low-wage, dead-end jobs, despite high levels of education and potential. My friend has had severe financial difficulty, particularly since the baby and the split. Her job is better now, but she still couldn’t support herself alone. Her boyfriend’s company pays their living expenses, and he has always saved his money — he doesn’t believe in living in debt. This support is enabling my friend to get back on her feet financially. Her boyfriend is very generous, and she takes good care of him.

They have a conflict, though — they have been talking about getting married and she is adamant that she wants an expensive engagement ring — worth three months of his salary. She says that she doesn’t want to be greedy, but after the split she told herself that her next guy would be fairly well-off and the ring is an important symbol of that to her. I tried to tell her that’s a lot of B.S. put out by the diamond industry, but her upbringing was more traditional and she wants this. She’s also starting to lobby for a new, more expensive house, which he would pay for. He doesn’t believe in spending money on rings, he would rather spend it on something more worthwhile — like a vacation or furniture or a house. He has also depleted his savings setting up their current home for her, and needs some time to recuperate, but my friend is working herself into a tiz over the ring.

My question — is this a normal expectation that women have? It seems very antiquated and unfair to me. Is it right for my friend to expect an expensive ring? I see a lot of women wearing them — am I the weird one for thinking it’s ridiculous? Actually, I think part of the problem I have with this situation is that I see her as selling her soul for material goods. She loves this man, but does she love him enough? I don’t know.

Feminist Friend

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Dear Feminist Friend,

My first thought is that your friend feels so strongly about the ring because it represents restitution, the righting of a wrong. “Wow,” she may have said to herself, “I was royally mistreated by my first husband, but I learned a valuable lesson. I’m going to make sure the next man treats me right.” I don’t just mean that the first husband didn’t give her enough jewelry, either. It’s about more than that. As women have achieved greater economic independence, some of the exchanging of goods between men and women has acquired an air of quaint antiqueness. So it’s important to remember that the exchanging of goods is about more than just the goods.

Social progress in private behavior is full of paradox, because as we become more “progressive” and “fair,” the remnants of feudalism and patriarchy retain a deep psychic pull, sometimes erotic, sometimes infantile and sometimes poetic. The magic of a ring, for instance, can work on many different levels. It can, for instance, convert to purposes of erotic narrative the politically objectionable facts of economic inequality between men and women. By sacrificing so much of his cargo for this ring, he is demonstrating his willingness to go to great lengths to satisfy her desires — which, you must admit, can be quite an attractive trait in a man. He is also performing a sort of quest, or contest: She sets for him this task, which he must complete to win her. He undertakes it willingly because he understands what the act represents: not that a woman is an object to be bought, but that, in an era of continuing economic inequality between the sexes, he is willing to sacrifice some of his goods on the altar of post-feminist reality. (Am I stretching it? Have I had too much coffee?)

We all know that in spite of social progress men still make more money than women and thus wield more power. So requesting that he buy this ring, although it sounds old-fashioned, may also be her way of asking that he recognize this continuing social and economic inequality; the act of buying the ring is a symbolic giving up of his unfairly derived power, a laying himself bare. It is also a symbolic sacrifice, much as one might spill wine or burn the flesh of sheep or goats. It makes ethereal beauty of a gross material good, as it were, much as the pressure of the earth itself over millions of years makes diamond of coal. It is a kind of alchemy, if you will: The man willingly transforms some of his economic power into a thing of beauty to adorn the woman. This could be a deeply satisfying ritual. It doesn’t have to be seen as a brazen and crass gold-digging.

On the other hand, such rituals can be practiced without any understanding of their underlying psychological significance. He may think that he’s buying her. She may think he’s just paying what she’s worth. Who knows? Once the man renders himself vulnerable in this way, it may be tempting for a woman who is still smarting from her former mistreatment to take advantage of his vulnerability, to enact her revenge on him as representative of men in general. He is piling his goods up for her, displaying them, hoping to win her. She may be tempted to take the stuff and run. So he is testing her as well: Can she resist the temptation? Can she accept what he offers and not become greedy? Can she absorb the meaning of his generosity and be satisfied by it, or has she some moral flaw, some bottomless hunger, some insatiable need?

Let’s hope not. Let’s hope they are both capable of understanding the rituals they are performing. (Or at least that they respect their mystery. Part of a ritual’s power is that we don’t fully understand it in a literal sense; it retains a mysterious power over us, whence comes its peculiar satisfaction.)

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My hip-to-waist ratio is nobody’s business but mine

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Please, women, don’t speculate on my hips’ suitability for childbearing!

 Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, JUL 9, 2008

Dear Cary,

How do I handle comments from other women (yes, other women) about my body?

I’m 5’5” and weigh 115. By the age of 55 I’d think that the days of dealing with comments or looks about my body would be over. Au contraire (pardon my French). Now instead of men eyeing my breasts, it’s women commenting on my hip-to-waist ratio. I just don’t get it and I’m at a loss every time it happens. I would never presume to comment on the hip size of my rounder friends and acquaintances, but somehow women who dwell in the larger sizes feel no compunction about commenting on mine.

Just last week at an aerobics class a woman I know only in passing said something about the size of my waist and hips and then proceeded to tell me that it would be impossible for me to have had children! When I answered in the affirmative, including details about my 10-pound bundle of joy, she exclaimed, “He must be adopted.” Yikes. I felt as though my membership in the sisterhood of birth-givers had been rescinded. I was almost reduced to showing her my stretch marks to prove the truth. Instead I demurely chalked up my size to genetics. After all, I have nothing whatever to do with my hip-to-waist ratio except in terms of how much lard I choose to pack on to my frame.

So, how do I respond? So far, I have restrained myself from telling these rude women how I try and try but can’t seem to put on any weight and maybe even asking them about how they manage to look so round. But I fear the next time I have to hear another comment about my size, my self-control will expire and I will say something as rude to the commenter as she has said to me. What say ye?

M

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Dear M,

At the risk of speaking too abstractly — a risk some would say I disregard routinely — I would like to speak about boundaries.

Boundaries are fluid. We do not control them. They are the voluntarily held constructs of others. When others abandon theirs we are stranded with our own; we are offended or lost: Did you hear what she just said? Under what rules is that permissible?

As children we are taught not to point at the one-armed man, not to ask women if they are pregnant lest they are not pregnant, not to say, “You talk funny, Mister,” or “Why are your eyes shaped like that?” We are taught what the boundaries are.

But this happens in a childhood utopia of homogeneity. Then we move to Bosnia, or Australia, or Burbank. We go where the rules are different. Or we stay put and people with different rules move in next door. After a while, we don’t even know what the rules are, or were, ever! “Our” boundaries are overlooked; we are poked and prodded in ways we find wholly out of line.

Our sense of self — where we stop and others begin — is early and animal and embedded. We take it with us. It is in many ways permanent. In our most primitive development, we are only animal; we are only the thing that eats the other thing, and we are not to be touched in our privates or prodded or discussed. Our privates are not to be discussed.

But as adults we swim in images; a whole new world is before us; it changes yearly with fashion. Only last year, it seems — though my sense of time is collapsing with age and it was actually more like five or 10 years — the ass crack was hidden; now it is exposed like a hemline, like a throat, like the tops of breasts whose roundness it resembles. Can we now say, gee, nice ass crack? No. What is visible changes what is speakable, but slowly; what is speakable lags behind what is showable.

Amid this shifting we ask, What is off the table? Is anything off the table? What about our personal sensitivities? What if we are sensitive beyond measure about our toes? Are our toes safe from comment only when they are inside shoes? If we wear sandals is it then permissible to say, Oh, I see your toes! They are painted the color of a car we had when I was 6! And our ankles and wrists and arms and neck, and face, that most delicate and erotic of the revealed zones, that place we both gaze upon and look away from, the one body part we fear because it can rob us of our anonymity, can gaze back at us as we gaze into it and thus is termed by poets a symbol of infinity and depth and compared to the infinite reflections of facing mirrors? What about the face? Will biometrics create a new vocabulary of facial descriptions, or bodily data streamed to us from our chairs, so that we routinely speak of, say, the typical 2 cm. difference, male/female, in distance between sit bones?

How are we to know, in short, in a fluid and mixed society such as ours, what is the absolute boundary strangers must not cross? And does the absence of a single standard mean that you’re on your own? Is it your job to inform others, “OK, fellow aerobics class participant, my hip-to-waist ratio is out of bounds; it is something of which we must not speak.” Maybe. Maybe that’s the way to go. Spell it out: These are my boundaries, stranger. Trespass at your peril. Or if you find it hard to speak of this, perhaps hand out cards: “For your information, this card displays, with line drawings, the zones of my body not discussable.”

OK, so I’m kidding a little. I am suggesting that there is a way to think of this outside of the category of rudeness/not rudeness. I am suggesting you live a little bit in the wilderness of no fixed category. Perhaps what you wanted from me was not analysis but solidarity. And I do stand with you against the depredations of those without a sense of what it’s OK to talk about! I feel for you, I do. I, a man, am also most sensitive about such things. A careless remark can leave you rattled, the ground beneath you shaken. But I do not see how an army of one can stop the advance of change, even if the implication is that our society is falling apart and people have no manners. So I counsel you to cultivate distance.

Imagine this is a movie scene. Analyze the character: What is her motive? What is yours? What are you protecting, and what is she taking? We do not control what other people consider rude or not rude. Would that one standard prevailed, but that is not the case. Maybe it should be the case but it manifestly is not. So what world are you to live in? The world you think should be? Or the world that manifestly is, that presents itself to us daily, that refuses to be other than it is?

That is the abstract question that at least can lead us to some wisdom, that can enlarge our vision.

I mean, of course, if you and I were sitting on the bench outside the aerobics class I would have to agree, how rude, what an affront! My God, yes, I totally agree: What the hell is that about?

But I counsel you not to dwell on it. Because we are not here long. We only have so much time. There are bigger mysteries to contemplate. We can put ourselves to larger uses. We have that choice. That is one of the few choices we have, to choose where our minds dwell, where our eyes fall.

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