Category Archives: Advice

Advice and things about advice

I hate the rich! (But I need them for my business)

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Dear Cary,
 
My problem is that I hate rich people. I hate them but I am surrounded by them and have to get along with them. In fact I – and my future success –  depend on them.  But I despise them.

The worst part is, I hate them and yet, I sort of want to be one of them, at least financially.
 
I’m starting my own business.  I just celebrated the one-year mark.  Running your own business is hard.  I shed tears weekly, and lately, as things have become tighter, daily. 
 
My shop is in a wealthy neighborhood in one of the wealthiest cities in the world. Every day wealthy people come into my store.  Their expectations are incredible – they want free samples, and never just one – they want multiple samples for their multiple children because little Monticello and Ariel may get in a fight if they have to share. Then of course both kids throw their samples on the floor because my product is clearly one only adults are going to like, something their rich-bitch mom should have realized before she asked for separate samples.
 
I hate the overly nice way they talk, I hate the self-congratulatory niceness.  “Oh thank you so much,” they say when you give their brats a sample.  “Kids, What do you say?” they demand sweetly. And I am forced to stand there with a smile plastered on my face while these kids look at me with knowing eyes and indifferently drop their samples on the floor and ignore their mother’s cajoling “Say thank you, Monty, can’t you say thank you to the nice lady?”  

You can always tell when a kid has a rich parent, because that’s the kid who puts his hands all over the glass display cases, attempts multiple times to touch the product, and picks up anything that isn’t nailed down.  I find myself flying around trying to stop them from destroying anything while waiting on the other rich customers who look annoyed that I am not giving them my full attention. Usually at this point I just want to yell “Fuck all y’all!” and close up shop for the day. But I need their sales, so I don’t.
 
The worst part is when people pretend to be nice and show an interest, because it’s a shallow niceness and a shallow interest that doesn’t have anything to do with actually caring or wanting to help.  I’ve never been one to wish for other people’s stuff but when I think of all the security these women have, and they ask me in their never-been-rushed voices, “Oh, how did you ever decide to come up with this business? One year is so awesome! Good luck to you!”

I don’t need their luck or their niceness – I need their money! I need them to either buy the damn product they want to endlessly sample and photograph for social media, or invest in the business they call their “weekly addiction.”   
 
Why do so many of them think I want to hear about their vacations? “Oh we’re going to be in France for three weeks!” and “We’ll be in Spain the entire summer.”  They yak endlessly about their kids’ private schools and even tell me how much it cost. So there I am, pursuing some 5-year-old brat with three samples clutched in his hand, knowing that he is attending a $30,000-a-year preschool (this is not an exaggeration, this is an actual FACT), knowing that when his mom leaves the store, it will likely be without a purchase:  How am I supposed to not scream and go crazy?
 
Most of them don’t work, but sit on the boards of nonprofits and plan charitable events where they ask everyone to donate goods and time so they can pat themselves on the back for raising huge amounts of money.  A particularly influential woman who has talked about investing in my business for a long time now came to me with an “opportunity” – she wanted me to provide her with free product for an event because it would be “great exposure.” 
 
At first I agreed, thinking I was just providing her with a couple of hundred units.  But then she asked for them to be individually packaged, and delivered at a special time.  This opportunity for “exposure” ended up costing me about $2,000 that I do not have to spare, and of course I did not get a single order out of it, or even a phone call, though lots of people exclaimed to me how great my product is. 
 
Meanwhile the woman I provided all the free stuff to has an actual Renoir hanging on her wall.  A real one, not a print. She can write a check for the entire 200 units – heck she can write a check to the nonprofit and enable all the renovation they so badly need with just a swipe of her pen.

But instead she is creating this huge event where tons of rich people will get together and pay $500 per plate for fancy food and my fancy product and they will pat themselves on the back for how generous and good they are, when in fact they are just spending exorbitant amounts of money on a fancy meal prepared just for them by a five-star chef.  There isn’t really any generosity in this act of eating an overpriced meal, but you’d think the organizer was goddam Mother Teresa  listening to her complain about how hard it is to raise all of this money from her super wealthy friends.
 
Cary, I work 75 to 100 hours a week.  I can barely look these women in the eye sometimes, I find myself resenting them so much. They ask me how my business is going and I tell them great, because I have no desire to tell them about the hard work and the anxiety of not getting paid for more than a year, and being responsible for the paycheck of so many other people, and managing the taxes and the utility costs that I discover are 4 times higher than the average, so I have to call PG&E to address the issue … they will never understand. They are constitutionally incapable of understanding.
 
I need a way to manage my feelings around these women (it’s men sometimes too, but mostly women). I can’t burn up with hatred every time I hear their soft, slow, super-polite accents! I don’t want to roll my eyes – not outwardly and not inwardly – when they dicker for discounts.  I don’t want to hate their children.   I just want to join their ranks, for the security, yes, but also to do actual good with actual money, once I have some.

How do I keep my sanity while I try to keep my business, by keeping people I hate as customers?

Not Rich Yet

Dear Not Rich Yet,

You’re going to hate what I say, so I’ll just say it and get it over with:

You need to befriend these women. You cannot run this business and live a happy life with this resentment eating you up.

You must befriend some of these thin, miserable women with their thin, miserable lives of privilege. You must conjure out of your vast reservoir of compassion some compassion for these poor, thin people whose poverty is hidden behind a veil of pearls. They deserve your pity and compassion, not your contempt.  Do you honestly think anyone would live such brittle little lives of hollow-eyed pretense and lip-glossed lies if they actually knew any other way to be in the world, knew anything of dignity, of serenity?  Don’t you think they long for connection in their cold, rattling, second-run Ionesco lives of wine-upmanship and crooked mah-jong?

I don’t even know what crooked mah-jong is.

Seriously, the rich are terrible, terrible people but they suffer just like you and me — well, maybe not just like you and me; they have better mayonnaise. But what do they dream at night? They dream of naked clowns pulling out  all their teeth!

Right? It’s not just me, right?

In pure business terms, they are your bison. You have to know what spooks them and what attracts them or one day you will wake up and all the bison have walked away.

Or to be more prosaic: Your market is a thin slice of the American elite. You could try to find a different market but this is the market you’ve got so you need to get closer to it. Otherwise, they will walk away. And believe me, they can afford to. The sickening thing is the power imbalance. They don’t need you and they don’t need me. They can walk away and there’s nothing you or I can do. All we can do is lay out sugar cubes and hope they acclimate.

OK, sure, there are some of these women that you just cannot, as a matter of physics, get next to. I understand that. But I know in my heart there are also a few that are different, and you have to make an effort to befriend them.

Though they don’t look like it, these women actually are human beings. They may be thin, blonde and incredibly wealthy but inside they are just frightened children who have been hurt on the playground just like you and me and who have run crying to their mama just like you and me. Their mama may have had a nanny and a chef to deal with the trauma but still that only made it just a little bit worse in the end, because now they’ve got attachment disorders.

They have fears just like you and me. They care about their children. Sure, they show it differently–by buying small islands with tennis courts–but they care, and they care about the world, too — that thin, gleaming, incredibly good-smelling slice of it with which they are familiar.

So psyche yourself up and start befriending your market.

But how can you safely cross the retail curtain? How can you  leap over that counter and collar them before they rush off to their nonprofit board meetings and spa treatments?

OK, here is what you do. First just observe. That is always the first step in any such perilous operation. Observe the women who come into the store and pay attention to how you feel about them. Sure, there are the bitches. But they can’t all be bitches. There isn’t enough bitchiness in the bitchquifer for them all to be bitches. (“Bitchquifer: The subterranean layer of porous rock where five-sevenths of the earth’s bitchiness is stored.”)

Observe carefully. You will see at least one woman who is rich but different. That’s the one you need to cull from the herd.  She’s rich but she’s also brassy or sarcastic or unbelievably relaxed and nice. She’s interesting in some way. There is something about her. Even though she drives one of those cars that euros fly out of at high speeds and she’s pushing a stroller that looks like what Beyoncé arrived at the MTV Awards in, something  tells you she is an outsider.  Maybe she is Southern. Maybe she is working class. Not all rich women were born rich. Some just got hit over the head with it.

Approach her. Ask her name. Tell her you hate all the rich bitches who give you a hard time. Tell her you’d like to slap their kids and give them enemas. OK, don’t say that. But be yourself. Be genuine. Share. Give her extra freebies. Tell her you like her. Ask her to come by again when she has more time to chat. Friend her on Facebook. Learn her kids’ names.

You know how to do all this. You’ve done it before, only with people you like. It’s the same thing.  You just have to do it before you know if you actually like the person.

It’s not lying. It’s sociological jujitsu. You are in charge here. It is, in part, a seduction.

Once you have gotten to know this customer, close the shop for 20 minutes so you and she can go out for coffee (no, it is not against the law in America to close your shop for 20 minutes and grab a cup of coffee). Learn as much as you can about her. Eventually you will talk about money. There will be a sign. She doesn’t have to tell you how much she has but somehow you will end up talking about money. Ask who her broker is.

You are in business! What else is there to talk about? It’s the American way!

This will get easier after you’ve done it once. That’s what all the prostitutes say.

Make it a practice with your other customers. Get below the surface. Engage them. If money is the elephant in the room, then talk about the elephant. Over time, doing this will not only change your attitude but it will help the business.

Some of these women will be interested in writing. Perhaps you can start a writing group with them. After all, Virginia Woolf didn’t just say you need a room of your own. She said you need a room of your own and money.

(p.s. Can you just imagine the kinds of things these women would write about? Can you just imagine?)

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He’s a pig!

Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, MAR 14, 2003

I love the man I live with, but he is completely lacking in table etiquette. I can even hear him chew!


Dear Cary,

I don’t even know if this qualifies as a “real problem,” but since I started reading your column way back when you took over for Mr. Blue, I’ve read some pretty wacky stuff, so here goes:

I am in a relationship with a man for whom I care very deeply. We’re in our mid-40s, have been together over four years, both have kids, (his are older and living in another town), and we moved in together last fall. So far, so good. We are adjusting to the schedule differences and quirks that couples go through when they live together. The “problem”? His table manners are atrocious! I find myself on Manners Patrol during each meal, ostensibly directed toward my children, but actually, they have better manners than he. He sits with his body very close to his plate and shovels the food into his mouth. The arm he’s not using is draped on the table, fingers are used to push food onto the fork. And the worst part? I can hear him chew! I actually got up from the table last night and moved to another chair. And the final gross-out: He licked his fork clean and attempted to get another serving of mayonnaise for his artichoke directly from the jar. I yelled at him to stop, and he acted like I shot his dog.

He has so many other attributes that are wonderful, but I’m really bothered by this. Is this is a control thing? Do you have any thought on how to get my point across without him thinking I’m busting his balls?

Ball-Busting Miss Manners

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Dear Ball-Buster,

I did have a thought or two. But I thought I’d ask my wife first. So I went upstairs just now — this is before coffee or anything — and after marveling at the way the 85-pound poodle was sitting upright on the edge of the unmade bed as if checking her makeup in the mirror, I said — to my wife, not the dog — “What would you do if I had terrible table manners?”

“I’d leave you,” she said.

So evidently your concern is not trivial. I do often encourage my wife to say the first thing that pops into her head, because, I suppose, I am some sort of perverse thrill-seeker. But she thinks things through afterward and comes up with mitigating, contradictory, mutually exclusive and sometimes seemingly irrelevant codicils. So then she said, “Well, actually, I’d train you.”

Some people need training. Your boyfriend is apparently one of them. Training an intimate is tricky. But it can be done. So far, what you seem to have done is first flee the problem by moving to another chair, and then attack him for it, by yelling at him to stop. Neither of those is likely to be very effective. They are the two extremes of the fight-or-flight impulses we used to hear about so much back when stress was considered the biggest problem facing America today. What you must learn to do instead is steer right between those two impulses. Rather than fighting or flighting, rather than shooting your boyfriend’s dog or moving into a tent in the back yard, you need to place your hands in you lap and say mildly, “If you stick your fork in the mayonnaise jar again, sweetheart, I’m going to stab your hand with a steak knife.” You can even do this in public, with one of those stagey smiles you use when you know you’re being watched by federal agents.

I’m kind of kidding around, aren’t I? Well, yes and no. The point is that you are not crazy or silly for thinking that it matters. It does matter. Everyone I talked to said that hearing the sound of someone chew, or seeing someone hunched simian-like over a plate of victuals was viscerally disturbing. While certain finer points of table etiquette may be a matter of class, once you have been taught to be sensitive to them, you cannot simply undo your conditioning. And he really ought to be given the opportunity to learn. So if you are in doubt, let me say this: I believe it is your right — nay, your responsibility! — to mold this howling, savage brute into the kind of suave, debonair stud you could hose down and take to KFC, or even to the Olive Garden, with pride.

The thing is, you have to learn some new behaviors too. As you might say to one of your children, Do you hear anyone else yelling at their boyfriend? All right, then. Use your indoor voice. Rather than barking at him or avoiding him, give him regular gentle reminders and corrections. If he resists, keep at it. He may at first think you’re busting his balls, but he’ll realize, after a while, you’re actually polishing his stones.

This will take time. You will need a program of long-term engagement. But if engagement is what you have in mind, such a course of instruction should fit nicely with the rest of your plans.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

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My life is a failure

Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, JAN 27, 2005

Like a man waking up from a coma, I suddenly realize in my 40s: My life is a sad, painful, ugly ordeal!

Dear Cary,

This past year has been pretty painful. I feel that I have lived a failed life. About a year ago it was like I woke up from a long coma and for the first time clearly saw my life for what it has been. I started looking back on what I wanted when I was 14 or 15 and what I thought my life would be, and it was like a jolt from wherever that I had not achieved the things I wanted the most in my life.

Due to a variety of family problems, personal problems, illnesses, stupid mistakes, bad relationships and just plain bad luck that I don’t want to detail here, my life has been a sad, painful, ugly ordeal. Therapy and medication only helped me so much. Most of my problems were in the social and emotional areas. I just didn’t get the development and life experiences that most people get. A painful childhood led to an even more painful adolescence. I had a brief respite when I was around 14 or 15, but I wasn’t able to completely get over the obstacles.

I also wasn’t able to help my younger siblings avoid the same problems and pitfalls I faced. It was a nightmare watching them go through the same things. I had also hoped to have a family of my own, but I was not able to overcome my social problems to do that.

I have done OK in some areas. With some difficulty I was able to go to college, hold jobs, and maintain my own home. I am surviving, and there are things in my life I enjoy, but I also know I will never be completely well and normal and feel whole.

Going back over my life, I have been seeing very clearly how this problem led to that problem, this mistake led to that mistake, etc. I know part of it is probably my age; I am in my 40s, a time when you look back. But am I also going through the grieving process for the things I have lost in life? The pain has been acute. I don’t think therapy will help. You can’t go back 20 or 30 years and change things.

Lost Dreams

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Dear Lost Dreams,

No, I don’t suppose you can go back and change things in the past. But if you are willing to seek a happier life, your analysis of your past behavior could prove a starting point for changing things in the present. Perhaps you can identify ways you might do things differently today. The question is, how, in practical terms, do you accomplish that? How do you apply your insights? How do you translate them into behaviors? What concrete actions can you take to put into effect these insights you have gained? And also, what might stop you? What lies between your insights and their application, between theory and practice? What further, perhaps hidden, personality traits or beliefs might work to stop you from changing your life, in spite of all you now know?

This would be a great time to put down on paper specifically what actions you might take today to change your life. Since you have not provided specifics, I can’t know what those things might be. But one of them might be that, in the very beginning, you will first refuse to rule out anything. That would, I think, include the refusal to rule out further psychotherapy. But it would not be a prescription for it, either.

It would be nice if there were specifics to work with. But at least the refusal to rule anything out leaves you the widest selection of options. Let’s play a little game with that, just to be sure it’s clear what we’re talking about. For instance, if it turns out that you need to run for president in order to have a happier life, will you be willing to do that? What if you have to stop eating asparagus? Meatballs? Tuna? What if it turns out that you need to get up at the same time every day and to exercise three times a week on strength equipment? What if you have to give up coffee? Will it make any difference to you what you need to do? What you need to do might seem surprising; it might not make sense; it might offend your sense of who you are and what you know. I’m suggesting that you be prepared for that.

Your ruling out certain possibilities may be a protective device. But what further is there to protect yourself from? You have already suffered deeply in the failure to become what you desperately want to become. So I would abandon all caveats at this point. I would abandon everything. I would continue walking into whatever crazy flames you’re in. I’m one of those people who believe that deep change comes through difficult surrender, surrender of protection, surrender of the sense of knowing what we’re doing; I believe in shamanistic transformation through trial and madness. It sounds to me as though you have come very close to a painful madness of truth; you have seen the tragic dimensions of your life. Many, many people never get this far. You, in your comprehension of your own failure, have gained a valuable bit of wisdom. To have fully grasped the way our dreams don’t pan out, the way the water always rises around us, to be standing now, in your 40s, waist deep in the flood asking the most fundamental, searing questions about life — you are very close to some kind of transformation anyway. So please do not give up. Please do not foreclose on any option available to you.

While you have taken brave and difficult measures to discover the reasons for your unhappiness, you may also have boxed yourself in by limiting the kinds resources that you believe might get you over the top. When you say, “I don’t think therapy will help,” you may be right; but it also sounds a like a prophetic proclamation without much practical meaning; you may be doing what a lot of us might do in a similar circumstance — to attempt a kind of preemptive walling-off of further emotional or spiritual discovery. Because, of course, the whole thing can be quite painful. If you just mean that you don’t think much pointless psychobabble about the past is likely to help, I would agree. If you should get into therapy and find it’s pointless psychobabble, please have the courage to follow your instincts.

But, having had these difficult insights about your life, and being left with many practical questions about how to put them into practice, you might benefit from some concrete assistance making specific present-day changes in your behavior. You will have to seek the relevant know-how to make those changes. Whether that know-how is in the hands of psychotherapists or economists or general contractors or plumbers or hypnotherapists or Buddhist monks I have no way of knowing. All I know is that most big projects require some kind of help.

So rather than tell you what I think you need to do, I will just plead with you to keep going, to hang in there, to find a way to apply your insights to your current life. Whatever is of use to you, use it. Whatever is of no use to you, let it go. But keep going, keep struggling to understand your life, and don’t rule anything out.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

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My brother is no good, and I’ve had enough!

Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, MAY 30, 2007

He’s in and out of jail, he hardly works, and he always gets thrown out of where he’s staying.


Dear Cary,

I need some advice. I have a 30-year-old brother who has been in and out of jail and constantly needs my help. My mother and father are divorced and are alcoholics and cannot help him at all.

I have built a life with my husband and two kids. My brother constantly needs help with money and he only works two hours a day because his job has now cut his hours. He lies all the time — I don’t even know what to believe anymore. He is constantly moving because he has no money to pay rent so he gets kicked out.

He is living with my aunt at this time and has ruined that because they are going to kick him out soon. For some reason I always help him. I am even paying for a rental car for him at this time. I feel responsible to help him but it’s killing me. My husband is always upset at me and I constantly have anxiety due to his problems.

Please help, what can I do.

Fed Up

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Dear Fed Up,

What you have to do is sit your brother down and tell him that what he’s doing is no longer tolerable to you, and that you are cutting him out of your life. Tell him that you will no longer take his phone calls, or welcome him into your home, or pay his bills, or lend him money or help him in any way.

This might be done in a group, or it might be done privately, depending on many factors, including whether he is a physical threat. It might be done with the help of a counselor or facilitator. You may want strong, capable persons in the room so that he cannot threaten you physically. Or you may want to ask your police or sheriff for a “civil standby.” Often used where property must be recovered by one party in a dispute — say, a husband has been kicked out of the house and wants his clothes back — it might be available to you in this case, if it’s something you feel is necessary.

However you arrange it, you have to tell him that this situation is over.

If you think he has mental problems or if you know of someone in the community that can help him, do not hesitate to give him information about the help that is available to him. And be willing to speak to others who you think might be able to help him — for instance, if he needs job training, or education, or therapy. But beware of making promises that if he does such and such, all will be fine. If you want to put conditions on him, make them concrete and make sure they are things that would really make a difference for you. Don’t sell yourself short, that is. Don’t make it easy on him. For instance, if he has a drug problem, then maybe you say he has to demonstrate that he has been clean for one year, or, if drugs are not his problem, he has to demonstrate that he can hold a regular job and pay his own rent for one year. If there are conditions, make them tough.

You know what you want to see. You want to see him living up to his word, working hard, caring for himself, paying his own way, being dependable and truthful. But he may be skilled at fooling people. He may do well in the short term, but you will still be walking on eggshells, wondering if he’s fooling you and if he can make it long-term.

The bottom line is, just tell him the truth. If you don’t know what it will take for him to get back in your life, tell him that. It’s enough that you’re honest with your brother, painful as it may be for everyone.

There are many ways this can be done, but the essentials are the same: A difficult, painful but necessary message has to be conveyed to someone who doesn’t really want to hear it, is not completely trustworthy or predictable, and whose reactions may be extreme and unpleasant.

After that, you just have to stick to it.

Good luck.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

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My ex-boyfriend’s getting married to a woman I can’t stand

Cary’s classic column from Wednesday, MONDAY, FEB 7, 2005

I don’t even want him as a boyfriend anymore, but I sure don’t want her to have him!


Dear Cary,

My ex-boyfriend, who is now my best friend and roommate, is marrying a woman I can’t stand, and now all sorts of ugly, hidden emotions are bubbling to the surface.

The details would give “My Best Friend’s Wedding” a run for its money, really. Chris and I dated briefly, intensely, nearly a decade ago. I was his first love, he was mine, we were stupid and young and cocky and selfish; we broke up in a knock-down, drag-out fight and didn’t speak for almost a year. After college I moved across the country and we maintained loose correspondence. Then after a more serious but still failed relationship I moved back to our old college town and took a temporary job with his company. He generously offered to rent me a room in his house without contract so I could stay as long or as short as I wanted, and his kindness was definitely undermined by a desire to try things again.

It was awkward at first, but we settled into an easy dynamic and made surprisingly great roommates: We flirted, sometimes fooled around after a few too many drinks, but were content pursuing other people for more serious fun. My temporary employment turned into two years. I began to date one of our closest friends and the three of us shared the kind of friendship that would constantly have people asking me, “Which one is your boyfriend?” I, being the center of attention, was perfectly happy. Then Chris started dating Dawn, an older, prissy waif who didn’t like his friends, who brought out a whole other Chris — the Chris who feared growing old alone. We weren’t too concerned at first — surely he would see that she was unbearably boring, hear her clock ticking, notice how she changed his personality! He did and yet he didn’t, and a year went by. In the meantime he cheated on her and was constantly on the lookout for an exit. We continued our flirtation, even had sex a few times. We were there for each other, loved each other, were constantly amazed by one another. It made her insane that I lived with him, and I liked that.

Then last month he proposed. To her, I mean. An $8K ring, a trip to Europe, romantic dinners and roses galore. Not being much of a relationship person, it goes without saying that I wouldn’t really want all those things, but now I WANT THOSE THINGS. And most important, I don’t want Dawn to have them. After spending a week in the drunken haze of denial (during which time all our co-workers and friends came to me wanting reasons, answers, for him making what to us is a fool’s choice) Chris told me that it was time to move on, that our “relationship” was through, and I’ve been seriously depressed ever since.

Now my questions: I still have a boyfriend, sort of. Obviously I don’t deserve him since I’ve cheated on him, but he and I are compatible in so many more ways than Chris and I ever could be. I chose him over Chris in the first place. So why, oh why do I want Chris to be single? His fiancée is around more than ever — apparently the rock on her hand makes her more bold — and I have managed not to say a single word to her. They’ll be married in 10 months. He’ll sell the house that I’ve called home for almost three years now (a record, for me), take the cat — that I bought him! — and disappear into married life leaving the remnants of his bachelor years behind. Am I suffering from insane jealousy? Yes. Can I do a thing about it? Not that I can see. But at present I’m teetering wildly on destroying what friendship we have, and I don’t know how to handle all these changes with grace. I’m not going to run after him pleading, “Marry me! Let me make you happy!” — I don’t want that, anyway. So how can I move on? What I want is to let him go, to stop being angry and feeling like I somehow lost. Oh, and for him to regret his decision every second of every day for the remainder of his life, endlessly pining for me.

J

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Dear J,

You know, I’m a married guy, and some of my best friends are married, so I’m not speaking of everybody. But when I look around me and read letters such as yours I’m reminded of what really blows about the whole institution of marriage, how it places a fairy-tale gauze of happily-ever-after over raw social climbing, manipulation and financial maneuvering. In the process it disrupts vital social networks. It isolates people.

True love is all well and good, and people make their own choices. But what bothers me is how once we’re talking about marriage, suddenly nobody is allowed to say, This is a sham and a shame. It’s like marriage is the ultimate trump card. Play that card and, Aha! All of a sudden your social network doesn’t matter anymore. This is marriage. This is a wedding. They’re getting married! So shut your mouth.

Yeah, sometimes it’s all a bunch of baloney if you ask me. And the way people fall into it is appalling.

So what can you do? I dunno. I’d love it if just once, when they come to that part in the pre-game ceremony where the umpire says if there’s anybody here who knows any reason why these two should not be joined in holy matrimony, if just once somebody would stand up in the bleachers and open her mouth and say, “Yeah, I know a reason. Because this guy was a friend of mine, a very good friend, and we had a house together and lots of good friends, and we’re losing all that, and we knew him, I mean we really knew him, not like this chick but really knew him like on the floor puking drunk and up till 4 afraid of dying and sick with the flu and diarrhea, we knew he didn’t like corn flakes because of a childhood accident he never talks about, we knew he had no backhand and always travels after he dribbles, we knew he never read ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ but did the Cliffs Notes instead, we knew this guy like a brother until this brittle, frosty chick got her nails done and dug them into his back and dragged him up here like one more expensive rag doll. We lived with this guy and now we’re going to have to move. We grew up with this guy and worked with this guy and we were this guy’s real family and now we’re losing all that. We were maybe the only real family he’s got, and now comes this frilly Victorian one-act play complete with costumes and scenery to say none of what we had with him even mattered, none of that was real, it was all just kids play and now we’re adults and putting away our childish things and setting up house for real. Well, all of that was real, it was probably as real as it ever will get. You’re walking away from your real life, my friend, your real friends, your real house and everything that’s real in your life today, and you’re doing it all for some glossy mirage of a fairy-tale life. So screw you and screw your special little invitations and your ridiculous bridesmaid outfits and your rented glassware and your aphasic caterer and the whole fraudulent kissy-kiss merging of families and pompous parental aplomb.”

And then just quietly excuse yourself.

As the ridiculous white limousine with the spray-painted windows and the tin cans tied to the bumper rolled out of Palookaville headed for the big time, you’d have a bit of explaining to do. But maybe, just once, it’d be worth it.

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She tried to run me over!

 

Cary’s classic column from Wednesday, Aug 22, 2012

Is my friend out of control or are we still just having wild fun?


Dear Cary,

I think my dear friend is an alcoholic and a child in a grown woman’s body. But I don’t know how to help or deliver the soul-shaking wake-up call I think she deserves.

We had made plans to hang out the other night. I thought we should walk to the bar section of town; we don’t live very far away at all – a 10-minute walk at most. But my friend hates walking. She convinced the rest of us to let her drive, I’m not sure how. Actually she convinced me that she would park downtown and walk home afterward (a detail that will be more significant in a minute). And I was easily swayed because she has a brand-new Beamer – I’m distracted by shiny things. But on our way downtown we discovered that the can of pop she had been brandishing, that now rested in her cup-holder, was not a pop at all but a brewski. But I wasn’t too phased at the moment and I was admittedly amused by her brazen and carefree attitude, and she backed this up by frequent protests that she didn’t “give a shit.” (I didn’t find out until later, by way of her bragging, how much beer she had consumed before picking us up – she hid it well, for a little while at least.)

As we began to enjoy ourselves at the bar her protests turned into, “You know, I just don’t give a fuck.” And I agreed with her, even cheered her, as I wasn’t given reason enough to question her motives for saying so. And why should she? I just thought she was being so incredibly cool and rebellious! Well, that’s not exactly true. It sounded a little pathetic, but I was willing to let her act out her arrested-adolescent angst – she had just moved back in with her folks for a brief time after more than 10 years away so I could see how it was easy to relive those feelings. But then these rebellious rally cries started taking on a slightly stranger color. “You know, I just don’t give a shit,” which gave way to “You know, nobody gives a shit,” which gave way to “Nobody gives a shit about me.” But I was still obliviously applauding her rebellious spirit, plus I was so securely sealed inside my own beer-buzz spacesuit that was impenetrable to bad feelings. We were all in extremely good cheer, I couldn’t imagine these were the beginning whimpers of a cry for help. I still didn’t suspect anything when she started joking about suicide. “Sometimes, I don’t know why I just don’t go ahead and kill myself,” followed by her own laughter, mostly to show everyone that she was joking. She would say, “I’m just kidding, I would never do that.” I still didn’t flinch because I had been hearing this sort of thing from her for the better part of the last decade and a half – she presents this character of a fun-loving melancholic and I’ve always bought it. The only thing is, and this is unbeknownst to her, the rest of us know of someone who attempted suicide recently, and he succeeded. We all knew him and loved him, but one of the women with us was his closest friend. But we all knew my friend was just being an idiot and accidentally found a very unfortunate topic to blabber on about.

At the last bar, my friend is barely allowed in. We promise to watch her (we know the bouncer). At one point I see that she has gotten lost, in a bar she’s been to a hundred times, so I have to go corral her. After we’ve been there for a while I luckily see her make a break for the exit; she was hoping to sneak out unnoticed. I follow her out and somehow convince her to let me walk her home (we should have walked in the first place! I soon find out she had no intention of walking, ever.) We’re hungry so we go get a slice of pizza. I’ve forgotten where she’s parked, so as we leave the pizza shop I stupidly take her right by her car by accident. She breaks away and gets in. I stand in front, and for a while try unsuccessfully to get her back out of the car.

Brief interlude. This is déjà vu for me. I’ve been in this ridiculous situation before, though not with this particular friend. The first time I allowed myself to be tricked into relinquishing my position in front of the car because the driver “couldn’t hear me.” Ha! Then off she went. Within two blocks she had blown through a stop sign. Within another two blocks she was on the sidewalk trying to walk in a straight line, uniformed officers sternly looking on. She couldn’t, so she spent the night in jail. And then there was all that business of losing her driver’s license for a year. Luckily I have witnesses to this or I wouldn’t believe such instant karma either.

Back to the present. My friend, the grown woman acting like a child, is complaining that she can’t hear me. I’m not falling for it this time! So she runs me over. Well, she would have run me over if I had glued my soles to the pavement, but I saw that she was going to breach my barrier by a large margin so I smartly stepped aside. I’m only so principled. But, angry that my tactics hadn’t worked after all that, I read her the most ferocious riot act I could muster, after which she still asked if I wanted a ride back to the bar. I was so frustrated that I finally yelled, “I never want to hear from you again!” I felt like the silly little kid kicking his Keds into the sand shouting, “I hate your guts!” Needless to say she drove off, probably laughing at me. As far as I know there was no incident.

So I acknowledge I let my rage get the better of me in the end. We haven’t talked since. Now I don’t know what good I could possibly offer to this situation — I feel like I’ve just played the role of an incredibly stereotypical overprotective brother in some cheesy after-school special, badly. I almost feel like I owe her an apology for going so overboard. But I also don’t know what I could have done even if I had kept my cool. I assume she wouldn’t have listened and may never listen. I probably should have just said, “Hey, send a text when you get home” and never mention it again. But I feel like she was leaving some pretty obvious hints that something in her life is amiss. Could it be that she is oblivious to the hints that she is dropping? What do other people with better anger-management skills do when confronted with such hints? Thank you for your insight.

Hungover

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Dear Hung Over,

When we’re drunk we commit crimes. They don’t seem like crimes at the time.

This friend of yours, when she did the thing with the car, that is what cops call assault with a deadly weapon. Like when you try to run a cop over, that’s what they call it. Let’s underline the seriousness of what’s going on with your friend. She’s going to get hurt. She’s in trouble. I don’t care if you call her an alcoholic or what, but she’s in trouble and she’s going to get hurt and eventually she’s going to hurt someone else. She’s going to end up in jail. She’s going to end up in rehab. Things are going to get worse. Bad things are going to happen and keep happening. An intervention is not out of the question.

Have you seen that show, “Intervention”? To me, that show is no joke. I feel authentic sadness when I watch that show because those people are just like the people I see all the time in the world I live in.

You sound like you have a fun life right now. Your friend has money. You like shiny things. That could change fast, permanently, soon. If she kills somebody with her car, her life will change fast and permanently. You have already lost one friend to suicide. I wonder what part drugs and alcohol played in that. I wonder this because people self-medicate. They treat undiagnosed bipolar disorder and depression with alcohol and drugs. They don’t know they have a mental illness. Neither do their friends. Then they commit suicide. They don’t have to. They’re having distorted thoughts. They know nothing about their condition or how cognitive therapy can help or how modern psychopharmacology can help or how any number of psychiatric interventions can help, or how much better life can be once this disorder is managed. They don’t know how many people love them or what great pleasures in life await them. They just jump. They just shoot themselves. After they’ve done that, all you have is a bunch of sad, baffled people wondering what happened and what they could have done.

People die because of stupid stuff that can be changed.

So if I were you I would get serious about this. Of course you were right to be furious with her. It’s not a time to maintain your cool when someone is crazy drunk and aiming a deadly weapon at you. It’s a time to get angry. You didn’t do anything wrong by getting angry. The only thing you didn’t do right is, you could have secretly fished her keys out of her purse and hid them and told her you had no idea where they were and offered to get her a cab way before she had a chance to stumble into her car.

Seriously. Why take the risk?

That’s what I would do next time. Fish her keys out of her purse and throw them in a mailbox or something. This is no laughing matter. There are parents and brothers and sisters all over this world who have lost loved ones because of silly, stupid evenings like this. Those people who lost their loved ones to drunk drivers, they matter. Those people matter. They didn’t do anything wrong. They were just walking along, or driving to 7-Eleven, or picking up their mom or out with friends when somebody blind drunk rammed into them and it was all over in minutes. And then they live with that the rest of their lives. They had some beautiful person they loved, and every day they enjoyed that person, and that person had dreams and they had dreams for that person, and they were looking forward to seeing that person graduate from college and fall in love and make a family and grow old and beautiful and then a thing like some chick is drunk driving on the wrong side of the road ha ha isn’t that going to make a funny story the next day and that’s it. This life is over and it doesn’t come back and nothing can change it and nothing can bring things back the way they were. That’s how it happens.

Certain people are never going to hear certain shouts of joy and never going to see certain beautiful eyes because of stuff like this.

It isn’t worth it. It may seem funny and cute but it isn’t worth it. If something bad happens and you realize you did nothing to stop it it will ruin your life too.

All the joy and beauty you are taking for granted can be gone in an instant because some girl found her car, Surprise! and got in it and got it running and thought she’d drive the few blocks home.

So I would make a stand. I would say this stuff has to stop or you are not going to be around when it all blows up. I would say it’s intervention time.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

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My husband is a high-achieving alcoholic, seven years sober Should we finally tell the kids?

Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, DEC 9, 2005


Dear Cary,

When our two boys were small children, my husband was a very high-achieving alcoholic. He never lost his job, he never verbally or physically abused either the kids or me, he remained a good father, and he never alienated his friends or family. Indeed, to this day, no one other than me (and his treatment group participants and counselors) know about his alcohol abuse. He did, however, almost die from alcohol. He attempted to stop drinking without medical intervention and suffered seizures and other life-threatening complications. As a result of this event, he got into a treatment program that worked for him (at least to date). After several years of drinking at least a fifth every day, he has not had a drink in about seven years. At his insistence, we have never told our kids or families about his alcoholism.

The problem is that our boys are no longer young kids — one is in high school and one in middle school. From our counseling and my experiences with him, I am completely convinced that the brains of some people are hard-wired to abuse alcohol and/or drugs and some are not. I know that I can drink one glass of wine at dinner (I haven’t in seven years) and have no desire for a second, while he simply cannot start drinking without continuing to drink. Consequently, I believe that it is very important for our teenage boys to understand that given their genetic makeup, they need to be particularly sensitive to the impact of alcohol on them. I also want them to understand that we, as parents, do have experience with alcoholism, and that if they ever find themselves with an alcohol issue, we will be able to understand and help them. Since we, as parents, now never drink and seldom put ourselves in social situations where alcohol is present, I worry that our children will perceive that we would never be able to understand or help them with alcohol issues (even though I talk to them about such issues regularly).

In short, I want my husband to talk with them about his alcoholism in an age-appropriate way. He, however, is too ashamed to engage in such a discussion and does not want me to tell them (which I completely understand). I’m wondering if I should push the issue (our older boy just turned 16), or just let it drop as I have in the past.

Just Curious

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Dear Just Curious,

You ask a difficult question. I personally have pretty clear feelings about what to do.

I would tell the older boy. Then I would tell the younger boy as well, so that the older boy is not burdened with knowledge that he must either tell, imperfectly, or keep secret.

But I’m just one person — a person, moreover, with my own history of alcoholism that I’m quite candid about. I respect your husband’s desire to keep this matter private. That’s his choice.

I don’t believe there is a direct link between what you choose to tell your children and whether they develop alcoholism. You may tell them or not tell them. They may or may not develop problems with alcohol. The two are not causally related. As I understand the current science, there are indicators and apparent predispositions toward alcoholism, and there are traits associated with it, but there is no one certain cause or one certain measure of prevention.

If you tell them, they will probably experiment anyway. They might react abnormally to the first drink, or they might not. Knowing the history might act as a deterrent. Or it might not. Knowing that their dad beat it might embolden them. You can’t tell with kids.

It’s natural to want to talk about it. And it’s true that you have valuable, firsthand experience to impart. But as a former young person with an alcohol problem I can testify that young people with alcohol problems tend to be unreceptive to parental advice. That’s part of the syndrome.

All this leads us into contradiction and uncertainty. So for me, the question of what to tell the children is more a question about truth telling and the keeping of secrets in a family than it is about alcoholism prevention. It’s about what you believe you can control, about what is sacred, what is shameful, what is safe and what is toxic.

If my math is correct, the children were around the ages of 9 and 6 when your husband stopped drinking, meaning they undoubtedly witnessed him drunk, with that glassy stare, the slurred speech, the smell. So, apart from whether it’s going to prevent them from becoming little alcoholics or not, the information might have the effect of bringing a little sense to their world: Aha, now I understand this memory of my father falling asleep at the table, or being too “tired” to go upstairs.

If you love the truth and you believe that the truth can be life’s most powerful ally against insanity, depression, self-hatred and the like, then you may feel a strong urge to air the truth. On the other hand, perhaps you also know the powerful effect of a shameful fact revealed. Perhaps you know that sometimes children need to believe their parents are infallible, and you marvel at how certain truths, once revealed, never go back in the bottle: How could he have been a drunk? What if he should slip? What else don’t we know? Was he unfaithful to Mom? Are we sure we’re his kids?

I wonder how your husband’s attitude toward his alcoholism plays into this. Does he feel that his alcoholism is his fault? If so, perhaps he is still tormented by it in a way that he needn’t be. In fact, you might consider the possibility that it is necessary to be free from it psychologically and morally in order to be free from it medically. That is, shame, guilt and the keeping of secrets are part of the syndrome of addiction. You can easily see how this works: One stops the substance but retains the habits of mind. The habits of mind lead eventually back to the substance. So you have to change the habits of mind. One way to do that is to tell the truth.

But perhaps your husband is not burdened with shame at all. Perhaps he is simply making a very grown-up attempt at harm reduction. As I said, it’s a tough call. I know what I would do. But it’s a decision you and he must make.

Just to be clear: Inasmuch as it involves the well-being of the children, I think it’s a decision you as parents need to make together. But inasmuch as it involves your husband’s personal struggle with alcoholism, I think it is his decision alone how much to reveal. I’m not sure how to reconcile those two domains. But that is marriage.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

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I left an abuser, but now I’m with a married man

Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, AUG 14, 2007

I know I should concentrate on my own emotional health, but he says I’m special and he cares about me!


Dear Cary,

I recently ended a relationship with a boyfriend who was very violent and verbally abusive toward me. I am still trying to get over this relationship, in which I was psychologically traumatized. I went through a lot in that relationship that I have not shared.

I am now in a relationship with a man who is married who recently moved to my city; his family is still living in the city he left. He told me that he and his wife are separated and that they have unresolved issues. He also told me that he has two children who will relocate with him, but he does not know if his wife will come. It seems to me that he is using me for sex, and I believe his wife and children will relocate with him.

I told him that I am developing feelings for him and he told me that is OK. However, I think that I should stop seeing this man before I get too deeply involved and just concentrate on myself and my emotional health. I don’t know what to do because this man tells me that I am special and that he cares about me, but I feel that I will be hurt again.

Don’t Know What to Do

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Dear Don’t Know,

As I read over what you have written, I get the feeling that you see your situation with clarity. You know what happened to you. And you know that what you are doing right now is not really such a great idea. You know you should break up with this man. But you don’t want to because you are getting something from him that you need.

This man tells you that you are special and that he cares about you. You need to hear that right now. But you do not need to be in another risky relationship.

So I will say it too: You are special. I care about you. I will also say this: Many people reading this letter care about you. Many people reading this letter have been in situations like yours, and they know what you are talking about. Unlike this married man, however, we do not require anything of you. We just care about you.

You do need support and care. But you need to get it in a way that does not put you at further risk. So my suggestion is that you do two things. End this relationship with the married man. And actively seek support. That may mean finding a therapist to help with the trauma. It also may mean joining a support group for abused women.

Doing that will take courage. Where do you find the courage? You went through some things in that relationship that you have not shared. Sharing what you have been through will bring you courage. You have shared some of it with me. That is good. That is a start. You need to keep going, talking it through with a therapist and/or with other women who have been through similar experiences.

I will say this, too, at the risk of sounding a little “woo-woo” (that is what some of us in California call hazy New Age psychobabble): You don’t have to be in a relationship with a man right now. You may think you have to be. But you don’t. Not right now.

Since I am saying that many of us care about you, I should also warn you: Some people act crazy when they hear about abused women. They say crazy things. So just take it from me: Many, many people who are reading this letter know exactly what you are going through, and they care about you. And there are people near you, in your city and town, who are getting together right now to talk about what happened to them and to help each other get over it and go on with life day to day. So find those people. Find the people in your area who have been through this, and join them. Telling your experience will help them, and they will help you. You may have many complicated feelings as you do this. You may feel that some of the talking means you are “stuck in victimhood” or some such thing. People say things like that. All I can say is: Start talking about what happened. Reach out to other people. Seek support. Trust the process. And be good to yourself.

You might break up with this man first, and then join a group. Or you might find you need to spend some time with the group as a way of finding the courage to break up with this man. Or you might find you need to talk one-on-one with someone in order to decide about joining a group or breaking up with the man. The order you do things in doesn’t matter that much. The important thing is to begin.

Good luck. We will be thinking about you.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

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How should I feel toward my father?

Cary’s classic column from Wednesday, Jul 20, 2011

I thought I knew him. Then he loaded up his U-Haul


Cary,

I had a really boring suburban life for a long time, wishing that something would make it interesting. I had a good relationship with my family and I thought that my parents would stay together forever.

Then we got hit with a hurricane.

After the hurricane I spent a lot more time talking to my father. We talked before but this seemed different, like how I thought the father-son deep(ish) discussions were supposed to go. He didn’t seem as happy as I had previously thought, but I assumed that was due to having 5 feet of water wash through our house, which makes for a somewhat more stressful existence. A lot of the time we spent after the storm was gutting the entire first floor, talking about his childhood and mine and what my plans for the future were. During our discussions I got the impression that my parents’ marriage wouldn’t last forever, so I steeled myself for the inevitable to occur.

Flash forward to a week after my 18th birthday in 2006, and I come home to my father packing up a U-Haul and leaving my mother. He left her a note (that I probably shouldn’t have read, but I think most people would have in my situation) saying that he felt that after I was born most of my mother’s love went to me and he felt left out; it was basically a page and a half of selfishness.

He showed me the apartment he was supposed to be living in (I called it a “small studio” but others might call it “I can go from my bed to my toilet in less than 10 steps! How convenient!”). I later found out that he had been cheating on my mother for years … multiple women with other kids, swinger parties, basically everything I thought he was above as a person. He is now remarried and his new wife has two kids and I can never really forgive him for what he did, but I do my best.

Last year, when I was stationed overseas, the day after my birthday I posted a Facebook message thanking everyone for their kind wishes and he left me a reply saying, “I knew there was something special about yesterday,” and this year … nothing. I don’t think he did it on purpose but no phone call, no text, no communication whatsoever. I don’t even know exactly how I felt, but I think I could best describe it as numb, though I don’t know if it is a numbness to him in general, or if it affected me even more than I thought it did at the time. It has been five days since my birthday and I still haven’t talked to him and I don’t know how to bring it up. On the one hand I want to call him out on this, but if I do that I don’t know if I will be able to stop myself and I will finally get up the nerve to ask him how long he was philandering and if he thinks I deserve an apology for cheating on my mother.

She was his wife, but she is still my damn mom.

Honestly, I don’t really have a specific question regarding this situation, I could just use some advice on what to do from here because I know I am going to have to talk to him eventually and I don’t really know how slighted I am supposed to feel about this situation. After reading that letter I don’t want me getting pissed about him missing multiple birthdays to be construed as being as selfish as he turned out to be. I guess I just would like to know how much anger I am warranted to feel toward him after everything that he has done. I feel emotionally conflicted and like I said before …

Numb

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Dear Numb,

I remember my father’s series of small apartments after he left my mother. I remember the meagerness and poverty, his effects strewn about, the boxes on the floor, the absence of furniture, the absence of a life. It was devastating, actually — that he had chosen this over us. I remember trying to be encouraging and upbeat. “Wow, this isn’t so bad. It’s kind of a nice place. Look out this window!” Yet it seemed bleak and incompetent. It was such a fall. Those dismal apartments, one after the other. That one in Miami on Biscayne Blvd., kind of a swingers pad, with a pool and I’ll always remember that smell of newly delivered furniture, cooking oil, eggs recently scrambled or made omelet-style, the simple food smells of a man cooking for himself, living a strange little life that was supposed to be exciting and carefree but which seemed lonely and pointless.

Yeah, I remember that. I remember wondering how I’m supposed to feel about all this. That tiny, damp little “studio” in the back of an old woman’s concrete block house near the University of Miami with the room air conditioner. I lived there for a summer jazz session while he … where was he? Was he at his mother’s? I think he was in his mother’s house on Mary Street, that house that later became the object of so much conflict when he sold it while my brother was still living in it.

I don’t completely recall how those various strange abodes came into his possession, but there he was, with his entourage of cardboard boxes and his war medals, evicted, divorced, moving on. Why? It seemed so stupid. It would have been simpler for him to stay in the house. But no, they couldn’t get along.

What was I feeling? Wanting to be supportive yet actually angry, puzzled and hurt, ashamed that he seemed diminished, no longer Dad, head of household, man of the house, reduced to man of the tiny studio apartment trying to get chicks at the pool to come up to see his “digs.”

It’s not something you want to see your dad do. And yeah, it was around the time I turned 18 that he first moved out. It’s a big letdown, a big hole in the gut; it’s not like anything you’ve experienced thus far.

And if your dad wants you to go see a therapist to help you deal with the divorce, well, that’s just creepy. Maybe you want to punch him but you don’t want to go to therapy especially at his suggestion because you’re not the one with the problem, and you didn’t make this problem, he made it by moving out, so why should you have to go to some creepy therapist and talk about your feelings when your feelings should really be directed at your dad?

Right?

Which is the point, really. That he fucked up and you’re angry with him and that’s a really, really hard thing to confront with a parent. I never did tell my dad how angry and hurt I was for him getting divorced like that. I believed at the time that the adult thing to do was to understand, not to be angry about it and certainly not to blame my parents, but to understand. Well, there’s a difference between blaming your parents for your lot in life and being angry at them for making boneheaded moves. So yes, I was angry at my father for years, but fighting to retain my love for him, and so dancing gingerly around the issues, pretending to be encouraging and charmed by his chosen existence when really it made me sick to see it. It made me sick to see my father and his two brothers all leave their wives and begin a dicey and peripatetic existence going from apartment to apartment and girlfriend to girlfriend or wife to wife. It was confusing and alienating and I didn’t like it but I was afraid to confront them because they were the elder men.

This fear of the elder men in the family goes deep. I had no idea how much power it had until years later. I had no idea how paralyzed I was. But I am not alone. Many men are afraid of their fathers. We do not know where they get this power over us so we pretend that they do not really have this power over us but, Oh, they have it. They have it in spades. Even my father, wiry, bespectacled, diminutive and professorial in manner: Oh, I feared him mightily! We may be angry but afraid to say we are angry for fear of violence. The father holds that violent edge, that family privilege, the nuclear option. You never know. My father was a strangely elusive but explosive man, given to surprising outbursts. And you never knew what was going on in his head.

He’s dead now.

I never confronted him. I never had that epic battle that sons and fathers sometimes have, where they finally let out that mixture of anger and tenderness, rage and pity that characterizes the relationship.

So what kind of conversation with my dad would I have wanted? If he were here today, I would like to hear him say that he did it for himself. He’d had it with living for others. He wanted to live for himself. Right or wrong, it was his decision to begin living for himself, and he did that, and it would have been helpful to hear him say that forthrightly.

Instead, when the subject of the divorce arose, we heard his painful self-recrimination and regret.

So if I could do it differently, or if I were in your shoes, what would I do? I would be frank and open about my feelings whatever they are. That doesn’t mean necessarily confronting family members about it. It more means being frank with yourself and those close to you about what you actually feel. Don’t try to figure it out. Accept it. Accept what you feel. You may feel impulses that morality prevents you from acting on. That’s OK to feel.

I can say with certainty that there is no correct way to feel. We men seem to think that if we want to be a certain kind of man, we may feel only a certain way. But a good man feels what he feels.

By feeling what we feel, we come to know ourselves. Then our true nature arises serenely and almost without notice. Then we need do nothing but trust our instincts. We become authentic.

And how does this vaunted authenticity come about? Slowly if at all. We keep going over it and over it, like sanding wood. More is revealed with every pass.

As to the numbness: I suspect you fear the torrent of tears that would erupt were you to say how you feel. You may need someone to yank it out of you. Like it’s stuck down there in your throat and a professional has to use his slim jim.

That’s one way to think of psychotherapists. They get inside the locked vehicle of your psyche, but with your permission.

It took me years before I could trust another man to listen to me cry. Are you kidding? I know. It’s icky. But eventually it was a matter of either let these feelings of shame and anger and outrage and humiliation and pitiful hurt show, cry them out in front of someone, demonstrate to someone just how deeply I was hurting, by way of saying, OK, this is me, this awful shambles you see before you, this sobbing shambles of a man, this is me, this is my state, this is what I’ve come to … or who knows what I would come to, walking around numb, as you say, from a lifetime habit of not feeling.

If you want to stop being numb you have to start feeling.

Basically, whatever you feel is appropriate.

We men have a code. We are supposed to feel certain things in certain situations. But the truth is, we feel what we feel. Even though that sounds dumb.

The stereotypical “sensitive male” is easy to ridicule. There was a lot of bogus “showing your feelings” in the 1970s. You don’t have to “show your feelings.” You just have to feel them and know what they are.

In my 20s I thought, If you are a real man, you will feel this way about this and that way about that. You will have learned the code. But you never really do.

This is what we men go through.

What do our fathers want from us and for us? What is expected?

What are we supposed to do and feel?

We never really know. We just feel what we feel. We try to stay true to ourselves and to the ones we love. That’s all we can do.

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I only have quick relationships

Cary’s classic column fromTUESDAY, APR 19, 2011

I get in and I get out. How can I slow down?


Dear Cary,

I have always been good at quick relationships. Any time I have wanted a boyfriend, I just started flirting and it wouldn’t take long before someone would invest in me. Relationships could start overnight if I just acted perfect enough. But they didn’t mean much when the truth came out. My happy demeanor would fade away pretty quickly once I realized I was in a relationship with a guy I either had nothing in common with or wanted nothing to do with. I would turn bitter and everything would go down in flames with the same intensity with which it started. Then I’m back at square one.

About a year ago I finally noticed the pattern, but I don’t know how to fix it. For example, I met a guy who really is nice and we talked through email for a few weeks before trading phone numbers. Two months of talking and I felt like I was losing my mind. I finally asked him if he was going to come visit me or not. It drove him away faster than I could realize what happened. I assume I was too pushy, but with my history of talking and having a committed relationship within a month, I am feeling more than lost.

I have thankfully gotten what I feel is another chance at having a very nice, funny and intelligent guy. He really is great and we’ve been talking since Feb. 28 of this year. It’s been mostly through email, but I already feel like it’s taking forever. Don’t get me wrong. I am not going to fall into that same trap of driving him away again. I just don’t know if I’m doing the right thing at all. Do I keep dating others and make myself busy? Do I take his silence as a sign? Is he just trying to think things through before getting ahead of himself? And if so, how do I calm myself down enough to not care in the meantime?

I feel like the girl who pulled the short stick in life and was never even taught how to fish with it. Please help me to learn so I can end this bad cycle. I want a relationship that isn’t built just on convenience.

Love-Stumped

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Dear Love-Stumped,

If you want a relationship that isn’t built just on convenience, then you have glimpsed a truth about real relationships: They are profoundly inconvenient. Being in a relationship means there’s another person there, different from you, likely to respond in unexpected ways to things you say and do. This brings excitement but can be frightening and difficult. If you want control and convenience, with it come shallowness and brevity; if you want depth and longevity, you’re going to have to give up some control and convenience.

One way to begin to deepen the relationship would be to ask the other person some questions. This can be fun. For instance, you could ask the other person if he wants to have a relationship. This may hit him by surprise. He may ask, Well, what do you mean? You may say, Well, I’m not sure, exactly. Just wing it. You could ask then if he wants to have a relationship with you, and what kind of pace feels right, and what he has been thinking about. The trick here is to just ask the question and hear the answer. You don’t have to do anything.

There’s no right answer. What you’re doing is participating in a new way that opens up possibilities instead of closing them down.
There is no way to know what his answers will be. But by asking these questions, you give up some control and invite his viewpoint. In the past, you have probably been basing most of your conversation on what you think his reaction will be. Now, you are not trying to have any particular effect. You are asking open-ended questions in order to try out a new way of being with others.

By asking this other person what he wants, you will find out in what ways the relationship may require you to inconvenience yourself. It may be that he wants to spend a day with you reading by a lake. You may not want to do that. So then you have a choice. You can continue to run your life without any interference from outside, or you can decide to allow your life to be altered a little by the desires and ideas of another person. You can spend the day with him reading by the lake.

He may decide he wants to kiss you by the lake. You may find this agreeable. Or it may alarm you. You may fear that you’re about to do the same thing you always do. To make it more interesting, you can ask him a question before you kiss him. Ask him, Oh, I don’t know, ask him what he thinks is going to happen next. Maybe he will say something witty, or maybe he will seem confused and dim. Hmmm. What would be a witty and engaging response? Well, maybe he would say that he expects when he kisses you that the earth will shake and the heavens open up. That would be an acceptable response. At least he’s trying. On the other hand, he might stare at you blankly, with paralyzing fear in his eyes, and this may take the bloom off your whole afternoon.

The only way to find out is to experiment. Be a scientist. Observe and formulate hypotheses.

Here is another thing you can do. Remember your carefree days as a child. When you were a child, you were not plotting so carefully. You were not thinking so much about what others might say or do in response to what you say or do. I suggest you return to that time in childhood and remember what it felt like.

Then try relating to others with some of that simplicity from childhood, some of that innocence. This is just my idea. I’m no psychologist. But sometimes when I am too confounded and my thoughts are racing, this is what I do. I approach people simply again, as a child.

Remembering childhood relieves us of the burden of knowing what will happen next. We have no idea what will happen next. We’re just kids!

Think of childhood. Forget the rules. See what happens.

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