Category Archives: Advice

Advice and things about advice

Writing and the restless mind

As I sit here (“As I sit here”? “As I sit here”! “As I sit here” is one of the worst, most clichéd and overused beginnings in the history of first-person narrative … and yet … it is germane, as I am indeed sitting here!  So …) as I was saying, as I sit here on the floor in my little room in this little medieval hill town of Castiglion Fiorentino looking out the window over the narrow curving street below with the bakery and the faggots to be burned in the oven (more about that here), I am  noticing my irritability, my bad mood in the morning, and how the urge to write these thoughts down comes as a palliative gesture. It feels better to write these things down. Writing is a refuge for the restless, unquiet mind.

The connection between writing as a useful mental and spiritual exercise, a palliative or even a self-help routine, and writing as a quest for excellence and influence and aesthetic perfection interests me because of the role I play as an Amherst Writers and Artists workshop leader. For as I was sitting here (again: that dead phrase which is yet so useful, for I do sit here a lot; in fact there is more to it than just sitting here; in fact I do not come to be sitting here by chance; I have come to sit here because I know that sitting here will bring some degree of psychological re-grounding, a quieting of the restless and irritable mind that is beating its wings about my head) I was thinking that writing as a way of quieting the mind by focusing on language, and writing as a way of creating something beautiful, are intertwined and mutually supportive. For what writing requires–clarity of mind, care, choice of words, focus, continuity–are also the qualities we seek in quieting the restless mind.

I am all over the place when I am irritated. My wife asks me a simple question — When did you come to bed last night? — and I snap at her: What do you mean when did I come to bed last night? Right after you did! In truth, right after watching a program on the Italian RAI network about Michelangelo, and then a bit about all the notable things that have happened on July 21. When I am irritated, I cannot see clearly. Nor can I sit in the same place long enough for the irritation to dissipate. I am captured by bad feelings into pointless activity. So the two work together. The writing requires a certain state of mind. The state of mind it requires is actually the state of mind in which I wish to be: receptive, long-wave, interested, reflective, alert but not anxious, contented but not heedless.

So that is how I see these two things working together when, for instance, the question arises: Is this workshop  just a kind of group therapy, or does it actually help the writing? I think it helps one get into the state in which writing can occur, and, coincidentally or not so coincidentally, that state is also a salutary mental condition in itself. The quieted mind that is writing is also the mind that is alert, inquisitive, receptive, contemplative, capable of humor and surprise, free to make connections, balanced and serene.

So the workshops don’t so much teach writing per se, i.e. what a particular culture values as good writing and how to emulate that culture’s models for good writing. Rather, they provide a method, a practice, a way to get going with the writing. Improvement and refinement comes naturally once we acquire the practice.

And, along the way, as in the course of writing this short piece, we end up feeling a bit less irritable, able to face the day.

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My husband won’t set limits!

Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, JUN 5, 2006

Uncle Danny shows up in his R.V. for four-month “visits,” gobbling up our food and paying nothing.


Dear Cary,

My husband and I are a professional couple in our mid-30s who have a house in a revitalized urban area in North Carolina. Since we moved into our house four years ago, my husband’s uncle — let’s call him Uncle Danny — has started visiting us in his R.V. for increasingly longer visits — the last one being four months! A little background on Uncle Danny. He is a traveling nurse in his mid-60s. He has never been married and was estranged from most of his family for many years, only remaking contact in the last five years. When Uncle Danny visits us, he expects to use my husband’s spare pickup truck — he takes the key from the rack and helps himself. He also helps himself to the food and beverages in our kitchen, never buying his own groceries during his interminable stays. He almost always invites himself along when my husband and I go out to dinner and never picks up his own check. I would faint if he ever offered to treat us! He does sleep in his R.V., but the rest of the time he’s with us in our house. When pressed as to how long he will be staying during each of these “visits,” he always gives some vague answer. We never know when he’s leaving until a day or two before he goes.

The real rub is that my husband allows this behavior and refuses to set limits with his uncle. My husband is pretty passive and detests confrontation. This year, Uncle Danny has been here from January through mid-April. He left for a few weeks to do some short-term nursing work in Northern Virginia and returned to our home on May 15. I am furious! I’ve insisted that my husband address this issue, and although my husband agrees that his uncle’s behavior is unacceptable, he is dragging his feet about approaching Uncle Danny with some limits.

My question is, how do I handle this situation? I am a generous person by nature and do not like the spite and anger that Uncle Danny inspires in me. I also do not like the stress he is creating in my marriage. But I also realize that it is not my place to deal with Uncle Danny directly. What should I do? How do I get rid of this man?

Tired of Being Mooched off of

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Dear Tired of Being Mooched off of,

Contrary to what you say, I think it is your place to deal with Uncle Danny. It is your house. If your husband won’t do it, it’s up to you.

Why your husband won’t or can’t do it and what that means about his character and his relationship with his family are something you may want to explore with him when you have a spare year or two to spend fighting like cats and dogs. But right now something needs to be done about Uncle Danny’s Ticonderoga, and you need to step in and do it.

Sometimes things just have to be said out loud and somebody has to say them. “You’re fired” is one of those things. “You have to leave” is another one. “I want a divorce,” “I’m breaking up with you” and “I’m resigning effective today” are others, bursting with import and significance but simple in their utterance. You just have to say the thing that has to be said and let it hang there in the air long enough to be heard and understood.

I know what happens when we overcontemplate these things. We look for ways to soften it. That’s fine. You can try to be kind about it. Just don’t let that process of looking for a nice way to say it prevent you from saying it. You certainly don’t have to be mean. Don’t let your welled-up anger spill out in spiteful little ways. But you have to say what needs to be said.

This thing you’re conveying is not really your fault. You’re just conveying the truth; you’re just looking at the situation and saying, here is the way it is. It’s not about you and your feelings; it’s about the household and the way it needs to be run.

It’s your job to set the rules in your household and enforce them. If you don’t do that, you’re not really running a household, you’re just occupying a house.

Tell Uncle Danny that your household has some rules and that from now on he will have to abide by them. The rules cover the length of his stays, the amount of notice he gives before he arrives and departs, and the general running of the household.

Set a limit on how long he can stay. You might have a certain time in mind; a month might be a good maximum, but you might want to limit it to two weeks, or even one week.

Tell Uncle Danny that while he is visiting you expect him to contribute to the household. That might mean paying for groceries and meals and also helping out with chores.

Family has its privileges, of course, but with privileges come responsibilities and reciprocity.

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Dashed against the rocks

 

Cary’s classic column from Friday, Feb 20, 2004

I’m in love with a siren who lured me and is now destroying me.


Dear Cary,

I have been involved with a woman for one and a half years. She is well mannered, dresses nicely, has style, is extremely intelligent, and is a stunning beauty. We also share many views on the world and, for example, an obsession with the same country that we would both like to emigrate to. We are the kind of couple where everybody turns around to tell us how beautiful we look together.

This woman has given me some of the best times of my life. I loved and trusted her with all my heart. But I got burned, and badly. A description of the depression I’ve gone through would not fit into one letter. She has given me some of the most beautiful times of my life and she has been the cause for the most depressing and sad times that I ever had to endure. She abused my trust, betrayed me, lied to me, dumped me for someone else. That was in the middle of our relationship and it’s the cause for our breaking up for over a month.

But I just couldn’t let go. When she told me that she still had feelings for me and that maybe we could make it work, I immediately went for it, despite much advice to the contrary from friends and family. And it worked well, after a time even very well.

And then it turned back into a disaster. As we both went off for university, she demanded attention that she knew I couldn’t potentially give her and compromises that she knew I couldn’t make. I tried very hard to make it work, to convince her that I loved her. Her reaction was indifference. She was just interested in her new friends, her new life — without me. That was last October, which is when I broke up with her, again.

Even after weeks, I thought of her every day, feelings alternating between anger and longing. I didn’t talk to her for over two months — didn’t help. As I was finally starting to get a handle on things, she called me again and said that she didn’t want to lose somebody she once trusted so much, that she’d like to keep me at least as a friend.

When we met again, all the signs were still there. The looks, the occasional hand on the other’s leg. The close-to-infinite goodbye hug. We started talking on the phone and e-mailing on an almost daily basis. Oh my god, I was back in her power again.

I can’t pull myself out of it, even though she’s been very ambivalent. One day, she tells me how much she misses me, that if I asked her to marry me, she’d say yes. The next day, she doesn’t even answer the phone. Then again, she blames me for everything that ever went wrong in our relationship.

Maybe this is just because there are hardly any girls in my small university in this small, depressing town? Maybe it’s because the advice to get myself somebody else is not an option?

Why can’t I let go? I feel like Odysseus passing the sirens. She draws me to her with her magical song and whenever I come near her, I get smashed on her deadly rocks. How can I escape her? I don’t think stuffing wax into my ear would work, much less having my friends tie me to the mast. But what can I do?

Bound by Love

Dear Bound by Love,

What Odysseus did may sound impossible or useless if taken literally. But metaphorically speaking it’s exactly what you have to do. Odysseus had his mates tie him to the mast. You need to have your friends tie you to a decision. Swear an oath to banish this woman from your life, and have your friends swear to hold you to it.

Now, Odysseus earned his crew’s affection and obedience through heroism. Few of us command such power over men. Moreover, few will truly grasp what you are asking. You may have several “friends” who enjoy your company and think you are a good guy, but to do what you require takes a maturity that doesn’t always show on the surface. So choose one person, and choose wisely. You have to place complete trust in this person.

Make a signed, written agreement. Say that if you should announce that you’re going to see her, they have permission to hold you down, slap you silly, and lock you in your room. Promise not to press charges if they should abduct you in a car and tie you to a tree in the woods. This is what it will take.

You’re in this woman’s power. We don’t have to talk about why, for now. We just have to recognize reality. You’re in her power. Her power is in her presence and in her beauty. It’s a delicious power, but for you it’s deadly. The only way to get out of her power is to get out of her presence. Don’t talk to her, don’t look at her. If you find yourself thinking about her, fine. No man could keep you from doing that. Let yourself think about her, but only as one regards an object in the mind. Do not allow yourself to speculate about her. Get my drift? Whenever you regard her in your mind, be sure there is a fence around her. Do not think about the ways in which next time it might be different. Do not take down that fence.

Furthermore, if you regard her in your mind, regard her only from the rear, as though she is receding from view. Do not look at her face. Do not let her eyes fall on you. Do not let her approach. Only regard her as an object receding into the distance. If you imagine her eyes looking at you, you will be in her power again.

Face it: You’re addicted to her, OK? So you can’t have her anymore! Not even a little piece! You’re done! You’re through! It’s over, soldier!

As to why you are in her power: There is something of narcissism in this — for instance, in the pride you take in being seen as a stunning couple, and in the way she so pleasingly mirrors yourself in her thoughts and ambitions. Odysseus was not a narcissist; he was a warrior; he knew himself and he knew the other, both as enemy and lover. He knew his weaknesses and took precautions. His problem with the sirens was a problem of temptation, not narcissism. But narcissism appears to be the focus of your heroic struggle. So consider that you cannot look away from her because she is an image of your own beauty. Think of her as a reflection of yourself, and consider that the reason you long for her so is that you long for yourself, your own beauty. It’s an unfathomable paradox, this narcissism thing … but maybe that tear that Narcissus sheds, the tear that disrupts his perfect reflection in the river, perhaps that is what is needed here. Perhaps what that myth is saying is that rescue — death in Narcissus’ case, but we needn’t be so literal — comes through the power of emotion to disrupt the perfect reflection: when through long unrequited desire for perfection we finally break down and feel the tragic impossibility of such a union, the power of that emotion shatters the entrancing image, and we are free. Just think of Narcissus’ death at that point as the death of the narcissistic self.

Or think of it this way: The more you suffer, the worse she looks.

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My friend has gone bad

Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, JUL 23, 2008

I hate to lose my best college buddy, but her behavior is beyond the pale.


Dear Cary,

I am having problems with my friend (let’s call her Mary). Mary and I have been friends since college. We are in our early 30s now. Neither of us is married: Mary is completely single and I have a significant other. We have lived, traveled and partied together. Mary has seen me at my best and emotional worst. We have a large group of friends in common whose weddings and baby showers we attend together. In many ways, our lives have paralleled each other’s — we have both moved from coast to coast and, for the third time, we have found ourselves living in the same large metropolitan area.

A year ago, I was laid off from my job. I decided to search for a job in the area where Mary lives. During that time she was very supportive of me — she allowed me to stay with her whenever an interview brought me to her city. I accepted a job near Mary, and she allowed me to stay with her while I searched for an apartment. During that time, despite my lack of income, I made sure to treat her to meals out, bottles of wine, etc.

Six months have passed since I started my new job, and I have settled in to my new life. My friendship with Mary is rapidly deteriorating. She is part of a gaggle of single, professional women who like to have expensive nights on the town during which they “trawl” for men. Mary earns a lot of money and often bankrolls these nights out for certain of these girls who don’t make a lot of money. She even goes so far as to organize and pay for little overnight and weekend trips. As a result, she has collected a group of women friends who really look up to her and will drop anything to spend time with her. In principle, I have a problem with this. Even if Mary would pay for me, I wouldn’t let her. As a government worker, I can’t afford the expensive lifestyle. At first, I went along with these outings, but lately have declined the invitations and suggested alternative daytime activities such as going to museums and on hikes.

Whenever I make plans with Mary, at the last minute, she brings other people along to the activity. For instance, if I invite her to dinner and make a reservation, I find out that at the last minute she has invited other people along and changed the reservation. I once invited her on a hike and to dinner at my house afterward; she invited five people along without asking me first and then wouldn’t let me know whether anyone was coming, even though I called her several times. In the end, I got tired of waiting and made other plans. When Mary called me to let me know they were “on the way,” I explained to her that I had made other plans when I didn’t hear back from her; she got really angry. Another time she invited me on a day trip, and, after I accepted, I received in an e-vite in which she had asked 35 other people to come along; then she told me I would have to find my own transportation to our destination because she had to drive the others who don’t have cars. I canceled.

I feel like it is rude for Mary to always include so many other people without asking me when I am the one who has made the invitation. I feel like it is rude of her to wait until the last minute to let me know when we can meet up. I feel like she is doing this because she has to be in control of the situation. I can’t stand being controlled in this way, so often I cancel when she pulls these stunts. However, it gets worse.

Lately, when I have plans to meet Mary, she is really late. A few weeks ago, she told me to meet her at her house. At the agreed-upon time, she texted to say she was getting a pedicure and would meet me in 10 minutes. She didn’t arrive until 45 minutes later — I had to wait the whole time on the sidewalk in front of her house on a dangerous street populated by hookers and crackheads. Last week, at a party we were co-hosting for our college friend from out of town, she arrived almost three hours late. Then over the weekend, when she was supposed to meet me and my boyfriend for drinks and dinner to celebrate my birthday, she arrived one and a half hours late and we missed the dinner reservation. Each of these times, there was no acknowledgment of the tardiness or apology.

You are probably thinking this is a no-brainer: Cut ties with Mary. But it is not that easy. The truth is that Mary and I have many memories and friends in common. She considers me one of her best friends. We actually do have a good time together.

What should I do? It is hard for me to accept the fact that Mary has to be in control and won’t be happy unless I follow her around like a puppy. My heart tells me that, deep down, Mary is very unhappy about something and is acting out. I feel like I can’t have a heart-to-heart with her because Mary would never admit to having anything less than a perfect life.

Help

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Dear Help,

I think you said it very well: It is hard for you to accept the fact that Mary has to be in control and won’t be happy unless you follow her around like a puppy.

So how? How do you “accept” and “move on”?

First you must “fix” this phenomenon. Not repair it, but “fix” it in the traditional sense of the word: See it as permanent. You cannot repair this. But you must fix it, i.e. freeze it in time, see it as a fait accompli. As long as you try to repair this, you will never fix it. You will be swept along in it like flotsam on a wave.

One way is to do as you have done above, only more so. List her transgressions exhaustively. List all her offenses. You do not need to make it in narrative form; it can be simply,

Showed up late for 33rd birthday.

Brought uninvited guest to funeral.

Forgot wedding, etc.

What fascinates me about the inner life, or, if you will, the spirit, is that by “fixing,” or making a pattern of behavior visible (this pattern is “character”), we see the contour of a spirit; likewise, by “fixing” a pattern of behavior we can see the contour of a friendship. Once we can see it then we can let it go.

As kids we made rubbings of pennies and leaves. You place the object under a paper and carefully — or savagely, depending on your temperament and style — rub the flat side of a pencil lead over the paper so the lines of the object appear. (That was such a beautiful thing, to watch an image appear, transferred to a portable medium; also watching a photograph develop in a tray: the same thing! After the image appeared on the Kodak paper, my father would bathe it in fixative, making the image permanent.)

Until we fix the condition we continue to wait for hours on cold steps for our friend. Strangers pass and size us up. We feel powerless and put upon. So we name it. What would you call it? The Incredibly Unavailable Former Friend? The Spectacularly Insensitive Hostess? The Monumentally Uncommunicative, Perpetually Late, Uncaring, Chaotic, Childish Former College Friend?

It matters that you give it a name. But you do not need to be accurate in its diagnosis. You are not going to cure this disease. You just need to name it and fix it in time.

You name it and fix it in time so you can accept it: This is your former friendship. This friendship is lost to you now.

Note the “friendship” is lost to you. The “friend” is still there. That is what is so vexing. The friend is still there but the friendship is gone.

So you say, “this woman I used to be friends with.” You say, “this incredibly selfish person I was close to in college.” Ah. That is hard, no? By fixing it you lose it. Then you have to mourn it.

It’s really, really sad, I know.

You have to feel it. You have to feel it and let it go.

That is what you do. You capture this image; you freeze it, as if taking a photo. Then you develop it and bathe it in the fixative of your own gaze.

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Can I trust a cheating wife?

Dear Cary,

I met my girlfriend almost three years ago. She was married at the time. Things started casually. We flirted and maybe behaved inappropriately when no one was looking. Our flirting progressed, some playful touching and sometimes she’d teasingly pull her dress up a bit for a second or push her cleavage together for a quick tease. Eventually we began exchanging sexual text messages and pictures.

I knew that she had a husband and that what we were doing was wrong, but I justified it to myself by saying that nothing was really happening. It was all just flirting and having fun, nothing more. After she snuck to my house one day and things became physical for the first time, it became a full-blown affair.

I thought of her as my girlfriend and tried my best to just ignore the fact that she was married. It went on for nearly a year before her husband discovered what was going on, and immediately demanded a divorce and kicked her out of their home.

The stone stairway leading up to the bedrooms of le Château du Pin
The stone stairway leading up to the bedrooms of le Château du Pin

We have been living together and officially been in a relationship ever since and I truly care for and love her. We talk about our future and plan and dream about our life together. But my problem is that I don’t trust her. Every time she leaves the house I am nearly overcome with anxiety. I think about how we began, how she would meet me and smirk about the lie that she told her husband as she left her house. I see her phone and think of the secret messages between us. She says hello to a male friend of hers and I think about how we used to share a polite smile in public then have our mouths on each other in private.

I feel guilty. She vents to me about how people look at her and how her family judges her ever since her infidelity was exposed. They all really loved her husband. She hates that they hold it against her and I was ashamed to realize that I am no different from them. I hold it against her every day and I desperately want to stop. I want to be able to trust her and feel secure and comfortable when thinking about a future with her. How can I get past this?

Guilty Lover

Dear Guilty Lover,

I love this story and want to write about it honestly and not judgmentally even though it might sound judgmental anyway, like when somebody kills somebody and you call it murder but you’re not being judgmental, just kind of literal. I mean, literally, you were acting in a delusional state. Not in a bad way necessarily. Just in a delusional way. As in: pretending that stuff is not happening when it actually is happening.

You had to pretend because otherwise you would have to stop doing this thing that you were enjoying very much. You could have just admitted what you were doing and that it conflicted with your belief system, but you chose to keep your belief system intact and instead deny reality. That just blows my mind, but it’s very common and it is, I think, the key to a great many tragedies and mysteries of the human condition. We would rather sacrifice reality to save our belief systems. So rather than question your belief system, you split yourself in two: the person doing the act, and the person characterizing it.

Wonderful.

But delusional.

Hey. I’m not trying to be mean. Nor do I place myself above you. I have been delusional and acted in delusional ways, and trained professionals have called me all kinds of names. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s just helpful to know what it is. It’s delusional.

In other contexts, such a delusional approach to reality might make you a super-dangerous and weird dude. But I think you know what you are doing because you feel anxiety. The anxiety you feel is the result of your attempting not to remain conscious of, nor to feel, what you actually do know and feel. The truth is, you are afraid that she will leave you. This is a rational fear based on observation. So you are smart to face it.

The curtain bed in an alcove of the "green room" at le Château du Pin
The curtain bed in an alcove of the “green room” at le Château du Pin

If she cheats on you, that’s normal for her. It’s what she does. So expect it.

Which leads us to the philosophical-inquiry part. And also the part about sexual freedom and gender relations and power. Because here is the other thing that gets me: Under what law or charter or agreement, when her husband found out she was having sex with you, did he have the right to throw her out of the house? Was that something they had agreed on when they got married? Like did she sign something that said if she cheated on him he could throw her out of the house? Or was that just common folk custom, to make the wife homeless if she was sexually unfaithful? And, further, as if she were chattel, was it then your responsibility to house her? Is it like the last man who fucked her now has to house her? What is going on here in the realm of gender roles and power? This is pertinent because housing is such a basic human need, and ought not rest perilously on the vagaries of human sexual conduct.

Granted that apparently this husband has the right to render his wife homeless, where do this husband’s powers end? Could he throw you out of your house, too, for conspiring with her? Could he throw everyone out of their houses? Could he throw me out of my house because she cheated on him?

OK, I know that is stretching it. We’re just asking, in a legalistic way, where his powers of throwing people out of their houses end.

I know people just do things. But it is instructive to inquire into the unspoken rules that govern the things people just do.

So here is an idea. Instead of throwing her out of your house if she cheats on you, why don’t you throw out this antiquated notion that when a woman has sex with a man other than the man she is living with he has to throw her out of the house and file legal action? Speaking of which: Legal action because of fucking? The power of the state because of fucking? Why involve the power of the state? The state, in general, is a terrible thing, brutal and ugly. Why involve it in sex?

Instead, why don’t you and she make an agreement? Why don’t you make an agreement that if she fools around once in a while it’s no big deal. Is that possible? Why not? Obviously, it’s something she does. What do you plan to do when she cheats on you? Is your purpose in life to uphold some abstract law that you and she haven’t even totally consciously agreed upon but just let hover in the air between you like an ancient sacrament?

I understand that you are anxious, and I feel for you. But I think you are anxious because you cannot accept the reality of your situation. You have put yourself in situation that is deeply conflictual. Your belief system says that cheating is bad, but your actions say, Hey, who cares? I like her! You are going to have to reconcile your belief system with your situation somehow, either by ending the relationship or expanding your belief system to accommodate what for her is fairly normal behavior. My opinion: It’s easier to change your belief system than it is to change another person’s behavior.

Of course, you are free to tell me I’m crazy for even suggesting that you accept her exactly as she is and let things happen as they are going to happen. It isn’t what most people would say. And, having thought about it, you may reach a different conclusion. You may decide that it’s your belief system that has to stay, and the girlfriend who has to go.

I’m just suggesting that you ask hard, penetrating questions in order to determine what is your own bottom line.

You are two adults, presumably capable of free, conscious choice. You can talk about it and work it out. It doesn’t have to be a big drama full of people throwing each other out of houses and filing legal papers.

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I feel awful about my affair

Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, MAY 2, 2012

It was stupid, cruel and unsatisfying, and now I’m miserable


Dear Cary,

I really need you to tell me how to forgive myself, and how to carry on after I had an affair. I’m sorry if this ends up really long and please edit however you need to. Basically, I have been married for 15 years to a man who really is a fundamentally excellent person. We were married quite young for a couple in our socioeconomic bracket, and have been together since college. Like any couple that goes the distance, we have been to (relative) hell and back, most of which was the byproduct of trying to make our careers fit together, dealing with each other’s families, family money issues, etc. Totally run-of-the-mill problems. I have had my doubts, at times over the years, whether we were “meant for each other,” which we have discussed openly and honestly several times throughout our relationship.  We always come to the conclusion that we just do not want to break up. We love each other and we love most things about the life we’ve built.

Two years ago I entered an extremely challenging graduate program, which also wreaked havoc on our lives, and therefore, our relationship. Though I knew that all last summer and fall was an especially low point in our communication and in our overall happiness with each other, I’m still shocked and gutted whenever I “remember” that I cheated. Which is several times a day.

There was this other man, I’ll call him X, whom I had been acquainted with for several months. One night, while out with a group of 10 or so other friends (my husband went home early that night, the rest of us were celebrating exams being over), he paid special attention to me. At the end of the evening I acknowledged to myself that X was maybe more interesting and intelligent of a person that I’d formerly noticed. Still, I was extremely surprised later that night to receive a borderline flirtatious text from him.

I kind of hate myself for returning the attention. Looking back, I realize that I was just so flattered. No one tells you when you get married that you become invisible to other men, and it’s not that I think I’ve been out there looking for inappropriate attention …  but I found it surprisingly welcome when it came. And that’s how it all began. I’m so ashamed that it took so little, so very, very little, to tempt me into cheating on my husband.

Looking back at last year, I know now that there was something really wrong with me, for awhile. I was at least depressed, and actually I have begun to wonder if I even might have had a manic episode.  I suddenly was drinking often, and a lot (which I no longer am). I know that the pressure of my schoolwork has been affecting me in all sorts of ways that I don’t seem able to recognize in myself until that “phase” is over and I’m in the next one. However, even though I know this is a factor, I just don’t think any amount of stress is an excuse for what I did. Though my husband and I were having trouble connecting last year, and we were seriously considering a trial separation, that shouldn’t and doesn’t matter.

Because my husband and I are really open-minded people, each with friends from both genders, and neither of us prone to jealousy, I never even told one lie. There were a couple of lies of omission, but I think I was able to live in a little bit of denial for awhile just because I really never had to be sneaky, or make up stories. I just kind of detached from him, for a few weeks. Since I’ve been living in the library and so preoccupied with school the last couple of years, he didn’t notice.

The affair really only lasted a month and was much more of an emotional affair than a physical one, although the relationship was consummated, once. I have not confided any of this experience to anyone.  After sleeping with X (it makes me nauseated just to type this), even during, I knew that I really wasn’t attracted to him at all, and I just immediately realized what a mistake it all was. I got myself out of there, and began the process of ending it. Which is when I of course finally realized that X’s own mental and emotional stability was, well, compromised.

I just can’t believe how stupid I was, from the beginning. It’s hard to believe I deserve any credibility, but please know that I am usually a very perceptive, very self-aware and intentional person. How was I able to just take leave of my senses, for weeks? It is legitimately scary.

When I broke things off with X, firmly, he actually tried to physically keep me from leaving his house. Of course, nothing could have convinced me further that I wanted nothing to do with him EVER again.

Even though it all ended months ago now, there are still some things that keep me up at night. First of all, the clarity that comes with the regret of doing such a despicable thing is kind of a gift. I was able to wholeheartedly throw myself into my marriage again, and this year, 2012, my husband and I have felt closer than maybe ever. But of course, he doesn’t “know.”  We had actually discussed adultery a couple of times over the years, when we’ve seen friends or friends’ parents go through it, and we decided, each of us, that we did not want to ever know if the other had cheated on them! I know now that neither of us ever believed it would actually happen, but just by having those talks, I’m pretty sure he really doesn’t want to know.

In the beginning, I wanted to confess. Now I really don’t, and instead live in fear that he’ll hear it through the grapevine. As I hinted, X has done some things that made me realize, way later than I should have, that he is manipulative, needy and self-centered. Since he still asks me to meet him out socially on occasion, and often expresses his disapproval when I decline, I know he is not as “over” me as I pray for him to be. He can be a bit delusional. I am afraid that he will someday find justification for spilling the story to one of our common friends. I don’t know for sure that this hasn’t happened already.

What is worse is that he has a number of really incriminating and embarrassing texts from me on his phone, that he could show to anyone, at any time he felt like it. Sometimes I think I’m being paranoid when I play this scenario out in my mind, but at the same time, this is a man who pursued a married woman, the husband of whom he professes to like and respect, ensured she got drunk any time he was around her, and balked when she ended it after a few weeks. He is no saint.

Here are the issues that might be slowly killing me. How can I live with myself? My husband really is a great person, and the love of my life, and just because we were going through some doubts and hard times, I did something that would absolutely break his heart into a thousand pieces. One of the things that also stops me from confessing to him is that, if telling him destroyed our relationship, I’m scared it would also prevent him from ever trusting anyone else. I know he thinks I’m this great moral person and if I were able to betray him like that, then there’s no one who wouldn’t.

And it’s not just that I cheated on him that is so disturbing, it’s that I didn’t even choose someone, for lack of a better term, more worthy. X is just not a person I would even date, if I were single. I just feel pathetic. How can I call him needy, when I was so taken with the first person to pay me a compliment?

Sometimes I struggle with all of this even being real. Even though I might not have earned any credibility here, please believe me that this is very out-of-character for me. Now that the fog has lifted, so to speak, my memories from this affair seem like a movie that I watched, instead of a time that I lived through. There is another time in my life that feels that way, when my mother almost died after a terrible accident, and was in the hospital for months. So I know that in a way, it’s kind of a protective mechanism, but how do I make sure nothing like this ever happens again? Right now, nothing repulses me more than the thought of doing something like this again, but . . . I know now that I’m capable of really terrible things. I never knew that before.

Mostly, I’m just sick that I can’t undo this. I’ll always know. I’ll always know that I “ruined” our marriage, even though my husband (hopefully) won’t ever have an inkling. There was just this pure thing, this devotion, that we had, that we had promised to each other, and I was so ready to throw it away. And he never would. I don’t deserve him.  Living with this regret is just so unbelievably harsh. I’m pretty sure time is making it worse. It’s like the longer I “get away with it” the worse I feel. Is my whole experience just a total cliché anyway? Does everyone who cheats on their partner end up feeling this way?

I’m realizing that it’s taken me this long to even write this letter, to reach out to someone, because deep down, I still need to punish myself, and prolonging the bad feelings is the worst punishment I can inflict, that doesn’t also hurt my husband.

What do I do? How do I try to let this go? I’ve never, ever had such a low opinion of myself.

Hindsight is 20/20

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Dear Hindsight,

It will take time for you to forgive yourself. It will take time for you to sort out what kinds of unhappiness led you to make this mistake.

But that’s fine. You have time. You have a pretty good life in most ways. There is just some unhappiness in your life that you have tried to ignore. This affair was the result. Once you begin looking at your unhappiness, things will start to make sense, and you will find some compassion for yourself and will begin to forgive yourself.

It just takes time.

You can begin by contacting a marriage and family counselor.

If you do nothing, it’s likely that over time the severity of this event’s impact on your emotional life will lessen. But your marriage will probably end badly.

It will end badly because as you withhold your emotions the marriage will offer less and less satisfaction until it is practically worthless as a life-supporting partnership. It will become just another burden to maintain, just another life-sucking routine.

But it doesn’t have to end badly.

A decent marriage and family counselor can help you.

Your main hurdle may be in shedding your current frame of reference long enough to begin to look at what actually happened. For instance, you express amazement that this happened, and yet empirical evidence is that it happens a lot. So, in rational terms, your error was in excluding yourself from the set of people capable of having an affair. Every married person is capable of having an affair. There was really no basis for excluding yourself. You are human like everyone else. The intensity of your desire to stay true to your husband is obviously not a guarantee of success. It is only a wish. You just made a common human error in thinking: With no basis for doing so, you excluded yourself from the set of people capable of having affairs. Similarly, I excluded myself from the set of people capable of having cancer until I got cancer. It’s a common mental error. If you go back and examine your life to find the basis for your belief that you would not cheat on your husband, you will probably find the same kinds of baseless beliefs that millions of other people have also had. So I suggest you bring some academic rigor to your examination of your own life. But don’t try that on your own. It’s too painful and destabilizing. Do this only under the care of a therapist. Because you may make a second mistake: You may blame yourself. You have to do the opposite of blaming yourself. You need to forgive yourself. That may take some time. You haven’t been taught how to forgive yourself. You will have to learn. A therapist can help you with that.

This is not a puzzle or theorem but a wound. You can put off the actual work of recovering for quite some time. But eventually, you will have to begin.

Why not begin now, while you are still in fresh pain, while you are still motivated, while you still feel that it is an intolerable moral burden to live with? Emotional pain is a great motivator.

This can be fixed. Your marriage can survive. You can forgive yourself. But you need to begin.

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My brother left his girlfriend with a 5-month-old baby

Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, AUG 30, 2007

They thought the baby would fix things, but he didn’t, so the dad split. Does that mean he’s no good?


Dear Cary,

Early this year, one of the greatest bright spots in my life occurred: I became an uncle. After 10 years of bleak family moments, we all finally had a moment of renewal. My older brother called me (I’m an expat and haven’t actually seen the munchkin) ’round about 4 a.m. EST: “God, he’s beautiful.”

Four months later my brother split with my sister-in-law. They were effectively, though never officially, married — 15 years together, since high school. OK bro, you had a son and split with your girl four months later. As he put it to me on the phone, “There’s no way people aren’t going to think I’m an asshole.” Right: People are going to think you’re an asshole. And the thing is, Cary, I sort of think he’s an asshole too, and I’m wondering whether I should.

To be clear, there was no plan on my brother’s part to run when a child appeared, and he’s determined to be there in general. He loves his boy and loves the woman in question, but is no longer in love. The breakup was apparently mutually agreed upon and (more or less) without rancor. They went through what I suspect is very common: There were problems in the relationship and when the pregnancy occurred, they thought a baby would solve those problems. They didn’t plan it, but neither of them agrees with abortion, and they thought, “Well, this will bring us closer together.” It didn’t work, apparently — the baby made it more clear that they were not compatible.

Fine.

But my brother is leaving this woman with a 5-month-old child. Having never actually had a sister, she’s the only person I’ll call sister. She’s intelligent, attractive and a good time out. I love her dearly. But now she’s an early-30s single mom and her life prospects just took a serious nosedive — because of my brother.

A central principle of modern Western life is that you ought to do what you think is self-sensible in relationships. Be yourself, right? “Staying together for the kids” is not sensible — for you or for the kids. But maybe sometimes you should hang in a little longer than you want to. Maybe my brother should stick in living as a family for, say, two years, if only to help the mother during the most tiresome times. Maybe sometimes, “staying together for the kids” makes a little sense.

He and I have been through a lot together — watching a father kill himself with alcohol. “I will not be that man and that includes not being trapped in a relationship I don’t want” is a guiding principle for both of us. I understand that motive and I agree that an unhappy marriage is worse than a divorce. But fuck, divorcing when you have an infant? Is my brother an asshole?

TM

Dear TM,

OK, let’s call your brother an asshole. What difference does it make what you call him? You love him, right? He’s your brother. You’ve been through a lot. You’ve probably sat up together nights worrying about your dad, and would he make it, and why’d he do what he did, and wouldn’t it have been better if he had been able to stop drinking. And there were probably times you thought this time he was really going to stop, and he got your hopes up, and then he blew it again and again until you really thought you couldn’t take it anymore, and then when you’d lost all sympathy for him he got gravely ill, and then what can you do, you can’t call a gravely ill man an asshole, so you had to have sympathy for him at the end and watch him die with a sickening blend of rage and love and helplessness, asking why did he have to die like that when there was help available, when there were people who loved him who were willing to do anything for him if he would just stop drinking.

So you and your brother are bonded in the deepest possible way by watching your father drink himself to death. And as brothers I imagine you cut each other a lot of slack, because you both know the deep wounds that that event left in you. And you are both committed to not making the same mistake your dad made, and to not being victims, and to not being unhappy. And all that makes sense. And none of us can judge what kind of personal hell your brother lives in as a result of trying to be a good man but being prone to the demons just like your dad was and maybe just like you are as well. We’ve all got demons and we do the best we can and sometimes we really fuck up and we’re assholes. And who can know what we’re going through, how hard it is, how many times we’ve pounded the wall with our fist or buried our face in a pillow at night. He’s your brother, so you also know he didn’t do this to harm people. He’s your brother, so you may know that he’s selfish and has trouble seeing the big picture, and maybe he doesn’t have such great impulse control and maybe he’s prone to fits of moodiness and helplessness and hopelessness, and maybe he’s also a bit of a dreamer and a charmer and has an outsize genius for a good time, and maybe he wants more out of life than a 9-to-5 job with healthcare and benefits like your dad had, because look what good that did, and look what good it did your mom to stay in a relationship that gave her nothing but crying time, so he’s not going to stop pulling the lever on the slot machine because you never know, a happy life has got to be possible.

So even though it’s about the dumbest, most assholic thing to do to leave your lover with an infant child after 15 years of implied common-law till-death-do-us-part, that’s what he did, knowing full well he’d be called an asshole for it. So let’s go ahead and call him an asshole and get that over with because there’s work to be done. There’s a kid who doesn’t know about any of this; he just knows he’s alive and he’s hungry and he needs to know that the world isn’t going to come crashing down around his head every 15 minutes when another of the “adults” around him gets it into his head to seek his bliss in Idaho.

So what do we do? And how do we do it?

Kids can grow up well under all kinds of circumstances. It’s about how you treat the kid and who the kid is. The last thing you want to do is tell this kid his dad’s an asshole. So let’s just pretend that everything we’re saying the kid is hearing. Now who is his daddy and why did he leave? He left because he had to. We don’t know why. He had to go do something really important, and he loves us and cares about us but he couldn’t live with us because he had to do something. And we love him and he’s a good man and he loves us and that’s just the way it is, because we don’t understand everything even though we’re adults and maybe it seems like we do. We don’t. We don’t really understand even how an electronic ignition works, or why sometimes you get “404? errors. We don’t know why some toys are lame and others are your favorite. We don’t know why some kids are bad and some kids are good. We don’t know much, except we love you and things are going to be OK.

Something like that. You get what I’m saying? I’m saying get real and painfully honest but don’t fill the kid’s head full of hateful garbage.

And beware of this, too: Intense disapprobation can be an intoxicant. You can get high calling people assholes, that is. You can get high and feel powerful talking trash. That’s one reason we do it. It makes us feel better. But that doesn’t make it useful or productive. Except for getting stuff off your chest and moving on. So yeah, maybe your brother is an asshole. Now help me move this crib.

Like I said, the important thing is, How can the people around this child help the child, and help the child’s mother?

One thing you could do, like you said, is urge your brother to stick around for a while in some capacity. Maybe not living in the same house with them, but nearby. Urge him to get a job and make some money and contribute to the well-being of his child and the child’s mother. And other people can help too. It doesn’t have to be a formal arrangement. People just need to be there and help out. And your brother can leave his new girlfriend at home when he visits, and if he doesn’t have enough sense to do that on his own, you can tell him, gently, that he’s being an asshole again, and to leave the girlfriend at home. And when he comes over he can bring something for the boy. And the boy’s mom can welcome him as if he’s someone she likes, not as if he’s the shit-head asshole who left his infant child for reasons typically unfathomable and unforgivable.

I mean, we’re going to have these rotten thoughts when people do rotten things. But we’re going to try to do what’s right anyway. We’re going to try to be the adults in the situation, now and for the next 20 years.

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

LISTEN! THIS ALL-NEW COLUMN IS NOW  AVAILABLE AS A PODCAST ON SOUNDCLOUD!

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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.

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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.

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