Category Archives: Advice

Advice and things about advice

I’m not ready to be a stepmom

Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, JAN 13, 2009

If I marry, I get a 16-year-old who can barely take care of herself.

Dear Cary,

I’m 29 and my potential stepdaughter-to-be is 16. We live under the same roof, and it’s driving me crazy inside.

Let’s rewind the story by six months to last July, when my boyfriend and I chanced upon a really nice flat with a magnificent sea view and decided to sort of officially move in together. He bought the flat because he had the money (with some chip-in from his mother), and I helped to make it a home with gadgets, accessories and lots of tender, loving care.

His daughter from a previous marriage, let’s call her Anna, “moved back in” with him years ago because her mother became mentally unstable when the girl was about 10. She abandoned Anna in a foreign country in a fit of madness. At that time, he used to rent a condo with a friend, and I stayed over a few nights a week. Anna spent most of her waking hours either in school or at her nanny’s who lived just a few floors below. I hardly saw her and neither did he, but we did make it a point to at least have a nice dinner together every weekend. It was an arrangement that suited me fine.

When we bought the flat, I knew the present arrangement would happen because she seemed old enough to care for herself and would no longer live near the nanny. What I didn’t realise was how much of a child she still is. I feel bad saying the following but the thoughts are real, so why lie in a letter seeking help? She appears to be a mess.

She has never gone for a haircut on her own. She does not know how to boil water, do a bed, dress herself appropriately and often needs to be reminded to brush her teeth and wash her hair. I brushed these initial signs aside as my inexperience with teenagers. Maybe my expectations were too high. But her dependence on instructions, sloppiness, clumsiness and general head-in-the-clouds mishaps simply surfaced every time she asked for help for something really basic, dropped a mug because she couldn’t tear her eyes off one of her books (she reads and finishes on average one fantasy book a day and generally does nothing else during the hols), soiled a towel with menstrual blood and just kept reusing it till I noticed and stopped her, and proclaimed to be an expert in something and then failed miserably because she simply imagined she was.

To be fair, she’s having a tough time negotiating the nitty-gritty of life because of an opulent lifestyle lived as child. She had maids to feed her and wash her, a chauffeur to drive her around, and a full-time tutor who coached her in every subject. The aforementioned lovely nanny continued the trend of waiting on her hand and foot. The woman also happens to absolutely love Anna. They keep in contact and she often invites Anna back for sleepovers. Come mid-February, Anna will be going to a new school, and the nanny has even told her to come back to stay with her because her own children have gone to university and she wants to have Anna in the house.

Looking at the bigger picture, going back to stay with the nanny is a short-term solution. I should think about Anna as a permanent feature in my life with my boyfriend should we get married. Like it or not, I will be her stepmother, and I can’t keep offloading her to someone else because she can’t take care of herself and I refuse to play caretaker or teacher. In my mind, I can hardly take care of myself.

In my most selfish moments, I think about how she will have a problem graduating because her studies are in a mess, since there’s no one to constantly monitor her. Seeing that she was getting nowhere on her own, we got her tutoring for a few of her weaker subjects, but I think it was too late. In any case, she told me that she thought getting tutoring for all her subjects was the norm. I think she expected to be rescued and was disappointed. I don’t know how she is going to pass junior college and get a degree at any rate. I also think about how she is going to get a job, clueless as she is about what her interests, strengths or weaknesses are. Being kind of unattractive physically, she might have problem falling in love and getting married. She still hates boys, for goodness’ sake! As I said, in my most selfish moments, I think about being burdened with Anna for the rest of my life.

I love my boyfriend. We have a great four-year relationship, and I can’t imagine leaving him. But. If I can’t accept a future with his daughter in the picture, if I can’t love her like my own, if I refuse to pick up where all other sensible adults in her life left off, then where is all this going? Her dad tries to be her friend, but I think what she really needs is a mother. Someone to teach her about the basics all over again. He can’t do that. It’s not in his nature or capability and he may well end up yelling at her and getting no improvement.

My mother was a free-and-easy but loving type who stressed independence in her children early. She wasn’t big on verbal guidance and detailed instructions. Looking back, I can’t remember how I picked up all those common skills that seem to just develop. No one had to tell me I was old enough to get a haircut by myself. I simply went when it was time and I loved it. No one had to tell me not to use dirty towels. Or maybe someone did, but I can’t remember. Whichever the case, I don’t know how to teach whatever this “common sense” is without going mad. It’s alien territory. My mother didn’t teach me so much as showed me in daily life. You don’t verbalize the basic! It’s so damn awkward and it makes me angry! And since we are talking about angry, I hate doing her laundry, folding her panties! I would rather be doing that for my mum and not someone else’s daughter! You see how mixed up my thoughts are about this?

So, what should I do? What should I do? What the hell should I do about Anna for the next two years, for the next 10 years, for the rest of my life? Or should I just say, I’m not the right woman for this father-and-daughter pair and move on?

Asking for It


Dear Asking for It,

I think clearly you are not the right woman for this father-daughter pair and you should move on.

To put it simply, resources need to be directed toward the care, feeding and upbringing of your boyfriend’s daughter. He is her father. Her mother is incapacitated. So he has a clear, unambiguous duty to raise her. You do not. You have no responsibility toward this girl. But if you marry your boyfriend, then you will have the same clear, unambiguous duty toward her as he does. Since you know that you’re not up to it, to marry him would be unconscionable. It would verge on the fraudulent: to knowingly take on a role in someone’s life that you do not want and are not capable of performing. So if you can do any good in this situation, it would be by telling your boyfriend that you are releasing him from the relationship so that he can turn his full attention to being a parent.

You say that while your boyfriend was renting the condo and Anna was living there with him, you and he hardly ever saw her. That may be one reason she does not know how to care for herself. No one has taught her. The comparison you make between your childhood and Anna’s childhood is not quite fair. Your mother did not go insane and abandon you. Your mother was there for you. Your mother taught by example. Of course you picked up life skills. I understand that it drives you crazy to see this child who has not picked up any of the life skills you took for granted at her age. Yes, it is baffling and crazy-making and outrageous. But it is because her mother went insane and abandoned her and her father did not pick up the task.

So now he has to raise her. In order to accomplish that, certain resources are needed. It is unclear whose money paid for the child’s opulent upbringing. But since she still has a nanny, there must still be resources, in a trust, or in your boyfriend’s bank, or in his mother’s bank, to pay for the care, feeding and education of this girl. Those resources should be explicitly directed toward that end. If your boyfriend cannot structure the resources at his disposal so they are used appropriately, then a professional should step in and set up a legal structure to ensure that the resources go where they are needed.

Having set up the legal structure to direct the appropriate resources toward the raising of this girl, then your boyfriend needs to act as a parent. The child should live with her father, and the father should pay the nanny to make regular visits to their home both to teach the daughter how to care for herself and to teach him how to care for a child. He should also arrange for the daughter to make periodic visits to the nanny’s home, so that she can absorb what life lessons she can about the orderly running of a household. Who else can help? What about your boyfriend’s mother? Can she make regular visits to the home and also help raise this girl? You mention that she has financial resources. She may also have love for her granddaughter.

In short, what I am recommending is that your boyfriend admit that up till now he has not been a good father to this girl. I am recommending a radical change, a radical shifting of priorities. If he is unable or unwilling to do that, or if he is incapable of even comprehending what is meant by a radical shifting of priorities, then my second choice would be for the child to go live with the nanny, and for all the resources earmarked for her support to be directed there.

But in my heart I feel that this father ought to dedicate the next few years of his life to raising his daughter. And you ought to do what the situation calls for, which is to urge everyone concerned to do what has to be done, and then step aside.

Are men spoiled rotten?

Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, AUG 1, 2007

Men in their 40s keep breaking up with me because they want to have a baby. How selfish.

Dear Cary,

The third relationship in a row has ended because the man I was dating suddenly decided he wants children of his own. I’m 47 and the men were about my age. All said at the start they wanted a serious, long-term relationship, then Boom! They love me but I’m too old.

I’m not alone. You’d need a statistician to count the attractive, interesting, single women of a certain age who have been dumped for breeders.

I’m not talking about a clutch of pathetic broads sitting in a bar swilling cheap white wine and whining. We all go out on our own, do things we’re interested in and keep a sense of humor about it all. But when you do all that and see the slop computer matching comes up with, and are kind and polite when your 50-year-old ex introduces you to his 27-year-old wife and their new baby, it’s safer to stay at home and watch Bette Davis movies.

I’ve never lied about my age, and unless there’s some way — that only men know about — to bend the space-time continuum, men are aging at the same rate women age. So what’s with the baby wishes? Is it a cover for fear of commitment or are they just selfish?

I’m leaning toward selfish. My theory is that men of my generation have just had everything given to them. They grew up with at-home moms who took care of them. They came of sexual age before AIDS, when women were becoming independent, sex wasn’t evil anymore and being unmarried but living together was OK, so they didn’t need to commit. They got good jobs, they had independence plus relationships, and now they want to be young again, and with a young wife and children. They can be at 50 what they might have been at 30, only with money and a convenient excuse, age, for not meeting some of the more energetic requirements of parenthood.

I’m trying not to go from anger to fury. OK, I’m already way past fury — from sadness over another breakup to despair over never finding a romantic partner. How can I keep being optimistic despite disappointment after disappointment?

Thinking Men Are Spoiled


Dear Thinking,

Your theory about men is certainly interesting.

If you had a good title — some kind of “syndrome,” perhaps, like the “Combover Syndrome,” or maybe “The Pot-Bellied Peter Pan,” you could do a book. Maybe you should. It might sell.

But whether your theory is true or false you’re still a modern person in the modern world and you have to make choices and look out for yourself and not let people fuck with you.

So let us look at the simple truth. You had a series of disappointing experiences with men. You were hurt. You feel bad. You are trying not to go from anger to fury to sadness to despair. You want to keep your optimism.

I wonder why you want to keep your optimism. This optimism seems dangerous.

Why do you want to keep it? Of what value is it to you? Is it a shield from a bleaker view? Is it a bulwark against a bottomless despair?

See, I have my own suspicion that sometimes what we call optimism is more like a suicidal, willful naiveté, and that rather than shielding us from despair it leads us there. I haven’t worked this all out in my head, you understand, but something tells me that optimism is not your friend.

So what if you were not optimistic? Could you continue to date men? What if you continued to date men but assumed that every man you dated was an inveterate selfish bullshitter?

I guess maybe that would ruin it. OK, how about this: How about you continue to date but instead of optimism you carry with you a wise, careful, self-protective wariness and skepticism, perhaps paired with an inner certainty that you don’t need a damned fucking thing from any man. Nothing. You don’t need nothing from no man. Like the fish needs the bicycle, OK? You’re inert, self-contained, wary, observing, amused, detached. And you just pay attention to what you’re feeling. When your bullshit detector goes off you excuse yourself like you’re getting a phone call. And you quickly try to figure out what the fuck is going on. What do your instincts tell you? Are you being bullshitted again? Are you giving in to a wish, some wish that comes from someplace where wishes are never granted?

Your theory could be right or wrong. Certainly the historical conditions are there. But I’m not into making sweeping generalizations about men. You’ve still got the problem of personal choice. If certain patterns are repeating in your own life, then you are wise to look into what you are doing. You have to investigate it. You have to protect yourself. You have to stay away from men who do this to you.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

Once the kids are gone, I don’t want them coming back

Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, NOV 4, 2005

My wife says returning home after college is the new normal — but if they return, I may have to leave.

Dear Cary,

I am 46 and the father of two children, ages 16 and 20 (juniors in college and high school, respectively). My wife and I married very young, had our kids a little earlier than expected, embraced it and made what we felt was the difficult, correct choice of being a single-income family with a full-time mom. I would describe my attitude for many years as that of a doting father and believe that we have given unstintingly, and literally planned out our lives so that our children would have some very nice opportunities. We managed to pay off our home and to pay for a master’s degree for my wife so that, at such time as our eldest was ready to go to college, we could afford to pay for a good school. Which we did; we both have very good jobs and are able to pay tuition out of our yearly income. We have lived below our means for a very long time to do so and generally have not lived what anyone would term a lavish life.

Since she reached age 16 or so, I have really ceased to have a relationship with my oldest daughter. There was never any open break especially: I understand that girls do “outgrow their fathers,” and I accepted the role as an ever-present nonentity and occasional manservant. My wife is a little closer to our girls (the youngest is now 16). I have not especially enjoyed the teen years, to be honest: Again, we have not descended to a level of screaming and open rebellion, but the process of being a doormat to unappreciative family members was not big fun. My children are not psychotic, just run-of-the-mill, somewhat overindulged kids with no appreciation or notable efforts at simple courtesy toward their parents. Normal, in a word.

So what is the problem? It seems that many of my wife’s friends have children who have gotten their rather expensive degrees and simply come back home again to live, sans employment. We have a nephew who attended an extremely expensive big-name school who is now back in the nest, making plans for launching his own company, never having had paid employment anywhere to date.
My wife is convinced that this is the new normal: Kids go off to college and then return home to resume a lifestyle more suited to high schoolers, and she appears to be willing to go along without qualms. My problem is that I am really not interested in the prospect of providing room and board to a college graduate in 18 months’ time: I am perfectly willing to provide financial assistance so that she can start her life elsewhere, but I already feel enormous tension whenever she is under my roof during school holidays.
I’ve had enough: I did everything that I was supposed to do and more, and am not willing to endure Round 2. My wife and I have spoken around this a few times without ever quite getting it out. The point is that, barring some illness or other catastrophic event, I expect my children to assume the burden of their own lives soon after graduation and do not want them to regress to an earlier age. Frankly, if such an arrangement were forced on me for any length of time, I do not think that I would stay in the household.

Do you have any thoughts, Cary? It would not feel good to insist that my wife choose her loyalty to me as opposed to our children, but we have put our own lives on hold long enough. Ultimately I feel that an ultimatum by me — me or them — would not necessarily bring the answer that I would choose, but I know that the alternative is not something that I can put up with. Help!

Wannabe Empty Nester


Dear Wannabe,

In any household, it seems to me, each contributing member ought to have some kind of veto power over choices that would make them so uncomfortable that they would consider moving out. So I sympathize with you. It seems to me that unless both you and your wife want to have your daughter move back in after college you should be able to say no.

For your next order of business I suggest you do what you’ve been putting off: Talk this over seriously with your wife. You say she appears to have no qualms about your daughter moving back home, and that you have talked around this question a few times. Perhaps you’ve been avoiding it because you believe it will lead to an unpleasant fight. Quite possibly, if you tell her you just can’t wait to be rid of the kids, and if your daughter moves back in you’re moving out, it will indeed lead to an unpleasant fight. But if you tell her that what you really want, and what you’ve wanted for some time, is to have your marriage and your romance back, to have her back, to have your life back, she may feel differently about that. She may be pleasantly surprised. She may have no idea how tough it has been for you, if you have been quietly enduring for all these years. And it may not have occurred to her that your marriage might actually get much better with the kids permanently out of the house. So put it in terms that will make sense to her, where she has something to gain. Don’t give her the ultimatum. Just tell her what you want and how much you want it. And give her something to look forward to: A new, happier, more refreshed you, among other things.

Ask for the sale. Let her think about it. Don’t push too hard. Give it time to sink in.

Of course, first of all, your daughter may not want to move back in. She may have other plans. Your wife may miss her and hope that she wants to return home, and that may be why she has been trying to prepare the ideological ground for such an event, by arguing that this is the new normal. She probably misses her daughter more than you do, and misses playing the role of mother more than you do the role of father. So if you can think of ways to meet your wife’s needs without having your daughter live with you, you may stand a better chance of getting what you want. For instance, if your daughter could live nearby, that might be a compromise that would make your wife happy. Perhaps you could take steps to make that happen — by aiding her in finding a job and an apartment, for instance.
You did what you were required to do. There was an implicit contract involved. You agreed to care for these kids while they were kids, and prepare them to go out into the world and take care of themselves. You did that admirably. Now it’s time for them to fulfill their end of the contract, and it seems right that they should live up to their end.

Aside from the contractual aspect, however, I imagine there is a powerful emotional pull as well. Being completely free of fatherly responsibilities must be a very seductive notion. But some continued support is probably inevitable, perhaps in the form of occasional favors rather than formal financial commitments. And there’s nothing wrong with that. You’re her father, after all. But I think your desire to have her out of the house is perfectly reasonable, and I hope your wife can grant you this. It seems to me, after all you’ve done, that you deserve a break.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

My live-in boyfriend’s spending a week with a chick he met on MySpace

Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, SEP 26, 2008

I’m not real crazy about the idea. Should I be jealous?

Dear Cary:

I am writing to you because I need to hear an opinion from someone who does not already love me or think I’m amazing. I need objectivity, beautiful and philosophical objectivity.

I have been dating a man (he’s 27, I’m 30) since January and we recently moved in together at his insistence and despite my reluctance. My reluctance stems from the fact that he has never had a serious girlfriend, and while he is loving in a somewhat aloof way and has made it clear to me that he cares about me, he has not yet told me he loves me.

He is on vacation right now, visiting friends, with plans to head to California to meet up with a young woman that he “met” via MySpace. We’re not talking lunch either — he will be staying with her, at her place, for an entire week.

Apparently they have been e-mailing, then speaking on the telephone, for the better part of the past year. She has been going through a divorce, and has expressed to him that he is the “only friend she has” that she can talk to about things.

I questioned whether he really wanted to do this back in April when he was making these plans. He laughed at me and thought I was jealous, then reassured me that I can trust him and that he is just “visiting a friend.” And don’t even get me started on what her expectations may be — a young almost divorcée whose Internet “buddy” is coming to stay for a week? I can only imagine what she has planned, and I’m trying really hard not to!

Now he’s gone, and I should have told him how I feel (I’m angry! I feel disrespected and disappointed!) before he left. So do I let him know how I’m feeling? Possibly ruin his vacation? Or do I keep it to myself, suffer through the week he’ll be with her and discuss it with him when he returns? Or do I just start perusing the apartment listings? Am I making a big deal out of nothing? Is this the way things work these days? Are the lines of morality blurred by all these electrons flying around?

Anxiously Living in Sin


Dear Anxiously Living in Sin,

I’m going to try to make this fairly quick and straightforward. There are many reasons why a man living with a woman ought to be able to conduct a variety of friendships with other women, friendships in which they are not having sex, friendships that involve staying in the same place, even perhaps sleeping in the same bed chastely. I mean, there are many reasons such a thing ought to be possible. We are complex creatures with many needs for the society of others, and primary relationships ought not stifle us or limit us unnecessarily. I mean, a man ought to be able to have outside friendships that don’t imperil his marriage or primary relationship.

And I imagine, as I look up at the stars on a clear night and contemplate the vastness of the universe, I imagine there exists some world out there, and some manner of creature similar to us in certain ways and yet with this crucial difference — that they are not sexually jealous. Maybe there is such a creature and such a place. Maybe that is where Mr. Spock comes from.

But this world, from what I can tell, is not like that. In this world, when a woman lives with a young, attractive man, and the young, attractive man she lives with decides to spend a week with a woman he met on MySpace, the woman he lives with begins to contemplate the many new uses to which a kitchen knife might be put.

When creatures from these other worlds where sexual jealousy does not exist peer down at us they are no doubt mystified and feel superior to us. They do not fly into fits of rage at the behavior of the ones they mate with. Why should we? What difference does it make what he does when he is not in the primary mating-behavior space? Is it not counterproductive to “cut off his nuts with a kitchen knife,” as they say?

The kitchen knife is a highly charged symbol, domestically speaking, love-wise speaking, blues-song speaking, living-in-sin speaking. It refers, somewhat sexistically, to the fact that women, throughout much of history, have had few weapons with which to counter the physical superiority of the men they live with. But while confined to the kitchen they have also been masters of it and its many weapons. The physically superior male has been, in this classic myth, unaware of the implements available in the kitchen and the uses to which they might be put. Not to mention his unfamiliarity with just how much satisfaction a woman might find in putting the kitchen knife to these unexpected uses (uses that, we might add, are not authorized or intended by the manufacturer).

So on one side you have this counterproductive and seemingly inexplicable desire to put the kitchen knife to novel and unauthorized uses vis-à-vis the dude spending a week with his MySpace friend. You’d think we’d be beyond all that, being that we have put a man on the moon and also have speed-dating. You’d think the whole kitchen-knife-wielding-girlfriend thing would be ancient history.

I’m not saying that’s a good thing, or that it’s the only way it can be, or that you can’t try to live in a different world. I’m not saying that polyamory is bad, or unattainable, either; you might look into the possibility that you and he could have an open relationship; the idea of community that involves multiple simultaneous intimate relationships is, well … some people do that. I’m just saying that a lot of people are like this: When the dude you’re living with spends a week with a chick he met on MySpace, you start to think about the kitchen knife. I’m saying you’re not alone. These thoughts of the kitchen knife seem to be as deeply embedded in the animal nature of women as the desire to spend a week with the MySpace chick is embedded in dudes.

It’s one of those eternal verities.

So what to do? Be seriously unreasonable. Well, first, put the knives away. Then be seriously unreasonable. Tell him it’s either her or you. Seriously. Don’t pretend it’s reasonable. Just tell him you’re serious. Just tell him that’s the way it is. And peruse the apartment listings. Or, better yet, suggest that he peruse the apartment listings.
There’s probably a reason he hasn’t ever been in a serious relationship. Apparently, he’s not serious. I mean, he can’t be serious, right?

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

I want to tell his wife about our affair


Cary’s classic column from Sunday, Mar 13, 2011

The man I love is deceiving his wife and I think she should know what kind of man she’s married to

Dear Cary,

I fell in love with an amazing, complicated man. He has a young child with an ex and he was living in the United States illegally. And he had a girlfriend. We became friends gently, over a long period of time. I’ve never had such an intense attraction, but we stayed away from it for a year. It finally broke, and our mutual feelings got stronger despite all best efforts.

Then after sleeping together for several months, he showed up at my doorstep and told me his relationship had ended. I couldn’t believe it, but I put the brakes on. Things were too intense and he needed space to get his life in order. We stopped sleeping together. Then he told me he had to leave the country, since he was here illegally.

He left. He wrote to me how much he missed me. Then, as quickly as he left, he returned. Within weeks he got back together with his ex and married her. I know he did this because he needs to be in the United States to be close to his child.

But he also started sleeping with me again, even more often than before. He took care of me, helping me around my apartment, and we spent more time together. Then he told me he loved me, that he made a mistake marrying her and that in a few years when he has his green card, we can be together.

I feel like he would do anything to stay close to his son, and it’s selfish that he’s using her and me.

This whole situation has broken my heart. Part of me wants to tell his wife, since she’s only 27 and they’ve been married for six weeks. I feel like he’s treating her so badly. But I always knew he was with her — she didn’t have that knowledge, and she married him. I don’t want this to continue for years, and for her to find out much later.

Maybe it’s not my business to tell her, but I feel like I would not want to be in her position. I know that by telling her, I will also be ending things for myself with him. Also, I went through a rough breakup at 26 — but it was best because I still had time to get my life in order. The sooner she sees what he’s capable of, the better it is for her.

I can’t believe I’m considering this, but I feel like it’s what I should do.



Dear Lost,

You want to help his wife?

I think what would help his wife is for you to stop sleeping with her husband.

I suggest you quietly and firmly break off your relationship with this man. Then suggest that he tell her.

It’s up to him. He could tell her that he was having an affair and he’s ended it and he could commit to putting the marriage on a new, honest footing. He could be honest with her. He could tell her that he’s had an eye for other women but he’s through with that. He could tell her his son matters most to him, and that he’s going to stay in the marriage and love her as best he can, and raise his son, and live here legally.

But it’s up to him. At some point, if he keeps fooling around, it could be argued that someone should tell her. If he can’t stop fooling around with other women then his wife and child are both in jeopardy and she has the right to know. But still I don’t think you’re the person to tell her. It should be someone with no interest in the matter and no history.

Did you notice that you were sleeping with him as long as he had a girlfriend? Then when he broke up with her, you put the brakes on. Then when he married you resumed your affair. So you may have motives that are hidden from you. So, as I say, even if it becomes clear in the future that she deserves to be told, you would not be the best one to tell her.

Just end it. End it and let him decide what he’s going to do. Strongly suggest that he tell his wife and set things straight. But don’t step in and tell her yourself.

Maybe years later when his residency status is resolved and he can provide for his son, maybe he will want to divorce her and he will call you. I hope you do not wait for him. He’s made his choice already.

You know what I think you should do? I think you should find an unmarried man who lives in the country legally, and suggest coffee.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

I’m an artist about to explode

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

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

Dear Cary,

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

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

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

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

I never get enough sleep.

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

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

I need a little tenderness.


Dear Needing a Little Tenderness,

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

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

(Beneath the stars of America the beautiful.)

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

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

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

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

So yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

Am I fickle?

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

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

Dear Cary,

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

Young and Fickle


Dear Young and Fickle,

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

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

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

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

My children were abused

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

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

Dear Cary,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best wishes,


Dear E,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

Where is my home?

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

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

Dear Cary,

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

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

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

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

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

The Wanderer


Dear Wanderer,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In what sense is this true?

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

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

I hope your mother is OK now.

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

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

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

I’m a condo parking-spot hoarder!

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

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

Dear Cary,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parking Spot Hoarder


Dear Parking Spot Hoarder,

Put a plant there.

Call it “The Greening of the Parking Space.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We Americans are half-rancher and half-villager.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like I say, who can argue with a plant?

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up