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9/11: “You weren’t there so you don’t know”

My friend saw the second plane hit. Does that give him a superior view of global politics?

Cary’s classic column  Monday, Sep 20, 2010


Dear Cary,

A good friend of mine, let’s call him Joe, witnessed the second plane hit the building on Sept. 11. He shares his stories about huddling in a building lobby with others as the debris and dust came down around them and shared stories of people crying and praying aloud. Although I consider him a fairly progressive and open-minded person, whenever we discuss terrorism and what I perceive as U.S. international policy that contributes in part to hatred of Americans, he has both an emotional and physical reaction, stiffening up and adamantly claiming that he “understands the issue better than I do because he was there” (although he no longer lives in New York).

He doesn’t want to hear anything about extreme poverty, history of war and religious brainwashing in some countries, he seems to shut down all other perspectives on this matter. He is THE authority.

Once, after what I thought was an interesting, albeit opinionated discussion, he went outside and we heard what can be described as primal screaming. My husband later told me it was Joe letting out his anger of the memory of that day. I felt bad about this for awhile, considering that he might be justified, but I’ll never legitimize my own feelings if I constantly feel one-upped in the “bad stuff that has happened to me” department.

I can never know exactly what Joe experienced that day, but how can I be sympathetic to him and his very real trauma, but also help him understand that we all experienced loss and vulnerability that day? Or am I not justified to think that I have just as much to say and feel than he does? Should I defer to his “superior” judgment and experience? Right now, to keep the peace, I try to avoid the subject. But I can’t help thinking, with the anniversary approaching, there has to be a way to understand each other a little better. After all, isn’t failure to accept other’s beliefs and opinions as perfectly justifiable one of the main reasons we struggle with Mideast relations in the first place?

Justified or Mystified?

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Dear Justified or Mystified,

Some of us are still raw and will remain raw from the events of 9/11.

Still feeling crushed, traumatized, frightened, we learn to say, Well, you weren’t there, so you can’t possibly know.

When faced with experiences too large to make peace with, we come to partial accommodation the best way we know how.

Let’s let people say what they have to say and let it be as it is.

There are all these people walking around with burdens they need to share, and it’s hard to find someone to talk to about how you feel if the way you feel doesn’t make any sense to you. You find yourself justifying why you feel the way you feel.

So here is an idea. Try going one day without understanding anything. Just let yourself not understand. Don’t bother to understand what you are feeling, or what others are feeling. Just listen and pay attention.

You may find that if you stop trying to understand, the “what” that comes before the “why” becomes more vivid and alive.

This person experienced some things. He may not be skilled in expressing what he experienced. That’s OK.

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What is real is that something big and traumatic happened, and this person still feels it. It isn’t necessary for us to completely understand it, or “reach a balanced view.” It’s not our problem. It’s what happened to him. You don’t need to try to convince him of this, either. Just let him feel it. He doesn’t need to be told he’s wrong or he’s right. He just needs to be heard.

It’s not for us to quantify and rate the authenticity of each other’s experiences. None of us had any control over where we were on 9/11.

In the writing workshops I lead, we keep what is written in first draft confidential. But I can say that since my birthday is on 9/11, and since 9/11 was a Saturday, and since we have workshops on Saturdays, we had a workshop on Saturday, 9/11, my birthday, and we wrote about 9/11, and I embarrassed myself by what I wrote because I felt that what I wrote was ignoble compared to what others wrote.

The thing about having confidentiality and a “safe space” to write in is that you can give voice to your own ignoble voices. Being able to give voice to ignoble voices is important if you write drama, because you must get inside the heads of the unprepossessing and ignoble souls who often function as villains in dramatic writing. So this is useful. Still, one is not immune from personal embarrassment. So without getting into detail, I can say that I let my ignoble self rant on about 9/11 while others wrote with great depth, passion and balance, and afterward, for a moment there, I felt as though I had trampled on something sacred.

This was a real feeling.

I also feel, perhaps sacrilegiously, that it is a good thing to trample on sacred things every now and then, just to stay in practice, and that letting others trample on what I consider sacred reminds me that what I consider sacred is just an idea. It reminds me that symbols are not truths. It reminds me that you do not have to understand my thoughts. They are just my thoughts. That is a good thing to remember.

Having ignoble thoughts does not make an individual ignoble. We all have a multitude of voices and attitudes. Some are noble and some are not.

I cherish the workshops, where we give voice to unapproved emotions without apology. We learn to hear. We learn to sit and hear. We hear others and we hear ourselves.

It takes sophistication to feel intensely but remain detached. We sometimes mistake intensity of feeling for soundness of opinion. They are not the same thing.

We just want people to acknowledge what we feel. We want people to acknowledge the deep, smoking and ruinous hole 9/11 left in our spirits.

It is like a holy experience.

I wonder if I am not now on shaky ground, thinking of it as holy.

I am always on shaky ground. Shaky ground is the only kind of ground there is.

We were affected in ways we do not control or understand.

We look for ways to appear in control. We don’t want to appear weak: You weren’t there so you can’t possibly know.

That’s true. We can’t possibly know. We can’t know what it’s like to be somebody else. We can’t feel what he feels. We can only listen.

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Help! I’m committing professional suicide!

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I know what to do and how to do it but I’m paralyzed! Soon my whole work life is going to come crashing down!


(Cary’s classic column from Friday, March 7, 2008)

Dear Cary,

It may be too late for me. I’m committing professional suicide. I see exactly what I’m doing, and I can’t stop myself. The problem is procrastination. In fact, I thought about writing to you about six months ago. If I had done it then, maybe I could have salvaged something in my present job. Now, I’m not so sure.

Through no fault of my own, I’ve risen to a managerial position in charge of marketing for a small manufacturing business. Deadlines are very important, and I keep missing them. I just spent the past week stalling on meetings with my graphic designer to prepare ads for the new line of products we just introduced. The products have been created, parts sourced, manufactured and shipped. Meanwhile, our introductory ad campaign hasn’t started yet. I know what has to be done, I know what I have to do to get it started. It’s not up to me to create the campaign — I just have to make sure it gets done. But every time I have the opportunity to move forward with the project, I … don’t.

I have already driven the last few projects I’ve been involved with into crisis mode because of my delays. The further behind I get, the harder it is to get started. I’m sure that’s a cliché, now that I look at it in writing. I know I’ll have to deal with questions about the delay, and I just can’t answer them. When I’m confronted, my brain just goes mushy.

I think I’ve probably used up eight of my nine lives with this company, and yet I still sit here in my office studiously not working on the projects at hand while the clock ticks away. Tick. Tock.

I’m miserable. I know what I have to do to make the misery go away (just deal with the projects, for God’s sake!), but I’m frozen. Or maybe I’m like a car and the driver is stomping down on the accelerator with one foot and stomping down equally hard on the brakes with the other. Whatever, it’s eating me up, causing problems for my employer, and threatening my family (I’m in my 50s and not looking forward to having to find another job).

Any advice?

Stuck and panicking

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Dear Stuck,

Call in sick for three days. Check into a hotel. Bring your documents and your computer with you.

Arrange to meet with a confidant on the morning of the first day. This confidant may be a coach, a friend, a spiritual guide, a psychological professional, a mentor. You must have somebody. If you don’t have a confidant, deputize someone. Deputize a trusted friend or relative. Insist that they meet with you in your hotel room for a minimum of two hours on the first morning of your three-day sick leave. If they have to take off work, tell them to take off work. This is an emergency!

Explain that you need somebody to be accountable to. You need someone to act as a supportive witness as you make a plan, someone to check in with as you complete your tasks, and someone who, if you don’t check in with them, is going to call you and say, What’s going on? Make sure you have their agreement: If you don’t call them up and tell them your progress, they are going to check on you.

Meet with this confidant on the morning of the first day. Make your list of tasks. Go over the list with your confidant. Highlight any difficult phone calls you have to make. Highlight areas that make you wince when you think about them. Then sit back and visualize the whole thing being finished. Visualize yourself conquering the whole thing. Write down on paper, in front of your confidant, how you want it to turn out. Read that aloud to your confidant. Make it in the first person, positive, something like, “I can handle this project and make it turn out well. I’ve done this before and I can do it again. When it is over I will feel accomplished and satisfied. And now I am going to take a swim.” If the hotel has a pool and you like swimming, take a swim. If you work out, work out. Sit in the sauna. Relax. Eat well. Visualize how you will feel when you are done with this project. In the afternoon, if you feel like working, do some work. If ideas come to you, jot them down. But mainly relax. Rest. Get a good night’s sleep.

The next day, get busy. Call your confidant first thing in the morning and say that you are getting up and getting to work. Arise, take a shower, get dressed, eat breakfast, get to work. Do the first task on your list. Just start doing things without thinking about them. If it involves dialing the phone, just dial the phone. If it involves writing, just write. If it involves making an appointment, then make the appointment. Don’t think about the things. Just do the things on your list. Work briskly. Piece of cake. Do six items and then take a swim and have lunch.

After lunch, if there are certain things on your list that you fear doing, do those right away. If you have to make difficult phone calls, make them. In dealing with the people you need to work with, take this approach: Ask for their help. Don’t order them. Ask for their help. Apologize for any delays you have caused. If you admire the work the people have done in the past, tell them you admire their work. If there is the possibility of bigger projects or promotions, mention that. Whatever you have at your disposal to motivate people, use it. If you have authority to promise bonuses or rush payments, do so. If you have personal discretionary funds, use them. If you have people working for you who have time to spare, enlist their help. Mobilize people. Make careful note of what you promise, so that you can follow through on it later.

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If at all possible, do not communicate with your bosses until after your three-day sick leave. Confine your work to setting in motion with your subordinates the things that will make the project succeed. If there are meetings to schedule with bosses, schedule them for after your three-day sick leave.

Check in with your confidant on the afternoon of the first day and on the morning of the second day. Make a new list on the second day. Check in with your confidant on the afternoon of the second day. Make a new list on the third day. Check in with your confidant on the morning of the third day. Check in again on the afternoon of the third day.

After your three-day sick leave, return to work and communicate with your bosses. Tell them that although you were out on sick leave, you were able to finally get things rolling, and that while the project got off to a slow start, it now looks like it will be a success.

Ha ha.

Now, maybe the details are different for you. I put you in a hotel because you’re in management and make the bucks. And it makes a good story. And stories of victory over crisis travel; they enter the culture and help others; they get passed down to family and to younger co-workers; so they make the world better. But maybe the details are different. Maybe the hotel is a metaphor. The essential thing is the process: You change your environment, clear your life of routine commitments, confide in someone about your crisis, make a list of tasks, attend to your physical and spiritual needs, commit to checking in with your confidant before and after doing your tasks, and do them briskly without overmuch thought. That’s it in a nutshell.

And then, after this episode is over, see about working with a coach or mentor, so you do not backslide. If you cannot find a professional coach or mentor to work with you, ask your deputized confidant if he or she would be willing to continue to meet with you. Buy the Julie Morgenstern book, “Time Management From the Inside Out,” and do what it suggests.

And every month, go back to that hotel for a swim in the pool.

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My dad’s become a crazed right-winger

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He’s a Vietnam vet and a retired civil servant. Now his mind’s been warped by Fox News! He’s gone Obama-nuts!

(Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, MAY 19, 2010)

Dear Cary,

I am writing because I am feeling more and more estranged from my father in the last few years, and I would like to return to the loving, respectful relationship we had while I was growing up. I am an independent, socially liberal woman in my mid-20s, currently in graduate school. My father is a retired civil servant and veteran of the Vietnam War. I am sure part of our conflict is generational; he has always been nostalgic for the “good old days” when men wore hats and acted decently. I remind him that men in lynch mobs wore hats, and it didn’t make them any more decent. He, however, chooses to idealize the values of his childhood, and ignore the racism, sexism and ideological repression of postwar America.

He has always identified as a Republican or an Independent, but it was a socially liberal, small-government kind of republicanism. In the last few years he has exchanged his moderate views for right-wing conservatism. His sole source of information is Fox News and conservative radio shows, and he has espoused increasingly paranoid views of our country’s future and President Obama’s intentions. He actually thinks Obama may be a Muslim, a socialist/communist, and is actively destroying America while the left-wing media clings to political correctness and looks the other way. He watches Glenn Beck and thinks, Yes, this makes sense. He is becoming myopic, and I am ashamed to say, racist and ignorant.

This is not the man I grew up with. I think he fears a future he cannot control, and longs for a past that never existed. He is responding to this existential crisis with fear, anger and paranoia. I feel for his situation, but cannot respect the viewpoint it generates. We are at a point where we can barely speak about current events or politics without deeply offending one another. I feel I cannot reconcile myself to his beliefs, and I know it is profoundly changing our relationship. How can I help him embrace a progressive, inclusive future? How do I bring back rationality, sensitivity and temperance into our discussions?

Worried

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Dear Worried,

One of the truisms of doing service in the world is that we aid ourselves by aiding others.

So I note that, after a five-month absence, my first two columns concern a brother’s addiction and a father’s figurative disappearance. How emblematic of my own emotional state. I have addicted brothers, both literally and figuratively, and I have recently lost a father — literally and figuratively. Anyway, I like to observe how the themes in my own life are reflected in the questions I choose to address. And “loss” is not meant literally; “loss” can just mean a sense of moving away, or a problem, a chasm, some distance having opened up between people.

Putting aside for the moment your ideological struggle with your father, I am drawn to the universal problem of living in time and accepting how others change.

Frankly, I suggest you take the long view.

Life in time is a constant shedding. It’s a shedding of skins, a shedding of beliefs, of relationships, attachments, memories, powers. And so it requires us to be in constant mourning for the things that pass. But things also go in cycles and are reborn, so that relationships we thought were dead come alive again, but differently, changed by the shedding, and so we are constantly getting used to the new, and we are constantly shedding, and we are constantly being amazed, as though we were waking up every day in a new universe.

That is the meta-setting for what is going on with you and your father. You long for the way it was and wonder  if there isn’t some way you and your father could return to an earlier time. You wonder this despite the fact that you are an intelligent, educated woman and know that time cannot go backward.

The past is shed away into chaff and dust. But the future bears unexpected gifts. Ahead will be some new setting in which you and your father find agreement and grow close again. Sometimes the gradual weakening of the parent and the strengthening of the child brings them to such a point. In taking care of him you may grow close to him again in time. He may fight his weakening and reject your help at first. But then, in time, as often happens, he will become grateful for your help and will come to admire and depend on your competence.

You needn’t wait for such gradual life changes, however. You can shift your focus today to some realm about the virtues of which you and he agree. Perhaps the natural world is such a realm. There is not much to be argued about a stream, a trout cooked over a fire, a sunset over a lake. Political sentiments may arise but there is more to agree about than disagree about in the beauty and pleasure of nature. Or it may be that you and he still like the same art or the same music, or enjoy the same favorite relatives. I would try to find things you both enjoy, and place yourself in mutual witness of such things. That way, rather than focusing on what you disapprove of in each other, you stand side by side, facing an object of mutual approval. How can we not admire those who admire the same things we admire?

While focusing on the interpersonal, I do not want to ignore the fact that crazy political ideas are dangerous, and that lives are at stake. What worries me is how deep this familiar mania goes. Is it a short-lived, shallow, Fox News-induced paroxysm of misplaced patriotism and class resentment, after which will come a return to reasonable debate in matters of national destiny?

Or is America headed toward some cataclysm of unreason that will result in some kind of tyrannical, undemocratic hell the likes of which we have never seen?

And what can we as individuals do to avert such a catastrophe?

I think the long-term stability of the nation depends on the endurance of strong liberal institutions of learning, the teaching of sustained critical reasoning to children at the earliest possible time, an insistence that children learn not just to excel on standardized test but to excel in evidence-based decision-making and rhetorical decoding.

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Call me crazy, but history offers little reason to feel secure. Rather, upheavals, reversals, rises and falls seem to be the norm.

The damage done by Fox News, in concert with a failing educational system and a consumerist culture, may take decades to repair. I hope that you will courageously consider what role you can play in preserving a culture of liberal thought.

From where I sit, in a San Francisco cafe, there seems to be great reason for hope. All around me there seems to be a revolution among the young, something like a spiritual shift in response to deeply felt symptoms of planetary collapse and catastrophe.

But that’s San Francisco. Then there are the many like your father who have been allowed, encouraged irresponsibly, to take a welcome leave of their senses and rant against reason.

At base, it seems that a fight is under way between reason and nonreason.

But to return to the personal and the spiritual: Even if we were witnessing the catastrophe that your father’s irrational passions portend — a fascist split, a takeover by a military/corporate cabal — even then, your problem would be to make peace with what history has wrought. You are yet another tiny being witnessing the giant, tragic ruptures of history.

So it sounds trite to say it, but the planet will still be here long after Glenn Beck, Barack Obama, Keith Olbermann and you and I and everyone else who is reading this are just memories, ashes, bones, fleeting thoughts and fading photographs.

In closing, you ask, “How can I help him embrace a progressive, inclusive future? How do I bring back rationality, sensitivity and temperance into our discussions?” I think a better question to ask is, “How can I be closer to my father?” or “How can I accept him as a human being and seek his acceptance of me?” The difference in approach is based on my observation that the realm of rhetoric is one of ever-finer distinctions; it is a realm of differences, and so it tends, of its own nature, to amplify differences. Rhetorical interaction does not lend itself well to finding commonality. Even if you could, say, agree that you and he both love liberty, or both believe in Enlightenment values, you would soon be arguing about the finer points: What does “liberty” mean to someone who watches Glenn Beck? What does it mean to a socially liberal woman in graduate school?

So I suggest you seek areas of commonality in nature or art, and in feeling rather than idea. Have some fun together. Build trust and enjoyment through shared experiences. Have patience. Be gentle.

One last thing, if you please.

Note I say above “life in time”: meaning life experienced in a linear way, as opposed to life experienced in bursts, explosions of understanding, flashes of knowledge, discontinuities and ruptures. We lose things slowly and do not notice we have lost them and thus fail to mourn them. We notice such bursts more sharply than life’s ever-present character of gradual decay and constant shedding. Yet it is the constant shedding that can be known and counted on. Attention to the many small deaths of a day keeps us agile of spirit.

For this, too, shall pass.

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My mother-in-law is a difficult person

She puts me down, she pops in, she meddles, she scorns, she does the backhanded compliment … need some help here!

Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, MAR 19, 2007


Dear Cary,

I am not one for hate or grudges. I dislike how they make me feel. Despite my flaws, I have always had a great capacity for empathy. This is perhaps why it is so distressing to me that I have finally found someone I have nothing but hatred for, and it is someone that I cannot be without unless I extricate myself from my living arrangement.

I hate my mother-in-law. I know. I am a cliché. I know these relationships are often fraught and loaded and laced with all the bittersweetness of letting go of your son. I know how hard it must be for her that we live on a different coast. I know that I am an imperfect match for him in that I am not traditional. I work freelance and travel frequently as part of my job. I am not an excellent cook. I hardly ever notice a dusty window sill. I laugh loudly and often. I hate shopping.

She is quite traditional. She likely dreams of a perfect match for her son that stays home every day cooking divine organic meals, cleaning the house from top to bottom, shopping for clothes for her son and getting the best possible deals.

I love her son unconditionally. It’s interesting that I have been referring to him as “her son.” In a way, that may be why I hate her. Nothing about my life with my husband seems truly to be mine or even ours. She wants to live every moment of it for us.

She shows up on a whim and stays for weeks at a time, no matter what else we may have planned. She stays with us and makes passive-aggressive, critical comments about every morsel I eat, how I clean, how the furniture is configured, what I need to buy, how often I am away, how I exercise, how I should exercise more, or less. She does everything she can to make me feel powerless and like a failure in my home. She is brash and opinionated with a veneer of “Oh, bless your heart! I love how laid-back you are that the floors are so dusty! That would drive me insane, but you just go on about your life as though nothing is wrong!” “I can’t imagine ever eating anything so rich! You are so blessed to have such a strong stomach and to care so little about your figure!” Every time I try to establish some boundaries about her involvement, she breaks through them.  Every time I try to simply appease her by, say, taking her advice, she is dissatisfied with the result. Every time she gives me those “compliments,” I choke out a “thank you” all the while feeling that there is simply no appropriate response.

She does whatever she can to register her disapproval of everything I am, and I am so, so resentful of her no matter how I try to tell myself that I should view putting up with her as an act of love for my husband. I am having a harder and harder time being civil to her when she makes disrespectful comments. My husband is a fiercely loyal son and bristles at any mention that she may be treating me inappropriately. I feel trapped. I cannot escape her. I am terrified that this anger, this hatred will cost me someone I love when I inevitably say something rude as a retort to one of her jabs. I know that is coming and I dread it. I know that in that case I will be very much in the wrong and will likely confirm what she has expected all along.

Please, you are such a lovely writer. I would love your insight.

How can I stop hating my mother-in-law?

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Dear Mother-in-Law Hater,

Wow.

You are dealing with someone who has a rare black belt in the art of putdown-fu. She is a trained master of tai-shit-on-you.

She’s a badass. That comment about you not caring about your figure is deep black magic.

This is a woman who, when she meditates, the Buddha looks nervous.

It’s not that you are holding a grudge, or that she’s your mother-in-law. It’s that she’s a difficult person.

You need counter-moves.

The good news: There’s help. The bad news: There’s help.

I mean, if there’s that much help, there must be that many difficult people.

Scary.

I wish I could say I’m an expert but I’m not. My one counter-move involves taking a deep breath, counting to three and running out the door.

But you can’t run. You have to stand and take it.

So get some help.

Google “difficult people” and see what I mean.

Here are some of the less-annoying and almost-helpful sites:

Think Simple Now has a few good ideas.

So does www.dealingwithdifficultpeople.com.

There is a ton of other advice out there on how to deal with this and much of it is useful and good … if you can put it into practice.

That’s the key. If you have a friend who is great at handling difficult people, spend some time with her. Do you know anyone like that? Think hard. Difficult people thrive in certain businesses and lifestyles. Fashion, the arts and entertainment businesses, as well as fast-paced, high-risk businesses such as high finance  … wherever difficult people thrive, you will find also the people who are good at handling difficult people.

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So seeking informal help among your set of friends is one good solution. Talking it out and learning from people who deal with this a lot may help.

Here is another thought. It’s hard to put into words. But I have seen people do it. To me, it seems like they have hit on a tone, a magical tone that they use on the difficult person. Or a way of positioning themselves psychologically. Perhaps it is partly physical posture, too. I know this is vague. It’s like … a center of strength. Find yours.

And the other thing, which I know I suggest a lot — because it’s so often needed! — is to find a therapist with whom you can work on ways, strategies to cope with her. There are so many problem-solving techniques, ways to limit your contact with her, setting boundaries, stuff like that, but they are hard to implement without somebody to talk them over with. If a therapist is not available, then use this friend of yours you’ve identified as your local difficult-person expert.

You just need some help dealing with a difficult person, and the Secret Service is unfortunately not in your employ.

Wow, wouldn’t that be something — sleek guys in suits with earpieces.

But no. No such luck.

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Top 10 Ways that 2 hours 54 minutes on the phone with Comcast and Motorola tech support can, if viewed from a certain angle, seem weirdly blissful

10) Surrender. There’s no escape.

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9) Never spent this much time restarting the network; maybe it’s the Second Coming.

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8) “That is correct, sir. Thank you very much for that, sir” starts to sound like a yogic chant.

7) Not so much time on hold; it’s all time spent actually talking to actual people about possibly nonexistent things.

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6) Saying “sorry, I gotta pee” actually seems to speed things up.

5) Let the shoulders down. Let the shoulders down. Let the shoulders down.

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4) You get to say almost covertly hostile things like “It’s been interesting spending the afternoon with Comcast” and “Well, we’ve been on the phone for 43 minutes now, do you need a break?”

3) Restarting and restarting and restarting the Xfinity Technicolor gateway makes you realize just how amazing our telecommunications infrastructure is — until you try to use it.comcast17

2) Making friends all over the world: Isn’t that really what it’s all about?

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and,

The Number One Way that 2 hours 54 minutes on the phone with Comcast and Motorola tech support can, if viewed from a certain angle, seem weirdly blissful:

1) Those flashy flashing blue, red and green lights are making me feel …  very … suggestible …

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My boyfriend wants me to move, my daughter wants me to stay

Should I pick up and move four hours away to be with the man I love?

Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, MAR 19, 2007

Dear Cary,

I have to make a decision and I need your help. Decisions have never been my forte, but for the past 11 years I’ve been able to make them pretty well because I had a kid. When you have a kid you make decisions that will help the kid. As much as possible. So I went back to school to be able to get a job with health insurance, eventually left my addicted husband, and was able to finish up another degree that was closer to my heart (and less practical) because I wanted to show her that you could “follow your dreams” and because I could be there some afternoons when she got out of school.

She’s 11 now. And much to my surprise/ dismay/ excitement I’ve fallen in love with a man who lives in a city about four hours from here. We’ve been seeing each other about two years. He lives in the big city, expensive, scary, invigorating. I see him every other weekend (I go down there) when my daughter goes to her dad’s. (The addiction isn’t something that will harm her physically unless he steals her allowance.)

However, this man I love doesn’t want a long-distance relationship anymore. Well, he never did. He wants me down there now. And if I don’t go down there now (or soon) he wants to see other people. And if he sees other people, I have to stop sleeping with him because I really suck at that sharing, multiple-lovers thing. Plus there are diseases. And I get jealous, paranoid and permanently sad.

He’s got a steady job (yippee!), he’s a good guy (I think, sometimes my judgment isn’t the best), and we have great, awesome, amazing sex. We talk about anything and everything. Practically every day. If I go down there this is what he’s willing to do: He’s willing to help me pay for an apartment. And if I don’t get a job with health insurance he thinks he can put us on his plan. OK, so this isn’t marriage, but I don’t know if either of us is ready for marriage again.

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So what am I waiting for?

1) He has faults! He’s a neat freak, controlling of his environment and occasionally gets mad. OK, that’s not the real problem. The real problem is that he and my daughter don’t get along. He has never had kids. She has never had to share me with anyone (her dad got addicted soon after she was born). He’s controlling. She’s messy. He’s a snob. She likes pop culture. He’s a serious working artist. She’s a kid. He’s never had to put his needs aside for a kid. She’s never had to put her needs aside for a person she isn’t related to.

2) If I even mention the possibility of moving, my daughter bursts into those sobbing, horrible tears that kids have when their lives are about to be torn into pieces and their parents are ruining everything. Her best friend’s life would be ripped apart right at the tender age of 12. Our cat wouldn’t be able to go outside. I’d have to find a new dentist and doctor, and change the address on all my checks.

3) The big bad city is expensive. I live in a town that is cheap. This semester I am working three jobs and making it — but how can I live in the city with a kid, being a single parent and all? I’m not the best moneymaker in the world, although I’m trying hard. And what about the schools? How the hell can we navigate that labyrinthine system? And what if she gets mugged in the subway?

4) Her dad. Not the best parent in the world, but still, he’s her dad. We’d work out some alternative agreement for custody probably; however, it wouldn’t be every other weekend. He wouldn’t come to see her school plays — that is, if schools have plays down there (and textbooks, and windows).

5) If I don’t move there’s a chance that I can work my life a little differently. It has been a hard 11 years. I’m tired. I’ve got a chance to work less than I do now, starting this summer. I would be able to be there a little bit more for my daughter, but I could also work on my other love, writing. I’ve got stuff started — it’s just been hell trying to get the time to finish. Writing was my second degree and my “follow your dream” idiocy. I love it. I miss it. I desperately want to see if I can actually do it.

Is that pitiful? I can’t tell anymore.

We talked about our impasse this weekend. I asked for another year, so that I can take advantage of this possible job situation, and he said fine, but he wants to see other people.

If he starts seeing other women I have no doubt that he’ll be snapped up in no time. He’s cute, fun, smart and neurotic, living in a city filled with cute, smart, fun women who are attracted to neurotics, don’t have children, and have big expensive breasts. Shaved legs. Money. No obligations. “Sex and the City” and all that.

As I said, I think I really love him, for what that is worth. I’m just not sure what that’s worth anymore.

I want to know what the right decision is. How do you know that? I thought my marriage was something that would last for a long time — that it was Right, with a capital R. That love conquered all. That my husband would never lie to me. That I would never fail him. But he did lie, and I failed him in some essential way. People do shitty things to each other. Look at your mail. Affairs. Addictions. Betrayal.

Is love worth it? Or should I just resign myself to going to the movies alone on Saturday night, watching everyone else snuggle and share popcorn? I’m tired of being alone and I’m scared to be with someone. I don’t want to ruin my daughter’s life. I don’t want to ruin my life. I want him to wait for me. I want him to want me enough that this situation is OK with him. But it isn’t. He has needs. I have practical responsibilities and obligations that shape my life in a serious way. I love him. I love my daughter. I’m driving myself insane.

Sorry to go on. You better go get some coffee or Xanax or whatever you take to get through your mail. Thanks for listening.

Now, please tell me what to do.

Stuck, Trapped and Insane

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Dear Stuck, Trapped and Insane,

Stay right there. Don’t make a move.

You are so close to having things right. And you are so close to blowing it.

I wish I could jump in my truck and drive out there and talk you down.

I am so glad that you wrote, so at least I can say, I’m envisioning a life for you where you stay put and enroll in a class and start doing regular writing assignments and start to feel the salutary effect of a regular regimen, and where things slowly start to come together and get a little easier and your daughter blossoms into this amazing person and you carve out the time you need because you know the terrain and you have control over it and it’s your turf, and bit by bit the boyfriend issue works itself out, either because he does go away finally and it is sad but you are in a good place to handle it, or maybe he sees that if he wants more of you he will have to drive up there sometimes and see you, but you do not sacrifice your own life for something as uncertain as a neurotic artist living the complex life of a neurotic artist in the city.

So you mentioned “Sex and the City.” Do you remember when Carrie Bradshaw followed her glamorous boyfriend Aleksandr Petrovsky, played by Mikhail Baryshnikov, to Paris? Remember what a bad time she had, how when she joined the artist on his turf he had no time for her? Remember how heartbreaking that was?

So stay where you are. Enjoy your daughter’s happiness, which will be amazing but fleeting. Write. Take a class that requires you to find the time. If you have a deadline you will find the time. That is what I did today — I am actually a student of writing as well as a practitioner now, and I had a deadline today. I had to give something to my teacher. So I did it. I found the time. That’s how we do it.

Why do I feel so strongly about this? That is what I am asking myself now. OK, here is why — and if this is my personal bias then this is my personal bias: I identify with your daughter. I identify with her because I so did not want my parents to move just when at the age of 11 I was getting a foothold, when I was finally developing a sense of myself in the world, some mastery of the neighborhood and of the school, some friends, some continuity, some reasonable ability to plan and see a future and a network of adult teachers upon whom perhaps I could call for guidance, and a strong interest in science … but they moved. And I was a lost kid and so then began all the acting out and now years later I’m still working to undo it.

So, yeah, OK, I’m taking your daughter’s side. But not just that: I’m taking your side, too. Because if you move you are uprooting yourself.

Oh, man. You have a chance here to do the right thing is what I’m saying! You can do your writing and you can keep things stable and sweet and down to earth and I know that is the right thing. I can feel it in your letter.

Besides, you aren’t itching to move. That’s the thing that gets me most of all: You are sad about the prospect of losing this man but you do not want to move. Why can’t he move? He’s got no kid. If he wants to be around you all the time why can’t he move?

Why? Because he has his life in the city. He has his life in the city. Doesn’t that tell you something? It tells me something: If you move to be with him you’re going to be fitting into his life and when you don’t fit perfectly into his life there’s going to be trouble. You will have uprooted your daughter, given up your jobs and your residence, disrupted the joint custody arrangements with your ex, and abandoned your support network. You will be somewhat dependent upon him.

Don’t do it. Stay where you are.

And how to handle the man? Here is how I suggest you handle the man. Tell him you’re not going to move. Concerning his desire to see other people: Tell him that if he is going to see other people you don’t want to hear anything about it ever. No talking about the other people. None.

That doesn’t mean you’re agreeing to stay with him. If you’re not comfortable even knowing that he is seeing other people, maybe you decide to end it. But just tell him, now, to protect yourself, no matter what else happens: No talking about other people. Because you already know you can’t handle that. Don’t get into it with him. Decide on your own. If that’s where he’s going, and you can’t handle it, then end it. But don’t allow yourself to be negotiated out of the good life you already have.

Live your good life. Take care of your daughter. Write. Work less. Enjoy the sun. Sleep well at night. Invite the boyfriend up if you like. Or say a sad goodbye. But cherish your life. It will be OK.

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I gave up everything to be with my Russian husband and now I’m unhappy

I am a New Yorker living like a prisoner
in London.

Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, JAN 29, 2007

Dear Cary,

I’m American. My husband is Russian. We’re in our 30s, married about two and a half years, and live in London, where my husband is pursuing a Ph.D. We got married so I could stay here with him — in other words, my five-year residency here with permission to work is based on our marriage certificate. I might add that I married him to be with him, and not because I was particularly interested in living in London or, for that matter, unhappy with my life before.

We got together in part based on love of travel. We took road trips together, went to his country. This was years ago. Four, more or less. Some things happened. He moved here. I did my second year of an MFA program. I never finished. I moved here to be with him when I was about to start my thesis, got, like, a three-year-long case of writer’s block, and there goes my life. Now I work part time and wonder what the hell happened to me.

Here is the specific question. It relates to my rights, I think. You see, my husband cannot go anywhere without applying for a visa. This includes going across the Channel to France. The visa process is complex and demanding, and he hates to do it and resents it.
There are also disparities in our background. Mine — I won’t get into his — includes a little bit of money. Not much. But I have a kitty to dip into, so to speak.

I’m not crazy about London. At first I hated it. Gradually I came to see it as like New York, where I’m from, with the significant difference that here I lack family and support (interesting slip, considering that I’m married). Also, whereas in New York I can get into a car and drive somewhere fun, here I can’t even go to Europe. Because he can’t. Not that I mind going alone. I like it. But I can’t because he can’t. You see?

It was depressing two and a half years ago and it’s still depressing. I didn’t know before I abandoned my old life, sold my car, left my master’s program and gave away my cats (to my parents — I’m not absolutely heartless) that my husband would not be able to travel to Europe. What a crazy thing! Or maybe I knew it perhaps a month before I came here, but I didn’t know or let myself think about the extent to which this problem would take over my life.

Life with him is a constant battle I cannot win. He constantly tries to explain himself to me, puncturing holes in my logic and finding fault with everything. Maybe I should be like Sonia in “Crime and Punishment” and give up all my privileges, as he calls them, which are unfairly won by my evil country over his. I went to Paris by myself over a year ago for four days and am still being asked to explain this terrible betrayal. It’s true that every time I’ve taken a trip on my own, totaling 10 days in two and a half years, I haven’t asked for his permission or told him in advance. I didn’t want to be dissuaded. But it’s maddening to constantly be told how difficult it is to be Russian and how ungenerous I am by wanting to do anything at all when I feel I am experiencing the same thing, and quite often wonder why I don’t just make my life easier by finding someone with a better passport who understands my need to disappear every now and then without feeling slighted by it.

What are my obligations to him? And what are his to me? I feel like I know what they are, but they don’t seem to translate into this combination. I can’t deal with feeling so limited.

Of course I love him. But I wasn’t always this unhappy.

Thanks.

Stranded

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Dear Stranded,

You gave up a great deal to be with this man.

You sold your car and gave away your cats. You left the city and country in which your attitudes and expectations were understood and respected. And then what happened? You got writer’s block. I do not think these things are unrelated.

I think you have to leave this man.

It’s really that simple.

If there were a way to leave him symbolically in order to meet the needs of your psyche for solitude and autonomy, then perhaps you would not have to divorce him.

If you could leave him, for instance, and go into a room of your own with a door that closes, a door that he will not open if it is closed, a door that he respects, that would be a start.

The door that is closed but not locked symbolizes your choices and your wishes. A door that is locked represents your power. You need for him to respect your wishes, not your power.

You have some power here. You have your own money. But he denigrates that power as privilege, i.e. power that is illegitimate, that you do not deserve. If he respects neither your power nor your wishes, there’s no basis for negotiation.

You could get a room of your own outside the relationship. You could just do it. But to get a room of your own within the relationship you need his respect. If you cannot negotiate with mutual respect, if you must negotiate only out of power, then the relationship is not one between two free equals; it is more of an authoritarian relationship in which power decides one’s fate.

I do not believe that the creative spirit can thrive under such conditions.

You do not want to have to lock yourself in. It is better to leave and be locked out.

There is much, much more to be said about this, but that is all I feel I can say with certainty and resolve.

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Our new friend is a racist — should we dump him?

My husband and he have so much in common — but his beliefs are pernicious and wrong!

Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, JAN 3, 2008

Dear Cary,

My husband and I live in a small town in the same rural area of northern New England where he grew up. I grew up in a suburban setting in southern New England, but I have lived here my entire adult life — more than three decades now. (I’m 49, my husband is 60, and we’ve been married 18 years.) I always knew this was the only place on earth I wanted to live (I have very strong family/ancestral ties here), and I love everything about living here. I get along well with both “natives” and “transplants,” and I am often mistaken for the former (which, I have to admit, pleases me, as I think it can sometimes be very hard to crack the inner circle in a small town when you’re “from away”).

Politically, I consider myself strongly liberal, particularly on social issues, and my husband, although he was raised in a more conservative family, is also quite liberal. He has a hard time with any sort of label and refuses to register for a particular political party, but years of self-evaluation and introspection — he is a recovering alcoholic, sober for over 25 years now, and went through a good bit of therapy in the early years — have made him very open-minded. So it’s safe to say that our political views make us both liberal-Democrat types.

If there is anything at all that occasionally bothers me about living in our area, it is a tendency toward conservative politics and narrow-mindedness that I’ve observed among some of our neighbors. It saddens me to hear some parents’ racial and ethnic prejudice and homophobia reflected in overheard conversations among our teenage son’s peers at the local high school, but I’m very proud of our son’s ability to think for himself, and I think we’ve done a good job of raising him to be kind, tolerant and open-minded. I’ve had no trouble finding like-minded friends and acquaintances myself, and I’m happy and comfortable with our life here.

My husband and I have a relatively new friend whom we both like a lot. We’ve known him fairly well for about a year now, and he and my husband have really enjoyed spending time together, watching and talking about sports, current events and their past lives. He’s single, about five years older than my husband, and retired here about 10 years ago from Massachusetts. Coincidentally (neither of us knew it when we first met him), he is also a recovering alcoholic (with, I believe, about 20 years of sobriety). Needless to say, this revelation gave him and my husband even more in common, and their friendship has grown until my husband considers him among his closest friends.

Now the problem. My husband and I have both always recognized that this friend is more conservative than we are, but we’ve been able to discuss our differences over politics and social issues with humor, while “agreeing to disagree” — until a few days ago, when we both became suddenly and uncomfortably aware that our friend is, to put it bluntly, a racist. The three of us were having a pleasant conversation about football, when he remarked that he couldn’t stand it when a certain black sports commentator “slipped into jive talk whenever there’s another black guy in the booth.” Successive remarks led us to realize the extent of his prejudice, and finally led me to say, incredulously, “Please don’t tell me you honestly believe that white people are smarter than black people?” I was hoping he was putting us on, and I felt like I had been kicked in the stomach when he said, “Yeah, I do.” He went on to say, “Except for people like Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, but, as a rule, yeah.”

My husband and I were both floored, and we continued the discussion in hopes of getting him to — what? I don’t know, retract his statement or change his mind, I suppose. He gave several examples to illustrate his position — rough gangs of black kids he had gone to high school with, the behavior of some of the black men he had served with in the Navy, black men he had known who abandoned their pregnant girlfriends — while we both tried to get him to see that culture, not genetics, was responsible for what he perceived as innate differences between the races. He ended up by assuring us that he always “treated them nicely” — had some black friends in the service, tipped the black server at the doughnut shop, etc. — unlike his father, who was, apparently, a raving racist who talked about “jigaboos and jungle bunnies” when he was growing up.

I’m sure it was obvious that my husband and I were upset by his remarks, and we made it clear that we disagreed with him vehemently. It felt very different from the half-humorous political differences we’ve expressed in the past, and at one point our friend said, “I hope this doesn’t affect our friendship.” We did change the subject before he left, but things were definitely awkward.

My question is: Where do we go from here? Do we continue the friendship as before, skirting the issue of racial prejudice? Do we tell him we’re sorry, but we no longer feel comfortable being his friends? Do we say nothing, stop inviting him for coffee, and let the friendship lapse? I feel sad to think that my husband may lose a friend with whom he has found so much common ground, but how much of a difference in viewpoint can a friendship sustain? And how much of a stand do we need to take to be true to our own values?

It’s a terrible feeling to be disappointed by someone you care about, and right now my husband and I feel sorely disappointed. We both like this guy a lot, but we both feel strongly that racism has no place in this world. While I know our friend’s prejudice comes, in large part, from the family in which he was raised, I can’t help thinking that if my husband has been able, as an adult, to learn to think for himself and become more open-minded, our friend could have done the same. But if he hasn’t done so by this age, it seems unlikely that anything we say is going to have much of an effect on his views.

Cary, I’d love to hear what you, and other readers, think.

Disappointed

LastChanceTuscany

Dear Disappointed,

It is indeed a terrible feeling to be disappointed by someone you care about. People fail you, they do.

This friend of yours appears to have mistaken beliefs. It is difficult for those of us with all the correct beliefs to extend courtesy, love and understanding to those with mistaken beliefs. But it is an affliction of your time to believe your own beliefs — to believe your own beliefs are the only ones that matter and are correct and represent the pinnacle of social progress. If you take an imaginative leap to the 12th century, or the 18th century, or the 1930s, you will notice how radically beliefs change. We who are now alive think we know what is right and correct, as did the Spanish in the Inquisition and the Protestants in the Reformation and the Maoists in the Cultural Revolution; it is the privilege of those on top to think they know what is right and correct. It is a nice privilege indeed. Doubting ourselves is hard.

Even if we are correct in believing that those of us with the correct beliefs represent the pinnacle of social progress, we must also recognize that, as in elementary school where some kids are slower than others to learn multiplication and geography, and some are slower to learn not to eat dirt and push each other down in the mud, some are slow to accept cultural progress and scientific knowledge.

You can call them names if you like. You can call them racists and bigots. You can exclude them from your company even though you really like them as people. You can argue with them like a Protestant arguing with a Catholic or a communist arguing with a capitalist or a criminal arguing with a law-and-order type. You can attempt to show that his life experience runs counter to what all science shows.

I just think the flaws in human nature go deeper than we know, and that while it is right and just to fight and struggle for social justice in law and institutions, we ought to honor at the same time even the reprobates and racists among us, even the assholes, the sexists and the religiously intolerant, the ones who say the bad words and express the bad opinions, who fail to grasp how shocking is their lack of enlightenment, who fail to grasp how uncomfortable it makes the rest of us to hear their unenlightened comments about skin color and nation of origin, the clumsy parallels they draw between income and genetics, between school performance and parenting styles, between neighborhood orderliness and native language, between color preference and speech style, between church affiliation and a great-great-grandmother’s husband’s cousins, between voting preference and educational advancement. We ought not let them rule our nation, of course. But we ought not exclude them from friendship.

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I just think lots of us are pretty dumb, and we’re not all that virtuous either, and big deal. I’m not so impressed with our own assumed air of virtue, we liberal coastal elites. I don’t think we’re all that morally superior to the racists and sexists we can so easily pick out of the crowd and condemn. I think in fact that our frequent presumption of moral superiority is a deep character flaw that blinds us both to the vast virtue around us and to our vast capacity for growth. And more than that: Our air of superiority bores me. It bores me how we talk. It bores me how seriously we take the liberal taboos, how easily we are stopped at the borders of good taste.
In fact, I am rather drawn to the bad man, the racist, the reprobate, the criminal, the idiot, the one who doesn’t get how he is supposed to behave. He unwittingly shines a light on the dark side — and even that is condescending, isn’t it, to assume that the only virtue we can find in those of a lower caste is one they are not even aware that they are expressing?

I know the drill. I stand for social progress and equality. I’m a leftist intellectual ex-hippie who lives in San Francisco. But people have junk in their heads. We all have junk in our heads.

Most of us don’t think all that clearly or all that deeply. How can we? We have jobs to do that tire us out and we work with people who have junk in their heads and we were raised by people who had junk in their heads. All our lives people tell us stupid things and put junk in our heads. They put junk in our heads and once it’s there it’s hard to get it out. Me, I get to sit here all day and try to figure out what is the junk and what is the good stuff, and even with all that time to sit here and try to sort it out I’m pretty hopeless. So what about a guy who works hard every day for 45 years with people putting junk in his head and telling him things that are groundless and wrong? How’s he supposed to rearrange his head once he turns 65? How’s he supposed to change his beliefs?

We should all do something about it, of course, all of us, of course we should, of course. Yes, we should. We should be kinder, smarter and more on time. The racists among us, the sexists, the unkind, the selfish, the mean, the crude, the hateful, the spiteful, the bitter, the unenlightened and the just plain average should all get to work right now to try to get better, to be more on time, kinder, less racist, more socially active, calmer and more meditative, and more careful in their choice of words; I myself should try harder to be concise and not to string people along with my own self-involved speculations. I myself should try to not think the uncharitable thoughts I think when I see certain drivers in certain cars making certain kinds of turns, when I speculate about their age and their beliefs, their gender and country of origin and how each correlates with their peculiar driving habits and who in their family might have taught them such peculiar methods; I myself ought to be more orderly in my work habits and I ought to do more service work in the community; I ought to pick a presidential candidate and work for his election, and volunteer at a food bank three times a week. I ought to cleanse my mind of all the dirty, oppressive, angry, unenlightened thoughts that crowd out my virtuous thoughts like crows crowding out the sparrows of springtime — which will not be far off now, by the way, springtime that is, with its annual tease.

Can you love someone who is deeply flawed? Do you have the courage to do that? Can your love be tinged with disapproval and still be love? Can you heatedly dispute on matters of social beliefs and still remain friends? I hope so. I hope you can do that. I also hope you can find persuasive materials to show that the beliefs of your friend are groundless and pernicious, for that is today’s correct belief, and it is the one true belief, and it is the belief that everyone should have.

Meanwhile, in my heart of hearts, I’d like it if even the best of us and the purest could get the hell over ourselves. There is much work to be done every single day. There are sick people to be cared for and children to be taught. I myself have got a book to sell, a column to write and a writing workshop to lead.

While I try to do my best, I’m going to have the worst thoughts you can imagine. I’m going to assume that you will too. We’ll see each other on the street and we’ll nod to each other, each of us having the worst thoughts you can imagine, each of us knowing it’s just our condition.

So I say give your husband’s friend a break. Racism is stupid, and worse than stupid it’s pernicious and cruel and stupid. But he’ll be dead in 30 years and social progress will continue none the worse for his presence on this earth. The groups that were on top will soon be on the bottom and it will serve everybody right.

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How do you escape a scary love affair with a powerful married man who is your professional superior, and abusive, and dangerous?

Dear Cary,

I’m a young woman who moved to the US a few years ago to do my PhD (I am currently in another country for a post-doc). I’m in a very difficult situation, I feel so desperate and depressed, like there’s no way out. For more than 2 years I have been in a relationship with a married man, who was my PhD advisor (I eventually switched advisors so that he wouldn’t have to write a letter of recommendation for me to find a job or be involved in my thesis committee). I don’t excuse myself and I know most people would judge me very harshly, and I do too. The guilt that I feel has brought me to dark places I never imagined existed in me, I know the way things happened is wrong, no matter how much love there is. I felt, at the time, as if I had no power to control the feelings I was starting to feel. The connection between him and I was growing every day without us being able to control it, and this was taking me with it. I felt powerless, drowning into something much bigger than me, that was already destroying my self worth. Even though I felt overwhelmed and powerless by my feelings, and I felt as if I had no choice, I do know I had a choice, and I did not handle it well. Being in this situation has crushed my self esteem and sense of worth. I’m drowning, this is all I can think of during the day and is affecting my health, my mind, my whole life.

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For a part of the year he doesn’t live with his wife and we video chat for hours and hours every day, and I travel to see him whenever I can, even going to a different country about once a month, when we live like we were married, only to have to deal with the pain of his absence when he leaves. I’m extremely attached and I drop anything to just talk to him – I stopped doing things to be available to talk to him when he can. I know we have an incredible bond and in his way he loves me deeply, but he has been unable to separate. He’s afraid of hurting his wife even more (she never found proof of the extent of our relationship, but she knows), there’s the effect this might have on his kids (who are not young anymore, but of course this is big), the financial burden of a divorce and how that would affect people’s perception of him. I try to be understanding but living in this situation has been heart breaking for me too.

I love him deeply but I am also worried about how our future would be. There are moments when he gets emotionally abusive and angry and that devastates me. He crushes me with words, also professionally. He’s very possessive and I feel like I have to be careful with everything that I talk to him about and how I say things. He’s much older than me and I worry he’ll get even more possessive as time passes. The fact that we still have work projects together (even after I finished my PhD) makes everything so much more complicated. Our relationship already had a big impact on my professional life, which is just starting, and I’m worried how things will affect it even more, no matter what turn they take. I can’t focus on anything, let alone work efficiently. He is uncomfortable with me working with other people, I feel like I depend on him so much and that he could destroy my life if he wanted.

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Last month I was with him when I got sick. Initially we thought I just had a flu, but my fever didn’t improve as the days went by. He treated me in a horrible way, he got upset because “I ruined the trip”, we couldn’t have sex and I couldn’t help clean the house. He treated me with such contempt and so much anger, he was upset when I asked him for a blanket when I was shivering, he didn’t offer to get any medicine for me or even ask how I was feeling. I’ve never felt so vulnerable. The last day he said he couldn’t wait for me to leave because I am a pain in the ass and he couldn’t stand me like that. When I found out what I have (it’s a virus that will go away on its own, and I’m finally well now after one month) he got out of his mind, repeating “I did this” to him. He blamed me for potentially passing this virus to him, even though it was not my fault I got sick. He couldn’t care less how I felt, he just blamed me and worried about himself. A bit after that I had to move to another city and during this process my car was broken into and half of my belongings were stolen. He keeps repeating to me he wishes I had been more careful, because now he has to deal with me upset about what happened. I can’t believe the man I love so much can say and do these things. It makes me question whether it is not my fault, if I was overbearing, if it’s the situation that’s making him act this way.

Most people would say I’m a pretty, very intelligent young woman, and there are plenty of interesting guys who want to date me, but I can’t bring myself to end things with him (at least until he sorts out what he wants to do). Even after what happened last month, I am still terrified of breaking up with him. I’m so afraid of him, of what he might do to me professionally, of his anger and his reaction, of the horrible things he says, and I feel so much guilt and sadness for everything.

I’m really lost, I don’t know what to do and I’m in desperate need of some advice.

Thank you,
Lost

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Dear Lost,
At first, when reading your letter, I was forming a picture of two flawed adults who have fallen in love in less-than ideal circumstances and are just going to have to make the best of it. Then my sense of it changed when you described his behavior when you got sick. I now think you are in an abusive, dangerous relationship and you need to leave.

I cannot diagnose people. But I can recognize patterns. The patterns here are those of a predatory man taking advantage of his political, social and economic privilege to get what he wants from a weaker partner while protecting his own professional, political and family privileges. That alone is enough to suggest that you must leave. His anger and lack of compassion add an element of danger to the mix, indicating that not only should you leave, but you should leave now.

There are too many areas of asymmetrical power here. Let’s just briefly name the major ones:

Age disparity
Gender Disparity
Power and status disparity
Marital status disparity

All those could, of course, be overcome by two partners of mutual goodwill. But in this case, he is using those factors to his advantage without regard for your well being.

If you cannot leave him on your own then you need the help of a paid advocate. Locate a good marriage and family therapist, psychotherapist or psychologist and explain that you need support and guidance in leaving a destructive relationship. Make it clear that you are not seeking help in deciding what to do, that you have decided what to do and only need help and support in carrying it out.

Do it. It may save your life.

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LastChanceTuscany

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I’m an unappreciated mom in a Franken-family of six!

Write for Advice

I take care of everything, but who takes care of me?


Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, FEB 28, 2005

 

Dear Cary,

I’m a woman living in a Franken-family of six: my partner, his two kids and my two kids. The kids are never here all at once but are here almost every day in some rotation.

I’ve just learned that in the relationship love pot, I continually make deposits and yet when I go to make a withdrawal, I get the old NSF message. No matter how much I put in, there’s nothing to take out when I need a chunk of help or energy.

My partner’s small children demand immense amounts of energy; they’re demanding and insistent, and they manifest most of the domineering-kid syndrome: whining, shrieking, stamping, kicking, even vomiting on cue if they don’t get what they want — including ceaseless attention. Outings with other adults and families are impossibly awkward. Outings in public are unpleasant enough that I avoid them.

And that’s not even the problem.

The problem is that I’ve managed to survive almost three years of this — giving as much sane advice and behavior management as I’m able — and yet if I have a very rare crisis with my young teen kids, my partner leaves me to manage it alone. (Even in an emergency in which the kids are standing across town waiting on the street in cold weather, for example: He can’t help. Take an $85 cab ride, instead, you silly single mom!)

I’m realizing that my “sacrifices” aren’t registering as even “contributions,” let alone rather large contributions. I’ve tried suspending my services and letting him manage on his own. This registers with both him and his children as being cold and punitive. (Usually, I’m full of creative ideas, anything to wean the little kids away from the TV and computer that they sit and mouth-breathe at for eight hours at a time.)

I’m in a bad cycle and desperately needing to restore myself and my integrity. The man himself is fine with me. But he doesn’t see what I give to the patched-together family. I feel unvalued, unappreciated. And I hate myself and he hates me when I’m depleted and finally begging in tears for some respect and acknowledgment.

Corollary: not enough sex. (Double-digit days between sex, which to me is starvation rations.) I’m chronically malnourished, emotionally and erotically.

I know I’m missing some big chunk of the picture here, but I can’t get the perspective to see what it is. It’s too close to me. Yes, there are pluses. The man has a fiery spirit; he is creative, intelligent, artistic, educated, articulate, broad in scope, multicultural; he loves home and hearth; he uses zero substances of any kind; he is lovely to look at and to hold. But I still feel like an appliance that never gets maintained properly. And when my engine starts making terrible noises, the solution is earplugs for the family!

Franken-mom

LastChanceTuscany

Dear Franken-mom,

The part that interests me is where you say you have tried suspending your services and that it registers with him and his children as cold and punitive. It’s not surprising that they take it that way. But then what? Do you, on that basis, immediately restore services? Why? Where does it say in the service agreement that the service provider may not under any circumstances suspend services if such action might be deemed cold and punitive? Of course there will be complaint if you suspend your services. You are providing services for free, and people get used to that. People like services for free. Who wouldn’t? It’s natural.

But suspension of services is the only leverage you have. You have to use it, even if it creates some uncomfortable moments, as undoubtedly it will.

My guess is that you are both overwhelmed. Like most people under great stress, you are dealing with each immediate crisis in whatever way minimizes the psychic harm to yourself. Since you are both so stressed, you probably don’t have the energy to converse rationally about this, to focus, to make positive, conscious changes in your arrangement. So, brutal as it may sound, I think you have to go on the offensive — for the benefit of everyone involved, not just yourself. Direct material pressure, rather than talking, is what it’s going to take to balance out the labor situation.

So let’s talk about the very real psychological barriers that might stand in your way. What are you most afraid of if you apply pressure? That he will leave you? That the daily tension around the house will be unbearable? That you will get even less of the physical affection that you crave? That the kids will hate you as only kids can? That you yourself will feel like a hardass bitch? All of these, to some degree, may result. Nevertheless, I think it is what you have to do.

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Some of your fears may be exaggerated because of past experiences. For instance, if your father left your mother rather than shoulder more of the housework, you may fear that your mate would do the same. You may attach more significance to that possibility than the actual situation warrants. Likewise, if conflict over duties in your family led to explosive fights, you may fear conflict more than you need to. It has probably been easier for you, psychically, until now, to just do the work yourself rather than endure the conflict that would result from trying to negotiate a better deal. But you can only do that for so long. You have apparently reached the breaking point.

So first try to get a realistic assessment of how far you can push, what the dangers are, and what the imagined dangers are that are holding you back. It may help to get another’s view.

Then make a plan of attack. Stealth and timing are as important as force. You might want to wait for a moment of high dramatic import. Wait for a moment when he’s made a commitment and failed to deliver. Wait for the last straw.

Then go on strike. Whatever works for you. If you’re dramatic, you may want to sit down on the kitchen floor for six hours. I don’t know. You may want to take a spa day. Or take your kids to the zoo and leave his kids with him. Whatever works for you. All I’m saying is you need to take concrete action to force some redress.

You know, this situation illustrates (offbeat thought coming) how the love of alliteration and half-rhyme, allied with a distaste for the less sexy of two academic disciplines, can change the course of history.

Stay with me here: Your struggle is about a trade imbalance in an intimate relationship. A trade imbalance is an economic problem. It has political implications, but its mechanism is economic.

Now, the slogan of the 1970s that launched a thousand domestic arguments was not “The personal is economic!” but “The personal is political!” A slogan must sound good to work right. “The personal is economic!” doesn’t sound good; it trippeth not pleasingly on the tongue. Plus economics was not a sexy subject like politics. So you had men and women battling about the distribution of household labor in intimate relationships as though they were political adversaries rather than actors in a marketplace. If the battle cry had been “The personal is economic!” maybe there would have been less zero-sum political bluffing and calling of bluffing and more businesslike partnering toward mutual profit and “win-win” situations all around, including lunches at the Copper Penny and occasional gift certificates to Staples. Or maybe not. I’m just saying.

If it helps in the negotiation, cook up some kind of bogus reason why your cessation of services has occurred, and stick to it. I’m not saying lie. I’m just saying let the situation be what it is. Don’t blame their behavior. Don’t make it about them. Don’t make it a political thing. Let the labor shortage speak for itself. Just say that for whatever reason it will not be possible to do the laundry or cook the dinner or ferry the children to their all-important crosstown activities today. Just stop doing all this stuff until they can figure out a way to make it worth your while.

Yes, it will be scary. Let’s just have faith that they respond like rational actors.

There’s nothing wrong with negotiating. That’s what your mate and the children are doing, after all, perhaps without realizing it: They’re seizing advantages and then fighting to keep them, using whatever tools are at their disposal. You, I suggest, ought to do the same. I have a feeling that once you get started, you’ll find you’re better at it than they are.

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