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No gifts, just pay my bills

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, DEC 13, 2012

Instead of unwrapping new gizmos, I’d like help with my debts

Dear Mr. Tennis,

I have a fairly simple holiday question to ask you. But I fear that even though the question is simple the answer, or advice, may be much more complicated.

So here goes…

In all of your intuitive sagacity do you believe that it would be bad form to ask family members if they could contribute to helping pay outstanding debts (i.e., bills) instead of giving presents? A little clarification may be in order (I told you this would be sticky). Now this would not be the same as asking for money outright, which would be pretty ballsy and probably not welcomed warmly. No, this is more like saying, “I would really enjoy getting some new-fangled electronic gizmo or the entire set of Robogeek I-XII on Blu-ray… but this year what I really need is leg up to get back on my feet, so to speak.” Cash in hand says to me that it says to other people that I may take this to Vegas for partying and bail money or that groceries might not be the only bags I purchase with this money. Also, a check is usually something from grandparents or for an unrelated celebration from an entirely different sect. I am a decent person and I am fairly responsible but times are tough and the bestest gift I can think of is the gift of freedom. Clearing up that debt gives me the freedom to visit and do more of those things I had to politely decline so that I could spend more time at work slaving away to make more money to eventually have more time to do more things with family. Deep breath … OK. You can see how this could foul up a person’s “rasoodock” and lead to unwanted existential angst in the middle of a time of good will and good cheer. The holiday season is a time for charity but where the line should be drawn is kinda blurry. Or maybe it isn’t.

Thank you for your time and consideration, sir.

No Presents of Mind


Dear No Presents of Mind,

If it is bad form to admit to family members that you have money problems, then I’m all in favor of bad form. If swallowing your pride in order to try to pay off your debts is bad form, then I am all in favor of bad form.

So I actually got to thinking about how you would make it possible for people who want to give you gifts to help you pay off your debts instead. People might want to do it anonymously. They might not want you knowing the exact amount of money they sent. So could people send money to your creditors? Well, they could, but it would have to have the right account number on it. Do you want to give out your account numbers? Maybe not.

So it could get complicated. So I made some calls.

One guy I talked to, a press contact at the American Bankers Association, suggested that maybe people could write a check to the lending institution you wish to receive the money and send the check to you and then you could fill in the account number. So the check would be payable to, say, Chase, or American Express, or PG&E, and then you would put your own account number on it. Of course, that means you would know who was giving what, so it wouldn’t be totally anonymous. Or maybe, I thought, they could send it to an intermediary who would do this final step for you, so you would never really know who contributed what. Different lending institutions might have different policies. You might call your creditor and set up a way that people could send checks to them and identify your account.

I’m sure there are variations on this and other ways to go about it, like using a crowd-funding site such as Indiegogo or Kickstarter, or setting up a PayPal account that people could send money to. Have a party and collect cash in a hat and send it to Mastercard. There are lots of ways to go. You could easily over-complicate it. But basically I’m all for it. Especially if it’s in bad form! Let’s try to use this holiday for some rational economic improvement!

I am all in favor of being honest about your financial situation, and trying to do the thing that makes the most sense.

This could be a gift you would remember forever.

Good luck and happy holidays.



Holiday nightmare: Here it comes again

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Cary’s classic column from SUNDAY,  DEC 4, 2011

How can I make this year’s gathering tolerable, at least?

Dear Cary,

So, this is a boring question but a timely one. It’s That Time of Year again, when the secular and religious Christians descend upon the homes of their relatives to give gifts no one wants or can afford, and to torment each other emotionally.  

I am dealing with the Ghost of Christmas Past That Won’t Go Away. My childhood was horrible. The holidays generally involved going to my paternal grandmother’s house for the obligatory exercise in guilt and the giving of gifts that no one ever liked and which were always wrong and not good enough. My family didn’t like me, and they had severe problems that I won’t go into, but suffice it to say that these gatherings were damning, draining, discouraging and demoralizing. So much so, that once I got into my 20s I quit talking to my relatives for seven years and moved 3,000 miles away. They were not invited to my wedding. They never met my children.

Anyway, my grandparents, uncles and father have long since died. I have abandoned any semblance of Christianity — no trees, no Easter eggs for me — and have instead become interested in the religious tradition of my mother’s family. I still have a cousin from my father’s side who lives about 40 minutes from me. Every year, she invites me and my husband and kids over to her place for Christmas Eve. She is one of those highly repressed, chronically nice yet inwardly seething people who always tries to do the right thing and resents the hell out of the world for not appreciating her, but she’s too polite to go on direct attack. I feel she wants to go through the motions of maintaining the myth of family connection, as if that group were less horrible than they really were. She’s a very nice, good person who has been generous with my kids, and is reliable. She’s done a lot of stuff for me over the years, but I never felt like it was for free, thus I don’t feel safe with her emotionally. It doesn’t feel like an emotionally honest relationship. There is a subtext, but I don’t know what it is.

None of us can afford to spend a lot of money on gifts. She can’t, and I can’t. Nobody can. But I am afraid that we will be invited, and my kids will want to go, and I will feel obligated to go over there, even though I am probably not wanted anyway, and we will all give in to the pressure to shop in order to go through the ritual of giving gifts nobody wants or needs.

What is the deal with the competitive gift-giving thing, anyway? In my family of origin, it was supposed to prove that people cared because they couldn’t express caring in any other way but through money or gifts. They couldn’t say anything nice, they couldn’t be affectionate or warm — they were all bundles of grudges, resentment, suspicion, insecurity and bitterness.

Miss Manners would be appalled, so I’m not asking her, I’m asking you: How can I get out of this event? Is there any nice way to say to my cousin, to acknowledge, that none of us can afford to go through this charade? And then just not do it? Because what I wish is that anything anyone would spend on me they would simply take for themselves and buy something they really want and enjoy rather than give me something I don’t need or want and resent me for it. Do you get that receiving anything from anyone in my extended family carries the burden of resentments and unmet needs and accusations? It’s a drag. Why do we keep doing it?

You may wonder why I don’t invite my cousin to my house, which could be an option if my place were not such a dump — broken plumbing, holes in the wall, non-working electricity, a neighborhood eyesore, broken oven, rotting doors, chunks of house falling off, etc. Far from the Better Homes & Gardens image our grandmother lived by. No dining room, no place to sit. I hate the Holiday Season and wish I didn’t have to do this stuff anymore. Frankly, it would not surprise me if she really doesn’t want to do it, either — but how to address the issue? Or just make other plans?

Dreading It


Dear Dreading It,

Here we go again.

I was at Salon’s panel discussion last night about the meaning of the Occupy movement and, more broadly, this moment in our social and political history.

Every now and then what we all know and have been repressing becomes visible. Someone does something and it catches on and things change. It is hard to know when such a moment is at hand.

But certainly now is such a moment. The moment is at hand to make courageous changes both public and private.

It is especially hard to make changes in family practices when there is no larger context for them. One risks being labeled an eccentric or a troublemaker. But when a large social context appears — such as when the feminist movement happened, or during the era of civil rights protests — then individuals in families have an opening. It is as though taboos are lifted and people may speak. That is when we may make changes — particularly when everyone has known the change needed to be made but no one had the courage or the opportunity to speak up.

Your critique of how your family celebrates Christmas is nicely linked to the larger critique of our general economic arrangements. If we can speak of the unfairness of our current system, and its waste and destructiveness, we can also speak of the unfairness of our individual practices, and how wasteful they are. We can do this with a clear conscience. We can do it in context.

It is a time to make changes, some large, some small. These changes may be “political” in certain ways. But what is great about the current moment is that when “political” movements take hold they always touch individual lives in important ways.

One interesting thing about the panel discussion last night was that those of us who have lived through previous social and political movements were able to acknowledge what we learned from those past attempts to change our society. One thing we learned was that a nonhierarchical, consensus-based approach leads to a more durable — if messier — group process.

It was refreshing to consider afterward the wonderful benefits of just leveling with people, of just telling the truth and being heard.

So I hope that in some way this holiday season you can tell the truth to those who matter to you, and that you can be heard, and that you can be yourself and be loved for who you are. My guess is that you are indeed loved for who you are. My guess is that this relative of yours who has invited you over has a real appreciation for you. But, like you, she must struggle to find an “appropriate” way to put her appreciation into practice.

There are many dangers in trying to “fix your family”! But there are ways to simply be present in it, and there are ways to appreciate the flawed but sincere ways that people come together this time of year and try to share what is in their hearts. That is what many people are trying to do, however imperfectly they are doing it.

One idea that comes to mind is for you to give each person an envelope with a personal letter in it; make it a card, as a nod to holiday convention, but put a longer letter in it, too, telling that person the truth about your experience, and inviting that person to confide in you, if he or she wishes, about his or her real experience of the world and of your family.

This could be done quietly.

You might have to give these cards at the end, as you are leaving. Or you might write them in such a way that you are comfortable with each person reading what is in it. If you write what you truly believe and are comfortable with each person reading it — that is, if you refrain from slander and venting — then it might indeed be an empowering act by which you cease this compulsive and harmful thing everyone has been doing for years while acknowledging the universal drive to connect with others at this time of year and celebrate our humanity, such as it is.



My brother brutally murdered two people

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Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, MAR 2, 2011

Should I approach his victims’ families? Can I help in any way?

Dear Cary,

My brother brutally murdered two people and now faces the death penalty.

There are many issues I am dealing with so this really jumps around a lot but it is the best I can do right now.

I have generally been in favor of the death penalty as punishment for the crime of murder. Now the killer is one of my siblings and my perspective has changed. I know that if he was someone who killed my partner or best friend or someone in my family or anyone else I would probably not be forgiving and would want him to suffer and pay.

But he is my brother. The same brother who told jokes and liked to have fun. The same brother with two children who are now devastated by what he has done. The same brother who killed his fiancée and another man he found her with.

I wonder about how much he is suffering right now. I know that he is not a sociopathic monster. It is almost certain that he was on drugs when he committed the murders.

The homicide detective wants to fly across the country to interview me, because I had spoken with my brother a few hours after the murders. My brother did not confess to the killing.

I feel really bad for my mother and what she is going through, and for myself and the rest of my family. But I have reminded everyone that we will not suffer even close to what the families of the murder victims are enduring. They are living in hell and it very likely will destroy at least a few of them.

I was going to specialize in forensic nursing at one point with an emphasis on effects and treatment of homicide bereavement. I have volunteered for a national organization of survivors of homicide victims. One of the issues I helped co-victims of homicide address is whether the victims suffered, how they died and if it would have been possible to save them for those who made it to the hospital. I helped them process the fact that the murderer usually was the last person who got to be with them and that it is unrealistic to believe that they should have been there to protect the victim. I helped them process the horrible emotion of feeling like they want to kill another human being (the killer).

Even with a perspective of homicide and its aftermath not shared by most people, I do not want to be used by the prosecution to help make a case for first-degree murder against my brother. The crime scene was very bloody. The DNA evidence was all over the place. The prosecution wants to try to get me to prove that the murder was premeditated and coldblooded. I cannot offer what I do not know. I do not want to look at my brother in the courtroom and testify against him. I believe the prosecution does not need me to prove its case.

As horrible as this crime is, I still care about my brother and I want to let him know that I am there for him in any way that I can be. I will not be there to help him get away with the crime — as if that would even be possible. He made a horrible mistake and I believe he would take it all back if possible.

I have already replayed the scenarios of visiting my brother one last time before he goes to the execution chamber. Things I would tell him:

That organized religion and concepts of hell and all of that other garbage is a bunch of shit.

That I have been with many people at the time of their death from traumatic injuries and natural causes and that I have an inner knowing that we all go to the same place/transition regardless of how we lived on this planet.

That one victim of a brutal attempted murder left her body briefly before she was resuscitated and stated that she felt bad for the man who had just strangled and stabbed her and left her for dead as she looked down on her body. She said that she felt bad that he had gotten to a point in his life that he could do that to another human being.

I saw an online memorial for one of the victims. There were family pictures of him from birth to just before his death. His family looked like our family. A lot of people really loved him. The victims were also on drugs but they were not to blame for this and they did not deserve it. Their families did not deserve this. My family did not deserve this.

Something else that troubles me is that I cannot find anything online to offer support to families of the killer. I never really thought much about it until now but we have our own issues, too. This has really generated an incredible amount of emotional pain for my family as well.

One last really shitty thing that I need to mention. I was notified of this while I was at work around 3 a.m. I told a few co-workers about it while I was in shock. I was fired the next day for bullshit reasons. It was a temp job so it was easier than usual to fire me.

Thank you for any guidance you can offer.

Am I wrong for not wanting to speak to the homicide detective? Am I wrong for wanting to support my brother through his own personal hell and the aftermath of making one of the worst mistakes a human could make? Am I wrong for even asking you for advice on how to help myself and my family through what we are going through when the pain of the other families is much worse?

Would it be inappropriate for me to contact family members of the victims to offer any support or answer any questions that might help them process their grief?

Brother of the Murderer


Dear Brother of the Murderer,

You have many profound and searing questions. But let me focus on just one: whether you should approach the victims’ families.

But before I do, let me just say this: No, you are not wrong. You are not wrong for any of this. You are innocent. You are the brother. You feel what you feel. You are not wrong for feeling any of this. The task before you is one of action: figuring out the right course of action.

Let me also, in advance, offer you this suggestion about support for the families of perpetrators. You might try the National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated, and look at their Directory of Programs Serving Children & Families of the Incarcerated

As to reaching out to the families of your brother’s victims, if you feel called to do so, I think it can be appropriate and healing. But only after careful thought and preparation.

The questions you must answer for yourself are, Who and what do you represent? What are you offering? And what do you want from them?

As far as what you have to offer, I would not suggest trying to help them process their grief. That is not your role. Their grief is their concern. If they want help, they can seek it from others.

You are an emissary from a party that has taken something from them. You are therefore on a delicate mission. So I would suggest approaching them in a spirit of recompense, of returning, of giving something back. What you give back will of course in no way compensate. It will not be proportionate. Yet it still may be correct emotionally and spiritually. And it may also be practical.

Victims’ families often suffer tangibly as well as emotionally.

“Homicide survivors may lose much more than their loved one following the murder,” says the National Center for Victims of Crimes. “There may be a significant loss of income in the family, especially if the victim was the primary ‘breadwinner.’ Other family members may find they are unable to go to work because they cannot concentrate or because they need to be present at court hearings and may subsequently lose their jobs. There may be loss of the family home if mortgage payments cannot be made. Plans for school may have to be postponed because of financial difficulties or because survivors cannot concentrate on work or studies. If the victim survived briefly before dying, extraordinary medical bills may have been incurred for which the family may not have had sufficient insurance coverage.”

So I suggest you learn as much as you can about their situation so you can think through what you might offer them. Talk it over with people who know them, or with people whose sense of how to approach such things is well developed. Perhaps if they are suffering financially, a fund of some sort can be created, or if it already has been created, then you could contribute to it, or solicit funds for it. Or your gift might be something more concrete and personal, such as food, or toys.

Think carefully about where. Rather than approaching them at their house, you might attend a church service they attend, if they attend church services. A gift and a brief word of condolence, in such a setting, might have a greater chance of being received.

In spite of how well you prepare, you never know how people will feel or what they will think. No matter what you do, it won’t be easy. But you are motivated by compassion and conscience.

Your impulse is to reach out and console, to share, to be another witness to the awful. It’s a righteous impulse. But your motives are not pure, nor could they be. You want something, too. If you bring to them your own guilt and your own need for forgiveness, they may be offended; this they cannot offer you and it is inappropriate for you to ask them to. In doing so, even inadvertently, you would subtly place your own claims to loss against theirs and be found monstrously wanting. You don’t want to do anything to make it appear that you equate your suffering with theirs. Your sufferings are of a different kind.

In fact, you don’t want to be asking anything of them. You just want to give, simply and clearly. I suggest that you focus only on what you might offer them, and make it tangible and simple.

For instance, if your brother kept anything that belonged to his fiancée that has not been recovered as evidence, you might give that to the family of the fiancée. Or if there was anything of his that you know she wanted. It might be a small act of justice to say that after all he has taken from you, here is one thing returned, one tiny thing, but still, something is returned, something is restored.

In particular, if he or you had any photographs of her, you might return those to the family. Likewise, if he had any letters from her, and so forth.

What are the risks of approaching the victims’ families? Well, murder stirs our savage nature. We react with primitive, raw emotion. We may seek vengeance on the kin of the perpetrator. We may see the brother of the murderer as a stand-in for him, and want to vent all our rage on him. So be prepared for such a thing.

Imagine the victims’ families. In each of their hearts a battle rages. Each heart contains conflicting forces, or actors. Which actor takes center stage? Will it be the thoughtful and moral actor, who counsels forgiveness? Or will it be the warrior? The warrior says to the moral actor, Your high-minded morals are fine for times of peace, but this is war; one of ours has been slain; in war, we burn the village and slay the family!

Each of us has a warrior in us. His savage energy carries us through many a battle. We do not want to stifle that warrior. So be prepared to meet the families’ warrior spirits, if you venture onto their porch or into their church.

You, too, have a warrior spirit, and it may talk to you. This warrior spirit is wise not only about victory but about surrender. It is wise about defeat. It knows defeat and can walk many miles barefoot in the rain after its village is burned. This may be the spirit that you go to the family with: The spirit of a warrior in defeat. Go to them knowing that your own kin has done wrong and now is the time to surrender. Surrender is appropriate. For though you too are a warrior you do not want war. You want peace. They also want peace. They want peace but they also want justice.

If you can give them both, you will have done an honorable thing.

So you think well about what you offer them. You choose your gifts wisely. You take your shoes off before entering, if that is the custom. And you do not stay too long. If they offer you tea or coffee, you accept. But you ask for nothing. You only give. And you do not stay too long.


I detest my parents, but I’m turning into them!

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Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, APR 29, 2005

As a student of biology, I fear that genes are destiny. I feel powerless to individuate!

Dear Cary,

My parents are pretty nice people. They raised me and my brother in an upper-middle-class neighborhood, provided us with food, attention and a first-rate education, and generally gave me a pretty good childhood. They might even say that everything that they did, all the jobs that they hated, all the sacrifices they made (they are immigrants) and all the trouble they went to, they did for us.

Here’s the catch. I can’t really stand to be with them, and somehow as I am aging, I can tell that I’m turning into them and I’m starting to not be able to stand myself. My father grew up in a household of eight siblings and the father was physically abusive and the parents played one child off another. My father is always referring to his mother’s favorite child (not him) or the indulged child (not him either). All eight children moved to the U.S. and all are not speaking to each other since there was a Terri Schiavo-like argument over their mother’s last year of care. My own mother grew up in a poor village where her father left the family for 11 years (!)(sending back little letters of $$) to work on seagoing vessels and she left her village to get a better education at the age of 13.

Now, when we get together for family gatherings (once or twice a year), we just stare at each other and don’t have anything to say. My parents are very judgmental people, always complaining about what slights other people are doing to them and how we aren’t living up to their standards. Every single sentence out of their mouths is a slight dig into my way of life. I find them, in a way, to be talentless. Bright enough to get a nice-paying job, but in other ways, with no redeeming qualities. They have no friends, they can’t tell nice stories at dinner, they can’t seem to get promoted at work; my dad, especially, wants my mother to cook and clean for him and he sits on the couch after getting home from work and watches TV. His mental challenge is to give the highway toll workers 100 pennies for his toll. They are depressed, sullen people.

You know, I want to be something special (doesn’t everybody?), and I feel like my parents aren’t special people and they keep saying that they have these terrible genes that make us all stubborn and have a bad temper. I keep reading self-help books that say, you are special just being you! Bah! You know, when you go to pick out a new puppy, the first thing that people tell you to do is to look at its mother and father and then you’ll get a good idea what they will be like when they grow up, and this is true! I don’t want to be biologically related to my parents! Lots of people say, “Oh, I’m nothing like my crazy mom and dad,” but I was trained in biology and I know that either these people were secretly fathered by the mailman or they are more like their parents than they choose to admit. How do I not loathe my parents? How do I not loathe myself for being like my parents?

Gene Therapy


Dear Gene Therapy,

How do you avoid being like your parents? You make choices. That’s it in a nutshell. That doesn’t mean you don’t occasionally say things they used to say, or find yourself having attitudes they used to have. But particularly on the big, life-changing issues, you take responsibility for your own life and you make careful, considered choices.

Those choices, in turn, go to work, long-term, like little machines in the background. They set in motion various habits and opportunities that over time mold you into the person you would prefer to be. You put yourself in a different environment, one more suited to who you want to be, and your environment, like a little identity machine, cranks out the recommended daily requirements of the life you want to live. If it’s the suburban lifestyle of your parents that you dread getting sucked into, then you make a major choice to live in a lively, provocative city, one that will teach you things you can’t learn in the suburbs, one that will bring out parts of your personality that you want to bring out, one that will nurture you in ways you want to be nurtured and discourage you in ways you want to be discouraged.

In that sense, a city can be like a new parent. You submit to its authority and bask in its love. It will suggest for you new opportunities and will admonish you for your old habits. Indeed, a new city can be a cruel master, and will punish you severely if you cross it. But it will also help you be the person you want to be.

As well as choosing an environment that molds you, you also can choose specific, targeted activities that result in actual long-term fundamental change — in how you generally feel, how you react to situations day-to-day and, in a very real sense, in who you are. They can range from highly specific things like quitting smoking or learning tai chi to broader things like concentrated study and mastery of a field you are drawn to, difficult and dangerous challenges such as rock climbing, travel, psychotherapy, religious studies, pilgrimage, marriage, child rearing. All the big, life-changing experiences will change you fundamentally to some degree if you remain alert as you undergo them. And if you respond to them deeply, each experience will take you closer to who you are and farther from the dreaded replica of your parents that haunts your sleep.

There are, as well, many cooked-up, concentrated experiences available, meant to transform the individual in a weekend. A good massage can sometimes work wonders. Anything is worth trying once. Some New Age hucksters may promise too much and deliver too little. But take what you can use and let the rest go. There is often a little wisdom in the craziest babblings of crackpots and charlatans and fools.

It sounds simple in words, doesn’t it? No problem. All you have to do is change your whole life. Ha ha ha.

So be prepared for monumental resistance from within! That is where the real struggle begins — in attempting to not become your parents you realize that you don’t really know where you begin and your parents end! You are indeed, in many ways, the same! It’s not just a question of future choices and molding yourself, but of conscious dismantling of heavy, well-installed machinery, bolted to the floor and clearly meant never to be tampered with or moved! So you walk where you can walk to get where you have to go; sometimes you have to go around, so you go around.

And occasionally you will have to fight for your life. In dismantling these mechanisms that have worked for you for so long, it can feel as though you’re losing your grip. At times of great challenge, you need faith; you need something to hang on to; you need support from people you trust; you need a map, a method, a solid sense of where you’re going. At times you may not have any of that. You may be desolate and alone, racked with doubt and regret that you ever started on this journey. At such a time all you may have is just a dim and fading notion that you started out somewhere and you’ll end up somewhere. That will have to be enough. Know that you’ll have periods of numbness and confusion. That’s the price of differentiating yourself.

Look at it this way: Even if you didn’t undertake this journey, you’d be numb and confused much of the time; you just wouldn’t know you were numb and confused.

Some of the things I have outlined above you may find unacceptable. You may say that something is “impractical” or “not your style.” You may think if you move to a city too far away from your family that it will bring down years of shame and heartache and just won’t be worth it. That sort of thinking, I would suggest, is why we do end up like our parents — we go pretty far but not far enough; we fail to challenge the very ingrained attitudes that we detest in our parents. So it is not easy. You may not recognize some of these ingrained attitudes as your enemy. They may make you feel safe and connected to your heritage. It is hard to tell sometimes. This resistance could go to the core of your being. For instance, the very notion of individuality and control over one’s destiny may feel foreign to you.

And there will be a price. If you move far from your family, if you choose paths that take you away from them both geographically and spiritually, you will miss the closeness you think you might have had. There will always be the life unlived, the road not taken.

So, in short, I would say that we can avoid becoming our parents because identity is fluid. Between us and biological destiny stand the power of choice, the power to change one’s environment, and the power to undertake activities that transform us in deep and lasting ways.


Big 4-0

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Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, NOV 18, 2002

I have a wonderful daughter but no love or romance, and life just sucks.

Dear Cary,

So, I just turned 40. So far, it sucks, thank you very much.

There’s something about a “magic number” birthday like 40 that brings the suckiness of one’s life particularly to mind.

Not that there aren’t a couple of bright spots. The brightest is my almost-6-year-old daughter, who lives with me three-fourths of the time (the other one-fourth she’s with her mother, 1,000 miles away). Another is my job, which (despite the usual level of political bullshit and general aggro) is pretty damned fun most of the time.

But I’m finding that a life that consists of sleeping, getting the kid ready for school, rushing to work, picking up and feeding the kid, and sleeping again — well, it really leaves a lot of room for improvement.

I admire myself for my commitment to doing the best I can for my kid, and (most of the time, except for the darkest parts of the night) I think I really did do the right thing in fighting like hell to have her go to school in my city (and thus to live the majority of time with me). But a part of me keeps whispering that if my kid remains my “only reason to live,” that’s ultimately going to be destructive for her (and incidentally for me).

Meanwhile, romance is nonexistent — there’s been nobody since my daughter’s mother booted my ass out of the house a couple of months before our daughter was born — and my “sex life” consists of furtive wee-hours masturbation to Internet porn and very occasional (when the kid is out of town) trips to sleazy strip joints.

I never did date much — each of the relationships I’ve had was instigated and pursued by the woman involved — and whenever, now, I think about trying to get involved with anyone, I run up against internal arguments that I can’t rebut: 1) I don’t know how. 2) I can’t see that I have time or room in my life. 3) Who’d have me anyway — a porn-using, over-40, tied-down-with-kid, chronically depressed geek?

Over the past dozen years, I’ve tried breaking out of my destructive patterns with a variety of tools — psychopharmacology (antidepressants), a couple hundred SAA meetings, group and individual therapy, “men’s work” — and it’s all helped a little, but not enough, and going back for more seems as if it would be way too much work for way too little payoff. (Except for the antidepressants, which I keep up with and which probably keep me from completely imploding.)

So I’ve just kept on truckin’ as best I can — as I say, in the past six years, the kid’s been a great motivator. But it’s starting to feel as though I’m not ever going to get unstuck. And, frankly, another couple dozen years of this kind of stuckness is not something I’m willing to live through. What really aches badly — and makes it suck the most — is the loneliness of it all. (At least, that’s how I justify asking you for advice.)

Is there a way out of this that I’m missing?



Dear Stuck,

I was very moved by your letter, because I recognize your thinking and the pain that comes with it. I am moved toward a kind of anticipatory grief, as though I see where you are headed in a dream and I cannot catch up with you to tell you to turn. I am chasing you with only a cane to help me hobble over the stones and you are heading faster and faster toward the edge of the cliff.

What sucks is not your life. What sucks is suicide. What sucks is that you are simultaneously inches away from accepting your life as it is and inches away from jumping off a bridge. Compassionate detachment is hard to maintain in the face of that. It is hard to maintain a safe distance when you say that “another couple dozen years of this kind of stuckness is not something I’m willing to live through.”

So let me talk to you as a brother, as a fellow who has walked that dark, oppressive corridor where it is hard to breathe and hard to move. Let me talk to you as someone who doesn’t care to be delicate, but who cares very much for you and the girl.

You say the Sex Addicts Anonymous meetings helped a little but not enough. How do you know what is enough? How do you know where you would be without them? Is it enough that group therapy, individual therapy, men’s groups and SAA kept you from suicide, from arrest, from incarceration, from losing custody of your daughter altogether? It may not feel like it helps enough, but if you’re depressed, you can’t rely on what it feels like. Your feelings aren’t going to tell you the truth; your feelings are going to lead you to a room in a cheap hotel and tell you to put a noose around your neck. You need something better than feelings: You need reality.

And how do you know it would be “destructive” if your daughter were your only reason to live? How many reasons do you need?

Basically you need to make little improvements in your life, and little adjustments in your expectations. You need to bring your life and your expectations closer together, so you’re not living in that airless void between is and should. Make incremental improvements in your life; make incremental adjustments in your expectations.

I’m no expert on psychology, but I can say that cognitive therapy helped me stop using language to reinforce my depression; it helped me construct a new, kinder interpretation of reality. I know that your feelings drive your language, but I also think your language feeds your feelings and that you can change your language to starve your feelings of their false bravado of bleakness. How about making your language more neutral, more factual, pulling it out of your mental shop of horrors? Instead of saying that your wife booted your ass out of the house, how about just saying that you and she split up. Instead of saying that your life consists of just sleeping, rushing, feeding, rushing, sleeping, try saying that you have a very busy and full life.

And instead of saying there are three internal arguments that you can’t rebut, why not try rebutting them? The first one, in fact, is eminently rebuttable on its face because it’s meaningless: “I don’t know how.” Of course you know how. If you didn’t know how to get involved with someone you could never have gotten married. The worst you could do is just repeat what you did the first time. The worst a woman could do is boot your ass out of the house, or, to use our modified language: The worst that could happen is you form a relationship and then it comes to an end. How bad could that be?

The second assertion is also easily rebuttable. Many single working parents find room in their lives and time for relationships. What is so different about your life? Are you on a book tour? I’m sure you could find the room and the time.

The third assertion is not really an assertion, but a question. What woman out there, indeed, would be interested in an intelligent, employed single father, evidently smart and tough, who is managing tolerably well with his share of human challenges? You have enough grit to take care of this girl, and that’s admirable.

I’m not saying you have to be happy. I don’t even know if it’s within your power to be happy. But I think it’s within your power to stay well back from the brink of suicide and hopeless depression. Maybe that’s just as good as it gets. Maybe it’ll have to be.

As I said, I was very moved by your letter. I don’t think there’s some way out that you’re missing. I think you know what to do and you just need to be reminded. Stay in touch with your groups. Exercise. Eat right. Get enough sleep. Keep taking your antidepressants. Remember: Your daughter won’t let you down. And some of us out here, if you just stick around, we won’t let you down either.


My family gives me no respect

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Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, JUN 7, 2006

I’m accomplished and responsible but they treat me like a loser.

Dear Cary,

I have a great job, own my own home, car, dog and medium-size 401K, have put myself through college and law school. I am not a loser! So why does my whole family treat me like one?

My family is not a normal set of folks; we are in a whole new category of dysfunctional and it would take 20 hours’ worth of couch time to even come close to describing the crazy things below the surface. Anyway, the issue is that I want to be loved and respected. I am loved by some but respect is just not there.

My youngest sister is forever telling me how poor my judgment is, how bad my understanding of people is and how unprofessional I am, despite the evidence of my high-powered job at an internationally renowned organization. I have a résumé to die for. That is not just a boast but a statement of fact (OK, a boast, too. I need to bolster myself since I am not getting it from outside sources). She tells me that she has no faith in me, in my judgment or in anything about me, that my house is awful, my neighborhood sucks, my dog is poorly trained, etc. And this is the sister I get along with best.

My mother makes it clear that a woman of 39 (me) without a husband and without children is a loser by definition. I had a husband, a drug-abusing, foul-mouthed yet charming brute who almost bankrupted me, stole from me and my friends, cheated on me with other women and possibly men, and verbally abused me in public and private. Dumping him after seven years of marriage was the best decision of my life. I feel lucky that any of my self-esteem survived that one. Yet, here we are five years later and my mother still criticizes me for not keeping that guy! Her current advice: Find a man who wants American citizenship and trade my bed for a green card!

My father barely speaks to me because I dated a guy he did not like a year ago. Two of my sisters do not speak to me at all. I honestly do not know why but both claim to be angry at me. My brother thinks I am an irresponsible idiot. My last sister, who is the only one who acknowledges me as a fully grown and responsible adult, still tells me that my divorce from an abusive ex is a sign of my inability to keep a commitment!

For God’s sake, what is it going to take to get these people to admit that I am fine as I am and why the hell do I care! Are these people overly judgmental or am I insane?

Dissed by My Family


Dear Dissed,

You are fine as you are. I know that. You know that. It’s the truth.
But your family is never going to give you what you want. That’s also the truth.

You will never be at peace with your family until you stop wanting what they will never give you.

It is easy to say, “Accept the way things are.”

But exactly how do we accept things? What is this action called acceptance? I would say that acceptance is knowing rather than wishing. You studied law. You committed many laws to memory. You may wish they were one way but they are the way they are. If you go into the courtroom and expect the laws to be different from the way they are you will not succeed. You must accept that the law is the way it is. You must know the law.

The same is true with your family. You must know your family as it is. You must study your family and know it thoroughly. That is your route to acceptance. Regard your family as a fact, immutable as the law. They are what they are. They behave in a certain way. The facts are unpleasant. But they are facts.

What happens to people who do not like the law and so do not obey it? They get their asses kicked.

You may not like what you know about your family but you must accept it or you will get your ass kicked. You will step into the ring expecting a kiss and get slapped. Don’t do it. Don’t let them kick you around.

You may find it hard to accept your family as it is. There are reasons for that. One reason is that in accepting your family as it is, you have to give up, or mourn, the ideal family that never was. You may have to go through a sort of grieving process. You may have to feel the hurt, the lifelong ache of wanting a family that is loving and kind and supportive and never getting it. It hurts. It hurts a lot. It hurts for a long time. But that is the price of knowing the truth.

I think the truth is worth it.

Here is a consolation: This other family, this ideal, imaginary family that you always wanted, this family that really gets you, that supports you, that appreciates you as you appreciate yourself: It is a real family, too. It is real in your mind. You can keep it, in fact. You can keep this imaginary family in your mind. This dream family is your family, too. It’s the family you deserve. It lives on a different street in a different neighborhood where only you can go.

Here is another consolation. Sometimes if you leave something alone long enough it begins to heal on its own and one day long after you have given up even thinking about it a gift arrives in the mail that is so delightful you break down right there on your doorstep because you had given up all hope of such a thing ever, ever happening.

I’m just saying it’s possible. Maybe one day if you leave this alone it may fix itself. But don’t hold your breath. Let it be.

Your family today is sad and difficult and dangerous. Remember that. Accept it. Don’t give them the opportunity to kick you around anymore.

Get what you need some other way. Get it from people who have it to give.


I found a girl in my son’s bed

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Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, JUN 30, 2009

I don’t think I’m comfortable with my 17-year-old bringing 16-year-old girls home — but what to do?

Dear Cary:

Last night I discovered my 17-year-old son brought a girl to stay the night. To say the least it was unexpected and I don’t think I was expected to find out. I found out when I woke up around 4:30 in the morning and went to have a glass of water and found an extra pair of shoes at the door.

I entered my son’s room to find a young girl of maybe 16 in his bed. I didn’t say anything (I think shock set in for a while) and said to him aloud that I wasn’t really sure what to say but would talk with him later on. I didn’t kick her out. I had to leave later that morning and my son worked at night so I haven’t had a chance to talk to him yet. After thinking about it I’ve decided that it’s not something I’m comfortable with and plan on telling him I don’t wish for it to happen again. I also plan on reminding him that he comes from a long line of successful impregnators so he would be wise to keep protection handy.

I’m a fairly liberal parent and give plenty of leeway to my children. I’m a single father as well. My son is an A student who holds down two jobs, and he is going into grade 12 this fall. He’s easygoing, ambitious and intelligent. I’ve never minded him having girlfriends. I expect he will respect my wishes and not bring her again overnight.

Is there something else I should say to him?



Dear Concerned,

There are many things you might say. But first: What is the girl’s name and age? Where does she live? What are her parents’ names, and their phone number and address? Those are reasonable questions. You may reasonably want to know much more — what precautions are they taking, how long have they been sexually active together, and how many other partners has your son had? But you need at least to know who the girl is and what her situation is.

Let’s hope she is at least 16. Otherwise he may have broken the law. And even if she is 16, in some states, under some combination of circumstances, sexual activity between them might be illegal. For instance, according to the age-of-consent laws linked to in the previous sentence, in New York state, “Sex with a person under 17 is a misdemeanor if the perpetrator is at least 16 (see infra). (‘Sexual misconduct,’ NY Penal Law § 130.20.)” So if they had sex in the state of New York, he may have committed a misdemeanor. It might not hurt to consult a family lawyer.

That said, might we talk a bit more broadly, and at distinct cross-purposes to what has just been said? For I am about to critique our entire society for doing what I have just done: treating sex first as a problem and second as a gift.

To begin again with an innocent mind cleansed of the obvious, let us ask: Why is sex bad?

We know that sex is not bad per se. Yet we routinely greet the sexual awakening as a problem. We do not celebrate it. It represents for your son a unique rite of passage. Your son is having sex! He must be very happy about that. He is also proud. He may have wanted you to discover him in bed with a girl. No matter what you said, just knowing that you saw him means a lot to him. This is not the pride of callous male conquest. It is rather the pride of discovery and arrival. It is probably something he would like to share, if he could do so safely, with fear neither of ridicule nor of corny congratulations in the gruff, squirm-inducing way of men uneasy with intimacy.

It is too bad that we do not have family rituals for celebrating such a thing. Weddings have metastasized into grotesque spectacles of affluence perhaps in part because they no longer represent the moment of sexual awakening. There ought to be rituals for that, the actual coming-of-age.

Fat chance.

Imagine trying to institute such a thing.

The very idea could get you arrested.

And yet I remember well.

I remember the clatter of dishes at dawn, tiptoeing out of a girl’s bedroom before the mom noticed. This happened a good bit in high school. And though we knew we had broken rules, we had no consciousness of having done wrong, only that we had done right in contravention of the many unreasonable restrictions imposed on us by ignorant adults. We felt such pleasure and beauty, such happiness and satisfaction! How could the gods not look favorably upon us — even if adults sought to constrain our desires?

And what were we supposed to do — emulate the adults around us whose arid, pleasureless lives filled us with dread? We did not wish to emulate a society of adults seemingly locked in a dry, tortured existence. We did not want to learn how to live our lives as they were living theirs. Why would we? What did they have to offer us?

So we defied them, quietly seeking pleasure where we could — in the darkness, in the early morning hours, in the quiet, air-conditioned rooms of our parents’ houses while they slept. We had found something that seemed to fulfill our destiny, ill-understood as it was, and we happily pursued it as though it were our life’s calling.

Of course, whatever your experience of sex was as a youth, you now are an adult and responsible for enforcing all the adult rules and so, too, of course you are uncomfortable with the idea of your son having sex because he’s your son, after all. Of course it gives you pause. How could it not? Let us count the ways in which the issue is bound to cause you discomfort:

You don’t control it. It could have bad consequences. You’re probably supposed to stop it. If you don’t stop it you may be held up to public censure and private condemnation. You might find yourself with a granddaughter or grandson. You might have to pay for a wedding. You might have to tell the girl to leave. You might have to police your house more vigilantly. You might have to think about your son having sex. You might be troubled by thoughts that seem just plain wrong: You shouldn’t be picturing your son having sex. You may find you carry a deep-seated taboo about that. It just plain isn’t right. Other things that may happen that you could find yourself worrying about: Your son may come to emotional harm. His girlfriend may come to emotional harm. You may find yourself wanting to console them or fix things you cannot fix. The parents of the girl may call you. You may feel responsible for your son’s actions even though you know that properly speaking you cannot be responsible for something you knew nothing about.

And yet in the midst of all this, you might wonder why this beautiful event, which is celebrated in rituals and songs and dances and paintings and sculptures and myth the world over, is cause for such concern.

Sex may bring pregnancy and the threat of disease. There are religious taboos in addition to the many unpleasant repercussions mentioned above. It is an issue for a father to deal with. It is many things. But while you do what must be done, as a father, as an adult, try to take a minute to celebrate this as well. It is also an awakening.



Is my son gay?

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Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, JUL 5, 2005

As a mom, I can’t help wondering — but is it any of my business?

Dear Cary,

I’m writing to you A) because I like your column, and B) because you were once a 20-year-old male. I’ve got one of them — a 20-year-old son, not a column — and I’d appreciate some advice.

“Kent” is a good kid. Actually more than a good kid; he’s a bit of a phenom. Very bright, high-achieving, athletic, popular, good-looking, yadda yadda. Top student in high school, president of this and that, and he’s now attending a wonderful university on a pretty wonderful scholarship. He’s funny and good company and we’ve always had an enjoyable, mutually respectful relationship. I feel very fortunate to have such a great kid.

So … is there a problem? I dunno. Is it a problem that a young man as described above has never had a girlfriend? Dates to the prom and such, sure. But not, to my knowledge, a romantic relationship, ever. He’s always had good friends who are girls, but he hangs out primarily with other bright guys not unlike himself.

My gaydar has never “pinged.” My husband (his stepfather) says firmly, “He’s not gay.” And if he is, well, he is. I guess what my dilemma boils down to is this: Is there any acceptable way for me to inquire into his personal life? Am I totally overstepping to even wonder? I suppose I wouldn’t be, at least as much, if I wasn’t watching his younger brother throwing himself into the joys of girlfriends with such delight. It makes me wonder why that didn’t happen with Kent.

I suppose you’ll ask, “Why do you need to know?” And I don’t, of course. It’s his life. But I am nagged at by the thought that if a young man were having concerns in the sexuality department, it could be an awfully isolating experience. If anything is going on, I hate to think of him going through it alone.

Can you give me any guidance?



Dear Stymied,

I was indeed once a 20-year-old male. For a while, I was even younger than that. I remember when I was around 16 my dad and I were out back behind the garage and he was trying to talk to me about my girlfriend. I remember thinking, “What does ‘knocked-up’ mean?”

He was trying to ascertain certain facts and issue certain instructions regarding the activities my girlfriend and I were engaging in. But the language he used was this weird hybrid of delicate Victorian circumlocution and World War II sailor talk. So I could not be sure if he was saying that we should stop our activities altogether (“She’s not some tart, or harpie, or gold-digger, is she?”), use condoms (“Pop two bits in a Texaco slot machine and get yourself some rubbers!”), or perhaps just follow Supreme Court rulings a little more closely (“If she gets knocked up, you’d better hope you’ve got John Law on your side”). This was a few years before the Roe vs. Wade decision. I told him she was on the pill. He looked relieved — and also, if I remember correctly, a little jealous. The whole conversation, as one would expect, was awkward.

Today, for public health reasons, parents have been instructed in how to talk to their children about condoms, AIDS and STDs, but that doesn’t mean that truly intimate things are any easier to talk about. The intimate is, by nature, difficult.

So how would I like to have been spoken to at that time, or a little later, as a 20-year-old, about the matter of my sexuality? By the age of 20, I had a passionate, if incomplete, vision of where I was headed in my life. I pictured myself being married and monogamous, but I did not picture myself raising a family (I am married with no children). I pictured myself moving to a major coastal city and trying to get involved in literature and the arts (here I am in San Francisco, working for Salon). These things, even at that time, I think I could have told my parents, had we been able to have a kind of neutral, open-ended talk about my dreams for the future.

If I had been gay, I think at the age of 20 I might not have been ready to proclaim myself as such to my parents. But my vision of the future would probably have contained the essential elements. I would probably have not seen a wife in the picture. I would probably have seen a life primarily occupied with my same-sex friends — the bright young men you refer to. The things I would leave out — dating women, romancing women, marriage to a woman — would probably indicate to a perceptive person where I was headed, whether I wanted to disguise my final destination or not. So rather than asking your son point blank, Are you gay? I suggest you take some time — a good amount of time — to ask him about his dreams for the future.

He will better be able to answer you if he understands what you want. What you want is something a little amorphous that yet requires great precision in its description: You want to know how to dream about the future.

Put it this way: You’re a mother. Mothers dream about the future, about family and what their kids will do. Your son appears in your dreams about the future. But you do not know how to dress him, what occupation to give him, whether to make him married, single, divorced, living with somebody, what. Likewise, sons also dream about the future. They do not want to deceive their mothers. But neither do they wish to be labeled. I’m sure your son would like to give you some reliable sign of what he envisions for himself, as long as he can do it without being misunderstood or pigeonholed.

So I think you absolutely should talk to him about what kind of life he wants to have for himself. I could imagine something like this:

“You know, ‘Kent,’ I’m a mom, and naturally I think a lot about my kids and the future and our relationships and the things that stand between us and greater understanding, and I’ve been wondering for a long time now about some of the things we pretend to be when we’re really not, so I’m just going to ask you point blank: Are you really named ‘Kent’”?

To which he may reply, “No, Mom, my name is not ‘Kent’! That’s the name you gave that advice columnist, asking him if I’m gay!” [LAUGHTER]

OK, so much for sitcom dialogue. I can’t put words in your mouth, but I can suggest a general outline for the kind of conversation that will help you. You need, first of all, the proper setting. For instance, a long drive is a great place, because he can’t get out of the car to get a soda or change the channel on the television. Dinner in a private place, or a long walk are also good settings.

I would indeed tell him that you are wondering what the future will hold for him. I would say that there are a lot of choices one can make in life, and that it’s vital to be true to oneself when one makes those choices. (Each choice is a blow of the sculptor’s chisel — is that too corny?) Tell him that you sense he is building a very accomplished and admirable life, that you see it in every decision he makes. But tell him that you want to get a better sense of where he is going with this life of his. I would stress that your deepest wish is that he make his decisions in accord with his truest self.

You might also say that the whole question of whether one is to marry and have children or not marry, or whether one even wants to have sexual relations with women or with men, is something that often evolves over a great deal of time, and that one need not place oneself in a box at the age of 20 and say, “This is what I am.” One’s identity can be more fluid than that. It can evolve. But tell him that you’ve noticed that he hasn’t had any serious girlfriends and you wonder if that means anything. One simply wants to know how to think about another’s life, where it is heading, what the choices are, what the possibilities are. What kind of future does he envision? Is it a future with a romantic partner? Is it a future with a man or a woman? Are there kids in that future?

I would not insist that he declare himself in any final way. But if he balks at discussing the future at all with you, there I would press him. I would not say that’s OK, we don’t have to talk about the future. You do have to talk about the future. Having achieved much already, he obviously thinks about the future; he thinks about rewards and consequences. He’s not some slacker dude who lives in the moment. If he resists discussing the future with you, he may be frightened. If you sense this, I would not let him veer away from it merely because he is frightened. This is where you can actually do some good; you can lend him some adult strength. This is where some pressure could be helpful. If indeed he has a secret to entrust to you, this is your chance to accept it. Don’t let the opportunity slide by. Resist the impulse to take off the pressure. Let it be an uncomfortable moment. Remain silent and let him speak if he wishes to. Do not interrupt him. Hear him out.

I have had letters from young men who have not yet gotten involved with women because of various things — religious fears, fears of disease, shyness, ignorance about courtship, performance fears, trauma because of one bad experience. What these young men had in common was fear of some sort. The fact that he hasn’t had a long-term girlfriend yet doesn’t mean he’s gay. We don’t know what it means. But I think you are right to try to help him talk about something that he may feel he’s going through alone.

The trick is to give him enough room to talk — and, as I said, to apply gentle pressure if he becomes afraid to speak.

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I came home to a sleeping country

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Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, JAN 28, 2013

Back in the States after the Peace Corps, I feel lost, like it’s unreal

Dear Cary,

After graduating from college, I joined the Peace Corps. This whole growing up thing has been great, by the way! There are more interesting things to learn about and more important things to care about every day. And the older I get, the more I can do.

I was very close to my host family in my country of service. For two years, I lived in a hut in their compound. They were work partners, friends and parents to me. They introduced me to their culture, taught me the local language and showed me more about the meaning of family and community than I could ever hope to communicate with my words or works. As proud as I am of the work that I did there, my relationship with that family and the whole village community is what I’ll carry in my heart for the rest of my life.

The work was good, too. When it went well, anyway. Our projects were complicated sometimes, and they were always being carried out in low-resource settings. It could be frustrating. But seeing a village pull together, as I got to over and over again, was a delight. I could go to bed at night, dehydrated and exhausted, truly emptied out, and feel so much joy. I intend to chase that feeling for the rest of my life, and I will follow it anywhere.

This feeling is like having this whole other element in my life, like a color I had never been able to see before my Peace Corps service, or like an entirely new way of putting the same old words and thoughts together, an entirely new way of living. It came every day, but some days more than others. The best days were the days that were full of work and people. The best nights were the nights when I went to bed sunburned and sore, with a light heart, a full stomach, and the knowledge that I had done a good thing well. I remember thinking: This is all I want. Let me not live a day past my ability to feel this way. Not an hour.

After my return to the States, which was about six months ago, I started a program of education that will bring me to a career I am certain I will love. It’s a career path that will bring me back to that feeling I’m talking about. It’s thrilling, and I feel lucky to be in this program. I am exactly where I need to be, having taken every opportunity for adventure and madness and good work that has come my way. At least, I’m 95 percent sure of all that, and that remaining whisper of doubt doesn’t come anywhere close to disturbing me.

Here’s the thing. I haven’t felt anything since I’ve come back to the States. A friend’s sadness has moved me deeply on a couple of occasions, and I was moved to the point of mild irritation by the need to take midterms and final exams this semester. But I haven’t emotionally connected to anything or anyone in a way that felt real to me. Things happen, and they’re sometimes things that I should feel keenly. But I don’t. I even took a volunteer job that I thought would push me emotionally. Nothing.

I don’t feel like I’m disconnecting myself from the people and things around me on purpose, but I don’t know how to stop it from happening. Nothing here seems real. It’s what I feel when I look at old sepia-tinted photos: that it’s a real world, or it was, but it’s not mine. I can’t put my hands on it, I can’t live in it, I can’t respond to it.

I know some people have trouble coming back from overseas. They fall apart in grocery stores, shocked by the variety of foods and consumer goods. They lose it in restaurants and bars, appalled by others’ inability to understand their experiences, or angered by their ignorance of faraway places. I’ve seen all that happen, and it’s not what’s happening to me. At least, I think it’s not.

How do you reconnect? How do you wake back up? How do you come home?

Not All Here


Dear Not All Here,

Your question is so interesting that I am going to take a speculative approach to it, almost as though it were a writing prompt. For it reads like a novel that opens after many important things have already happened. We begin with exhaustion. The hero returns and now what? In storytelling sense, it might not seem like the best place to start. But we’re at a point of decision-making, which should lead to a story. The protagonist is having flashbacks to his time overseas. He is concerned mostly about that world that he has left. That is what he is thinking about, day to day. We wouldn’t want to hang around with him if he’s just going to be unhappy and live in the past. But we’ll put up with it for a little bit because we like him and trust him. He’s done something good and he’s troubled but it’s not because there’s something wrong with him. It’s more like a new problem for him to solve.

He buys a peach at a corner store and the man who sells it to him reminds him of one of the villagers and it sets off a train of thought where we see that he loved these people and longs for return. We grow to like this character as he goes about his daily life and tells us about the life he left in the village.

Since we have grown to like the character, we want something to happen to him or for him. If he is simply exhausted then there is no story. To make a story, first we think the character must  insert himself into bland American culture and try to change it. He must hurl himself up against it. That will make it an interesting novel. He must identify the elements in American society that are lacking and he must identify the disease. Is it ennui? Is this a dying empire? Is that what happened? The son of a dying empire experiences a vital culture and then returns to his dying empire and realizes the truth?

He must watch television and listen to the current political debate and contrast it with his recent experience in the village. For instance maybe he is sitting in a cafe working on his thesis and there is an argument on the television about “the debt.” He starts to think about “the debt,” how it is an abstract cudgel everyone is beaten by, how it looms like the threat of the paddle used to loom in schools before paddles were outlawed.

He tries to analyze what is wrong with the society he has returned to, and he sees that it is full of fear, irrational fear, superstitious fear, religious fear. He sees that the promise of rational progress, the Enlightenment dream of the free individual, the lessons of existentialism and psychoanalysis, the promise of technology, the daily miracles occurring in software, that all these things are occurring and yet the populace seems weirdly drugged. He begins to wonder if Americans might not have been hypnotized in his absence. Or is he the one who has changed? Was it always this way? No one can tell him. He asks a professor he has come to like and trust and the professor tells him that yes, American society is diseased and drugged, and we must each find our personal salvation wherever we can — in heroin, in Buddhism, in study. His professor’s answer seems both sincere and deeply cynical and he cannot reconcile these conflicting impressions, and feels that the professor has not been entirely honest with him, but then he realizes it’s not the professor’s job to be honest with him, but to provoke him to thought.

He is angry. He asks what he is angry about. The answer that comes is that he is angry about loss. What he senses in the society to which he has returned is that it has lost a precious beauty, a burning faith. Part of this he chalks up to his youth. Of course the world is mostly tedium. Of course most people give up. As he works for a living he realizes why most people give up: Because to eat and pay rent one must get up every day and work at a job that takes all one’s energy, a job that requires one to focus on details that do not relate to any larger human project but seem to exist in a machine world all their own, and one wonders why so many millions of workers are spending their days hunched over in cubicles managing the details of this machine that is too huge to see or comprehend, a machine that does not speak to us or reveal itself but which nonetheless must be maintained. And then out of boredom he goes to the movies alone. He has heard of this movie “Zero Dark Thirty” and so he buys a ticket at a theater out in a quiet, foggy distract of the city (I wrote “distract” instead of “district” because just at that moment I was distracted; weird, huh? Such ticks might make this seem like a self-referential novel but that would not be good because a self-referential novel might be considered just one more symptom of a dying empire). He sits through “Zero Dark Thirty” and grows angry and sad. The movie strikes him as the bland recitation of an undigested trauma. This trauma, he realizes, this national trauma has not been transformed into wisdom but sits inert in the belly of the beast, and he realizes that the nature of a truly bad thing is that we cannot overcome it or comprehend it, that it makes us crazy or sterile or frozen, and this is how bad, boring art gets made as well — he has the thought that bad art is made by stuck analysands groping in blandness.

He walks out of the theater and for a moment he hates his country. He stops on a dark street corner and begins to weep for this country that only months before had seemed so bright with promise. He thinks about the men in the movie who got on the helicopters to go and murder America’s enemy and there is much about them that he likes but their mission had about it the bloodlessness of an execution. He seizes on that word “bloodless” and feels there is something bloodless in the land he has returned to.

But he goes on. He goes home. He breaks a vase in his apartment. He calls a woman he has been seeing and asks her if she would like to go to Turkey. He feels if he goes to Turkey he can wash out this anger and sense of betrayal. Why Turkey? she says. I haven’t been there yet, he says. I want to sit in a cafe and look at spires. She says that asking her to go to Turkey is impulsive and unreasonable. She’s got finals and he knows she’s got finals. It’s after 1 in the morning, why doesn’t he get some sleep. He needs to adjust, she says. He’s back in the States now and it’s time to adjust.

She hangs up. He sits in his chair looking out the window at the full moon. He’s not sure he wants to adjust. He fears that adjusting means sacrificing something sacred. It was a lot of work to find and cultivate that thing that is sacred. You don’t find that every day.

So he buys a ticket. He goes to Turkey to sit in a cafe and look at spires. He gets a little motorbike and starts riding out this road into the fields at sunset. He spends time wandering around the mosques. People tell him he’s missing his chance. He says the degree will have to wait. He’s got things to sort out.

Then something happens, or a series of things happen, and it’s 30 years later and he asks himself if he is happy, if he has done the right things, and realizes that his life has been rich because he heeded the calls when they came, and he resisted easy belief. He sacrificed some things. He parted tragically with his home. He left many things behind but he heeded the call.

That’s how your letter makes me feel. No matter how bland and disappointing our country is, there is always a shining call to answer. There may be another call for you to answer now. That may be why the country you have returned to seems unreal. Listen for the call. Listen for your next assignment. Trust the surprise.

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Have I ruined my marriage and screwed up my life?

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from Monday, Oct 25, 2010

I got restless and fooled around and now I’ve come back. Why do I feel I’ve betrayed myself?

Dear Cary,

This is going to sound very weird, coming from a man and all. I’m a pretty well-set guy in my low 50s, good income, very athletic and strong, nice little house in an awesome upscale Northern California area, one brilliant, stunningly beautiful 17-year-old daughter and one equally successful wife of 27 years. Like many couples, the pilot light on romance went out long ago as we both focused on self-preservation (health, fitness, career), domestic duties (cleaning, installing, fixing 90 percent of everything with own hands), and the most important, our daughter, who is absolutely brilliant and bound for the most prestigious engineering university in the world. My dream from the time of her birth is coming true for me.

Well, a year ago, during the 50 percent of time when I wasn’t traveling the world for my work, while commuting to work, a woman offered to help me blog my travels. Yes. I know what you’re thinking. It did. We did. Suddenly, all those feelings that love left me many years before getting married came rushing in. This new woman had everything I didn’t “push” for when I first met my wife and just settled for during 27 years. These shiny-new feelings of happiness and satisfaction were on the rock-star level in life. She had never been married and was seven years my junior and really, really wanted someone to spend the rest of her life with, having been involved with a man who was separating or separated about a year or so prior and before that being with someone for a much longer time.

She is what I’m not. Art-loving, outgoing, a true bon vivant, in that she spends her salary (equal to mine) almost as fast as it comes in (at least it seems that way) on restaurants and lots of little things that make each day pleasurable, nothing like jewelry or expensive clothes or such. Not a bad thing, just a polar opposite of what I’ve been accustomed to for 27 years of solitude and nothingness. What we had in common is what I don’t have with my wife: happy to spend nighttimes reading or seeing movies or just listening quietly to each other read out loud, athletic, motorcycle enthusiast, strong bicycle commuter, appreciative of the outdoors, fantastic in the love department and more than willing to travel and spend all her time experiencing museums, parks, hiking … All these things we did, and more.

I saw what I wanted and over a few months planned and planned. I bought a motorcycle. I got the courage to move out. The most difficult thing in my life was sitting on my knees one horrible night while crying and telling my daughter I would be moving out — this, after discussing it with my wife. My wife let me go, telling my daughter that I have to work this out. My daughter pretty much said, “You guys work it out.”

Well, moving out was a huge fiscal reality shock. I just paid and paid it seemed. I felt obligated to continue my burden of everything that came along with regards to upkeep for our house. I realized that I couldn’t save for my daughter’s future college expense and maintain the most important financial investment I had and have a great time.

This became a burning thorn in my brain. It was all I could think about. I hated it. I hated myself. The hardcore realist in me sat on top of the dreaming middle-age-crisis American male like a big elephant. I also knew that I was sticking my wife with responsibilities that now included being there 100 percent for my daughter. I began coming over for dinner on Saturdays and fixing stuff. Everything I paid for practically terrified me, knowing my checking account was no longer growing. I was now waiting for the next paycheck to bail me out. The thought of looming flood insurance premiums and property tax weighed heavily on me.

My times with my girlfriend were also beginning to erode as she could no longer easily tolerate my not exposing her to family and friends in my life. She hated the fact that I was visiting the house when I wanted. She would break up with me and not speak for a day or two or three at a time. This happened 10 times. I loved her madly, intensely, but I loved my daughter more and my need to maintain my role as a homeowner was stronger. I had no feelings to placate my wife at all. My daughter was everything. Moving her out of the house so I could divorce and divide the assets while she was getting ready for her SATs would be insanely selfish, at least it seemed to me. It would jeopardize her academic success, if not her very future. And, being a Catholic, I have had it drilled into me that selfishness is bad.

Yes, divorcing and selling the house to put the assets away for my daughter seemed asinine, to say the least, although my wife even suggested it once in a fit of upset feelings. A financially astute friend deemed it financial suicide, him being a recent divorcee in the same city. The taxes would lay carnage to the principal, yet I never substantiated any of what he told me, unfortunately. I expressed to my girlfriend I wasn’t easily accepting her conviction that people come out of their divorces easily all the time. I also accepted that I was putting her as No. 2. She was right.

To make a long story shorter, I gradually spent a little more time each week speaking to my wife, finally expressing my interest in coming back, most importantly for our daughter’s sake. She was happy. Now, back in the house, seemingly hunky-dory, my daughter and I speak a lot more and I help her with homework and take her and her friends around whenever I can. I cook dinner like I did before and go to work and come home like I did before. I broke the lease on my apartment, not having completed a year, feeling fortunate for having understanding landlords.

My girlfriend and I have a had a rocky exit, until yesterday. Now, I feel fully horrible. I know she is looking for the perfect man who will spend at least as much money and time doing all the things we did, if not a lot more. I accept I cannot be happy sexually with my wife ever again but am ridiculously depressed about not having her in my life. Before I met my girlfriend, my wife and I had sex infrequently, perhaps once or twice a month. It was quite perfunctory, almost ritualistic, punctual and “sanitary.” Now, the thought of sex with my wife is almost nauseating, and though I did, a month later, I have stopped completely. It’s too much a lie. I just don’t want to anymore.

I’m so sad that I lost my girlfriend and my shot at happiness. The only cure for this ache seems to be to move out once my daughter is more grown, but that is a long way off. I know my girlfriend is gone. I know the only solution would be to accept her back once my daughter was gone, I was divorced and my house-concern was settled. But that is stupid. She said she wants me to be happy with my family now. I feel she has met someone quite promising on an online dating service and wants to amputate me from her life. I’ve deactivated my Facebook page and just want to disappear into work and my athletic endeavors. Perhaps I’ll begin traveling the world again. Perhaps I will immerse myself in graduate school. Perhaps I will get the courage to kill myself or accept the end that may come in my road sports.

Why do I feel like I betrayed myself? Why do I feel the right thing to do was the wrong thing to me? I have no friends to talk to this about.

Feeling Lost


Dear Feeling Lost,

I love to run these long letters where people tell what could be, if you stretched it out, a novel. It’s all there. It’s a novel that takes place over the course of a year or two in your life. You were just getting along, wondering if this was all there is, then you met someone, things happened, you took it as far as it could go, but there were limits. There were costs involved. Choices had to be made. The costs were too high. So you returned.

And here you are. You’re back. You wonder if you did the right thing. You know more than you did before. You have a story now. You’ve gone out there beyond the fences and seen what it’s like. And now you’re back to finish what you started. You’re back now to raise your daughter, get her safely into adulthood and conclude whatever it is between you and your wife that remains.

I wonder what your wife thinks about all this. I’m just curious. I’m sure readers are curious, too. And we’re curious what kind of man you are; that is, if we were to meet and talk in person, would you be able to be as honest and straightforward and raw as you are in this letter. I think you are quite honest. People will jump all over you, probably. They always do. I suggest you shake them off. There is nothing more honorable than just telling the truth about your own life. People who denounce letter writers do not seem to honor that fact. There is something redeeming in just telling your story. I’m frequently amazed at the lack of respect. But whatever. I’m sitting in this cabin in North Florida now, having rejoined a small group of my high school friends for one of our infrequent reunions. We’re all getting old. So maybe I’m no quite myself, and maybe also I relate to your story because it’s told from the perspective of someone who got restless and thought maybe he’d made the wrong choices and so set out to correct them, and then found that maybe those choices were somehow the best ones he could make.

The beautiful thing about getting old is that big things happen to you and you do gain that gravitas, that perspective, that you wish you had when you were younger. You know what you did. You are not confused by it. You’re facing it.

So this is how we get through it. Why do you feel like you betrayed yourself? That’s one of those questions that only you can find the answer to, but you do need help in finding it. I wish we were sitting together talking. Maybe it would become clear. Or maybe it’s not the right question. Maybe the question is more like, did you betray yourself? What would it mean to betray yourself? Is that the right word? Or is there something more precise. It seems to me like you didn’t betray yourself. Rather, you made a real-life decision. It seems to me like you could have kidded yourself but you chose to be honest about your situation. You’re not perfect. You ran off. But then you came back.

You’re not perfect and life is not perfect and you did the best you could. And then you spelled it out here.

Like I say, in the territory it covers, and in its overall shape, it could be a novel. So you might think about that. There are so many things you need to think deeply about. Writing it out more fully is one way to think it through. What if you were to write scenes? Think of the scenes that truly tortured you, and the ones that brought you to unimagined bliss. Write them. If questions arise in your mind, write out what is going on in your mind. You might find that writing is a useful tool for settling, or clarifying, exactly what you did and why. Don’t get into writing it like a “novelist.” Just write it in the way that feels true to you. I think you will find that some of the issues become clearer.

Since you have no friends to talk to about this, I hope you can find someone who, if not a friend, can at least act as a principled ally, or witness. Maybe there is a group of men in your area that gets together to talk about marriage and divorce. I wouldn’t be surprised. In Northern California there seem to be groups for everything. And it does help to talk things out. It helps immensely, as does writing about them.

So make it a goal, or a priority, to find a group, or an individual, where you can go and feel comfortable just talking through this. What you did was huge. You have powerful feelings about it. There are moral and ethical issues to sort through. It’s very difficult to sort through something like this on your own. And yet, as you say, “coming from a man and all,” many of us tend to hesitate doing the hard work of finding a way to sort through this with the help of others. So that’s my prescription for you. Make it a priority to get into group for divorced or divorcing men, and/or find yourself a talented therapist, someone you are drawn to, someone whom you can take seriously. This might not happen right away. Give it time. But put it up there at the top of your list, and I think you’ll be pleased with the results.

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