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A bohemian in the Cheesecake Factory

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I’m an INFJ working undercover at JCrew/Abercrombie/Banana Republic/Sephora/Barneys/Apple/Eddie Bauer Town

Cary’s classic column from Tuesday, Dec 7, 2010

Dear Cary,

I’m a worldly, well-traveled, experienced and vibrant woman, still young (age 55), I have a wide network of interesting friends, a talented, caring and loving husband and a young adult daughter (who I raised alone) who is holding her own and doing well. I was blessed (I guess) with physical beauty and I have a strong and elegant personal style. I was fortunate to retire with a full pension almost two years ago and set upon a life of leisure while pursuing my art as an avocation, have held two successful gallery exhibits and produced a book as well, which has been very well received in my Rust Belt American city. I am an INFJ, if that tells you anything. The most marked characteristic to me is that we are only 3 percent of the population.

I consider myself to be very strong and am a survivor. I won’t go into my past except to say it included a measure of poverty, violence, loneliness and estrangement from family.

All of that has been long worked out. I truly believe that I am firmly on the path of being the woman I would have wanted to be when I was younger and full of doubt, avoidance, fear and uncertainty.
I believe those are traits that I still have — they are human traits, after all — and even when I feel overwhelmed by such emotions I am able to put them into context and move on.

I recently began working again, part-time, at a small retail establishment that is a corporate entity of her sister stores. It’s located in an affluent suburb in a pretty little shopping district that was built for just this purpose: retail. A pretty, little fake town with nice shops selling expensive goods: This is how the shopping district is set up. It’s pleasant and pretty and in my view it’s all pretend. Or it’s not. It’s all about marketing and spending money and capitalism. It is fascinating and when I go to work I feel as though I’m a cultural anthropologist visiting JCrew/Abercrombie/Banana Republic/Cheesecake Factory/Sephora/Barneys/Apple/Eddie Bauer/Brooks Brothers Town.

I see this as an opportunity for personal growth in getting along with people, especially women. In my real world the people I know are bohemian, earthy, acerbic, witty, creative, artsy and outrageous. My new work world is not like that. I feel that my challenge will be in honing my skill at interpersonal relationships. I have always been a square peg in a round hole, even among the boho crowd. I’m good with that. However, I am concerned about workplace relationships. The woman who hired me is lovely. I’m not worried about my boss, I’m worried about getting along with co-workers, all women.

I want to fit in, without fitting in, if you know what I mean. Already I am trying to squelch my internal critical dialogue of what I observe around me. I am also blessed (I guess) with the ability to see scenarios as they really are and to see people as they really are, i.e., I’m perceptive. Sometimes this makes me judgmental and I internalize that dialogue. I am now in an environment where my wry observations, sardonic wit and sarcastic barbs would most definitely not be well received.

I can control myself, no problem. My challenge is to learn to internalize acceptance of what I find to be icky: namely, entitled, outer-ring suburban McMansion, probably racist, certainly Republican (that is the demographic of the area), greedy, hypocritical and clueless. See, already I’m sounding harsh. How do I stop?

I really appreciate this job, even though the hours and wages are meager, because I believe it is giving me a valuable opportunity in navigating interpersonal relationships, including honing the art of diplomacy. These would be skills that I could apply in many different places for the rest of my life. How do I not fuck it up?

The Outsider

Dear Outsider,

They’ll assume you’re one of them until you bring in a painting.

So don’t bring in a painting. Keep the paintings in the trunk of your normal automobile, which they’ve seen you drive up in.

Don’t pose as normal, though. Pose as eccentric in a normal automobile. If you pose as normal they’ll know right off you’re weird. If you pose as eccentric but they see the normal automobile, they will believe the normal automobile.

You can’t fake normal.

It may be idiocy but it’s a finely calibrated idiocy you cannot fake. Look at Sarah Palin.

They’ve got too much experience. They’re like native French speakers.

It would be better if you rode bulls and drove stock cars. But your eccentricities can work. You can pose as the rebel insider.

You can do this easily. Just pretend. Keep in mind that you don’t have to hide everything; some of your activities will seem interesting to them until they learn enough to be confused.

Because you don’t belong, you’re going to work hard to appear to belong. Because you are skilled at appearing to belong, and because you are analytical and thoughtful, and because you know you are an outsider, you may appear to belong more than those who actually do belong.

This is the drama of the outsider.

Your difference makes a difference. But the difference to them is not as great as the difference to you.

You think they notice but they don’t. You think they know because to you it’s so friggin’ obvious. But they have not been issued a clue. They were not issued a clue and are not aware that a clue is available free on the Internet or at any public library.

So they will be astonished to find you’re not staying for life. “Oh, but you fit in so well here!” your boss will say, giving unconscious voice to the doubts that were there all along.

You will be mystified by their inability to see through your ruse.

One danger in giving this performance of fitting in is that you may appear weak. Someone may try to manipulate or bully you. That’s where the bull-riding story comes in. Or the story where you slit someone’s throat. Or a cop in the family. Some drama of throat-slitting or bull-riding will be a prophylaxis. It will sound eccentric, but since it’s violent, it’s permitted. That’s also where protection comes in.

Did I mention this is prison?

In prison you find a buddy. Figure out who has the power and make that person your buddy. Then, even if they do figure out that you don’t belong there, you’ll be protected.

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I should have gone to my aunt’s funeral

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I could have gone, I should have gone, but I thought about the money and my other plans!

Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, APR 25, 2008

Dear Cary,

I just got done listening to this beautiful essay on NPR. Someone wrote in to say, “Always Go to the Funeral.” I’m writing you because I didn’t go, and I feel terrible about it. My aunt Miriam just passed away. She wasn’t really my aunt. I never knew how she was related to me. I used to call her “Grandma Miriam,” and later it was “Auntie Miriam.” She always gave me good Christmas presents.

I wanted to go to the funeral. Part of me did, at least, but part of me thought of all the obligations and plans I had already made (training course, baseball game, weekend at my boyfriend’s) and I didn’t want to cancel all these things. And then there was the money. I live in New York and most of my family is in New Mexico. I tried the bereavement rates and the discount carriers, and the cheapest flight I could get was $470.

I told myself, “Put it on your credit card. Think of all the useless crap you waste your money on every day, you can afford this.” But I didn’t want to spend the money. And then I thought of the dozens of times I had promised myself, “Always put friends and family before money.” And I asked my boyfriend for advice, and he said, “That’s a lot of money. It’s OK not to spend it.” And I asked my sister, “Is it OK if I don’t go? It’s just so expensive.” And she said it was OK. So now here I am. It is the morning of the funeral and I feel awful. I should have gone.

I could have afforded it. I’m loaded with credit card debt, but I waste my money on so many unnecessary things. This would have been a lot at once, but it wouldn’t be outrageous. Hell, I’m planning a summer vacation in New Mexico where I plan to stay at a fancy multi-star resort. I could have afforded it. And yet I didn’t go. And now it’s too late to change my mind.

I feel so much regret. And this regret makes me turn inward. I look at my life, and I wonder what I’m doing here. I love New York, but things like this make me wonder how I can survive so far away from my family. I miss them all the time. I don’t know what I’m doing in this city, in this job, so far away from everything. I earn money, and I spend it on rent and food. And the food is terrific, but what am I doing here? Why didn’t I go to the funeral? I want someone to say, “It’s OK.” But then I would know that they were just lying to soothe me.

Coulda Been a Mourner

Dear Coulda Been a Mourner,

When we are stung with regret about an action we have taken or failed to take, often our first thought is, Why?! Why did I do that? Why did I not do that?! Why?!

Why is not always the best question to ask. It is often better to first ask, What? For Why? presumes we already know the What? but we often don’t. Not really. Not fully. Not in the deep and lasting way fitting to an occasion we will remember the rest of our lives. Much of the Why? can be answered if we fully explore the What?.

So let’s ask, What? What happened? First, your aunt died. Your aunt died and news reached you — a relative called you and told you, or you received an e-mail. And then what happened? What did you do next? Did you sit down and feel sad? Where were you? Did you feel fearful or conflicted? Did you call someone close to you to talk about it? What feelings came up?

Write about that moment when you got the news. Put aside some time to do this. If it is hard to find the time, then consider the hours or days you would have put aside to go to the funeral, and put aside just a fraction of that time to write down your recollection of events. Put aside, say, just two hours when you can be alone and recollect it. Begin writing and do not be concerned about the quality or accuracy of what you write. Just keep the pen moving, or the fingers typing. Try to move forward in time through the events. Write about how you got the news, and what you thought about, and who you talked to, and what you remembered of your aunt. If things from the past occur to you as you write, put them in, but keep moving forward. Write about the activities you had planned for the period of time your aunt’s funeral would have been — the baseball game, the training course, the weekend at your boyfriend’s. Do not shame yourself for wanting to do these things. They are good, human activities. Write about those activities and how much you like them and how much you were looking forward to them. Also write about the $470 ticket to New Mexico, and your experience talking to airline reservation agents about bereavement fares.

It may help to write this in the form of a letter to a friend or relative. Or you may want to address it to your aunt. If you find you have specific things you want to say to your aunt, you can address her in the course of writing the letter even if the letter does not begin, Dear Auntie Miriam. Just say, by the way, Auntie Miriam, I wanted to tell you this. That way you can say things to her in the letter that you might have wanted to say, and if you want to ask forgiveness for not attending the funeral you can ask her forgiveness. She would probably understand. The dead are wise. But they don’t know everything. She might have been wondering where you were. So just tell her what happened.

Don’t worry about being correct. Just be complete. Put it all down: when you got the news, in what manner the news came to you, what you were doing when you got the news and where you were, who told you, what you felt and what you did. Try to remember the feelings you had and what went through your mind.

When you have written all this, then find a time to read it aloud to a close friend or family member, someone who will not judge you but will thank you and support you. Or, if you prefer, read it aloud alone, perhaps addressing our aunt as you read.

The simple truth is that you are experiencing deep regret and deep loss and you are trying to handle it. Funerals are one way to handle this but not the only way. It isn’t that you made the right decision or the wrong decision. You can’t change the fact that your aunt died and that you did not attend the funeral. This is what regret is like: Something has happened that really, truly, utterly cannot be changed. It is done. It is over. And we played a part in it. We chose a path and that choice cannot be changed either.

You are experiencing the loss of your aunt. But consider this: Losing someone is more like missing their funeral than attending their funeral. So what you are feeling is closer to the raw, irrevocable realization of death than what you would be feeling if you had gone to the funeral. In making this little mistake you have gained something irreplaceable that will serve you the rest of your life. Now you see why we have funerals. They help us get over it. They replace the dead with a convocation of the living. They help us avoid the true irrevocable silence and absence that is death. So it is good to go to the funeral not because we offend the dead with our absence. Funerals are very boring to the dead (they laugh about it later, at the after-party, and they make fun of our clothes). Instead it is good to go to the funeral because then we do not have to face the terror of our ultimate nonexistence alone in our apartments.

So next time someone close to you dies, you will know: Take the easy way out. Charge the bereavement fare to your credit card. Go to the funeral and be among the living. But please know that you are not a coarse, unfeeling person, that you have not offended her, that you are not lacking in human decency. You have done nothing wrong in missing this funeral. In fact, by writing out what happened, you can memorialize this event and honor your aunt in a way that is unique and that adds to her memory.

So think of it this way: Rather than attend the palliative event like the rest of the family, you unwittingly stuck your head out the window of the car and took in a full face of death at 70 miles an hour. Now you know what that’s like. It’s better to go to the funeral. But the funeral is not for the dead. The dead don’t need funerals. We the living do.

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A student has approached me about his crisis of faith

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Should I tell a fundamentalist Christian student what I really think?

Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, JAN 27, 2006

Dear Cary,

I am a doctoral student/teaching assistant in English literature at a prestigious public school on the West Coast. Yesterday evening, one of the students from my Harlem Renaissance literature course Instant Messaged me and asked to meet for a talk. As one of the younger and more approachable T.A.s in my department, I tend to forge close relationships with my students, so I agreed. I arrived on campus, we plowed through the obligatory small talk about finals, the library, etc., and then he confessed the genuine reason for the late-night summons: a spiritual crisis. He belongs to an evangelical Christian church with small Bible study groups, and evidently he is at the point in his spiritual development where he is expected to go off and lead his own study “cell,” as he called it. He is not sure that he wants to do so, but he cannot discuss his doubts with his family or church friends because they would regard him as “spiritually done.”

Cary, I don’t know what to do for this young man. I am a pro-choice, Nader-supporting, Bush-loathing, lapsed Catholic New Yorker who lives in sin with her boyfriend. He knows this — why did he come to me for advice about his Christianity? I imagine you’ll suggest he did so because he wants an outside point of view, and I concur, but I don’t know how to be an objective source of support for him when I find Christian evangelism so repellent. I don’t want to encourage him to abandon his faith. Yet this is a young man who has lived in the same conservative Orange County community his entire life, who has never traveled anywhere outside of California, who leaves our vibrant campus (and his friends) every weekend because his church would frown upon his attending services elsewhere. It seems to me that he is sacrificing so much for a faith that has been stamped upon him rather than chosen freely — truly freely. I’m trying to be supportive (e.g., I encouraged him to seek out members of his church who reached the Bible study crossroads and opted out), but I have the feeling that he approached me because he knows I will ask tough questions about his faith. What should I do?

Trying to Save the Saved

Dear Trying to Save the Saved,

You have been approached as a sympathetic person but also as a representative of the academic tradition. Your different roles require different responses. So I suggest you respond in two ways. But be careful. If you have a copy of written guidelines governing relationships between teaching assistants and students, read them over. Think about whether there may be anything in this conversation that is recommended against. Think about the possible consequences.

Then, as a sympathetic peer, be honest with him, but stress that this conversation is strictly in confidence. If he wants what you have, which is a secular life, share with him its advantages and disadvantages. If you have from time to time wished that you could take refuge in an absolute faith, if you have at times called out to God and felt that you were heard or not heard, if you entertain certain beliefs as many of us do, tell him this too.

But do not neglect your duty as an academic, which is to aid the development of his mind. That means helping him think critically. If you were a priest or a minister, your duty would be to try to bolster his faith, to turn him away from doubt and toward devotion. As a representative of the tradition of intellectual inquiry and rigorous examination of ideas, your duty is just the opposite. Your duty is to prod him toward doubt. Because doubt is the basis of critical thinking.

So prod him toward doubt and see how his faith responds. But do not do this in any obvious, hectoring or badgering way. Instead, do it by simply asking questions.

Perhaps his faith is weak and dying. If so, perhaps that is as it should be — perhaps it is an inferior faith, a faith shallowly grounded, or not grounded at all but grafted onto his skin by charlatans whose own faith is only skin-deep. One doesn’t know until one probes, with seriousness, with an open mind.

It’s not your job to soft-pedal the academic tradition. Nor, in my opinion is it your job to be an “objective source of support.” It’s your job to help him learn to think critically and grapple intellectually with difficult questions.

If you think he needs other kinds of help — counseling or psychotherapy — then point him to sources for that. What you offer is different, and it is priceless and indispensable.

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I’m obsessed with being a hipster

 I left my heart in Williamsburg, though I’m secretly a nerd.

Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, APR 12, 2007

Dear Cary,

I am obsessed with hipsterdom. I don’t know why, or what to do about it. I am not a hipster. I never have been. But I have always been on the outward edges, knowing what hip is, knowing people who were hip, while remaining nerdy myself.

When I was younger, back in high school, I hung out with the punks and indie rockers, but I myself wore Nikes (instead of Converse) and ran cross-country (instead of skateboarded). At the not-particularly-hip college I attended I dated one of the few indie rockers there, and got a deeper knowledge of rock and punk and post-punk and indie-hip fashion. But I still wore nerdy shoes and laughed too loudly at corny jokes.

After college the indie-rocker and I moved to Williamsburg, Brooklyn (before it exploded of course), and I learned to appreciate grit and dives and PBRs and irony. But still, I was a nerd.

While living there I hated Williamsburg because I always felt judged. I hated walking down the street in my dorky clothes with my dorky gait and my dorky smile. And I had no creative, impressive job to justify my presence there. I didn’t meet too many people. I became miserable. Eventually the indie rocker and I broke up and I moved to a less hip part of Brooklyn, a part where people do their own laundry and where the sidewalk is not a fashion parade. In this new neighborhood I don’t feel self-conscious when I walk to buy groceries.

The breakup meant the end of a lot of friendships, and I felt like I had to start from scratch. The people I’ve since made friends with are sweet-natured and forgiving of nerdiness– that is to say, they are not hipsters. I also have a new job working with some of the kindest people I’ve ever encountered, and I’ve been dating a caring and considerate gentleman.

I think that I should be happy to be in more comfortable surroundings, yet I feel so dissatisfied. I go to my job with my wonderful co-workers, and I judge them for listening to Coldplay. I judge my kindhearted friends for not having dark-rimmed glasses and Vans. I judge my neighborhood for not having galleries, or the right ZIP code.

I should be happy, but instead I achingly obsess over Pitchfork reviews and Vice Do’s and Don’ts. At work I sit in front of my computer and listen to people talk about Nine West heels and 401Ks and I just want to drink whiskey till I die. I want to read Kerouac and smoke cigarettes until my lungs are black and filthy.

I am so dissatisfied with my unhip life. Leaving Williamsburg and breaking up with the ex seem to have severed every connection to “cool” I ever had. Sometimes I feel like Eliza from “Pygmalion.” I wish I had never known what hip was, so I wouldn’t have to miss it. I am angry that this discernment exists in me, and that it goes unvalued and unused. I am also disgusted by the creeping feeling of superiority it gives me over my acquaintances.

Yet I can’t seem to let it go. And it’s pathetic, because I don’t have the hipness to back up my tastes and judgment. I am still the same nerdy person I always was. I haven’t improved my fashion sense. I don’t do art; instead I work a boring job at an accounting firm (does it get any worse than that?). I still don’t like calling sarcasm humor, and I still laugh too loudly at corny jokes. Worst of all, I’m getting old, and even the oblivious know that hip has an expiration.

Why do I yearn for this thing that can’t and won’t bring me satisfaction?

Tragically Unhip

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Dear Tragically Unhip,

You yearn for this thing because humans need to be a part of a tribe, or family, or belief system. This need is felt in the heart. It is an old need. Before, when we lived in places, this need could be met by places. But we don’t live in places anymore. We live in the electronic wind. We live in twitters and tweaks and snippets. We live in dream sequences and stream of consciousness. We live in downloads and compression. We live at 120 miles an hour. We live in Sensoria, Ill.

We live in synchronicity. As an example, as I am sitting at my desk attempting to respond to your wonderful letter this morning, the cellphone rings. It is a person who wants me to speak at a meeting tonight. This is synchronicity, the mundane magic we live in. It is the milk being delivered by a milkman who knows just what to deliver though I didn’t write an order down. The milkman knows. The phone rings.

Then the other phone rings, the land line, wirebound, copper-blooded, primitive. It is my friend, best man, rock journalist. He is making good on his promise to take me to see Iggy Pop April 21 at the Warfield. We will be going backstage.

You must excuse me, I don’t usually do this, but, trust me, I read him your letter over the phone because I knew he would get it. I trust the moment. I know he is going to write my column for me this morning.

He says, “I love that letter and totally empathize, but she’s looking at it from the wrong end of the telescope.”

And then he tells a story about interviewing Margo Timmins of the Cowboy Junkies 20-some-odd years ago and getting the impression that she was married to the bass player and writing a piece for a major daily and then going to see them at the Great American Music Hall and sitting at a table with friends and acquaintances. Timmins stops the show mid-set.

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She speaks his name. She says, “He wrote this really great article in the paper, but there’s one major fuck-up. I really like my bassist but no way I want to marry him. Man, you screwed up.”

He was sitting with a group of friends and a new date. It’s easy to imagine how he felt. So he goes backstage after the show and apologizes for his error. The door to the dressing room slams shut. “Sitting next to the door is a young Sean Penn. He says, ‘I’ve got something to say to you.’ And everybody got quiet. ‘If you ever fucking get your facts wrong again, I’m gonna tie you to a chair without food and water for a week — just like they say I did with Madonna.’ And the whole room burst out laughing.”

So, what is the point? What is the message? The message is that there are those who are big-hearted enough to put aside their pretensions and participate in what they love, risking shame and humiliation and heartbreak, but making genuine contributions and genuine connections. And there are those whose act of adoration is emulative, who love the pop cultural artifacts just as intensely as my friend but who remain fans at a distance. However you want to worship is cool. But at the heart of it must be a love of the thing.

You yearn for beauty and the intoxication of cool, the automatic, nonlinear, simultaneous cultural recognition that is an ancient phenomenon of tribalism, or belonging, or religious ecstasy. You feel joy when you see certain fashions and hear certain music. When you feel this joy, it is so intense that it actually makes you want to to be that thing, embody it, give yourself over to it, as though it were sexual ravishment. But you cannot. The thing resists you. There are practical considerations. You cannot be in the van with the thing because the van is full. But you love this thing, the way it makes you feel. It seems to recognize you as who you are. It is exactly the sound of your own heart. So you emulate this thing

Eventually, if you’re not careful, you come to feel that you own it. You elevate it above all other things. You do not want anyone else even to touch it.

Fandom can be beautiful and innocent. But it can lose its innocence and become aggressive, exclusive and competitive.

When Oprah Winfrey recently endorsed the writing of Cormac McCarthy, it troubled my friend at first. But he shook it off.

“Hip is communicable,” he says. “Cormac McCarthy is not mine. He belongs to anyone who can catch the disease.”

Keeping others away from those you love does not put you closer to them. But if you spread your love, it grows. So do not hide what you love. Instead, leave clues on your desk and in your clothing. Let people know. They will find you. They might get turned on to things you love.

And there are more ways than ever today to find what you love. You don’t have to live in a small town in Georgia to find Pylon.

My friend is old-school. He goes to record stores and uses telephones. So the other day he’s interviewing the lead singer of Love of Diagrams, the band from Melbourne, Australia, and he is curious to know how the band came upon the music of Pylon, the band from Athens, Ga., that was active in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

On the Internet, of course, says the singer. “It said click here if you want to hear Pylon, so I clicked there.”

She clicked there. That’s how it works.

So click there. If your love is true, click there. If your jones is genuine, click there. You can find a way of working in the world that puts you closer to the things you love. That is the answer to your question, I think. That is the solution to your yearning.

So now your assignment is to rearrange your life so that you participate in what you love. It might mean you become an A&R person or a publicist. It might mean you become a bartender in a club. It might mean that you find a day job that lets you follow the things you love. My friend, for instance, has arranged his life so that he can be a contributor and a participant. He interviews everybody and knows everybody. Is he a hipster? I don’t know. He works as a desk clerk in a hotel. He does what he loves.

That’s it in a nutshell: This yearning is genuine and ancient. Hear it. Honor it. If you don’t, Sean Penn will tie you to a chair without bread and water for a week, just like they say he did with Madonna.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

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My dad threatened to shoot us all and chop us into pieces

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I’m not sure how much filial devotion
I owe my father, now that he’s talking
about buying a rifle.

Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, APR 4, 2007

Dear Cary,

Since our mother’s death four and a half years ago, the burden of caring for our elderly father has fallen to my siblings and me (particularly my oldest sister and my brother). When my parents retired they moved far away to a rural area in another state, which is difficult to reach by plane and is easily an eight-hour drive. My mother was never particularly happy there, and we were never very happy about having to travel so far to see her. Nevertheless, my father’s law ruled and she remained there until her death, lonely and isolated.

My father, to put it bluntly, has never been a particularly likable person, and he has alienated virtually everyone he has ever known. He is narcissistic and selfish, self-pitying and mean, insulting and dismissive. He has virtually no friends where he lives and is barely tolerated by his neighbors and fellow churchgoers. None of us feels any particular bond with him, outside of a feeling of obligation that we must care for him. All of us have admitted to each other and ourselves that we do not love him.

From afar, my sister pays his bills, makes his doctor’s appointments and schedules repairs for his tractor and appliances. My brother, who is disabled and doesn’t work, has made several extended-stay visits with him despite the severe emotional toll these visits take. Though we have persistently lobbied my father to move closer to us since my mother died, he has stubbornly refused to acknowledge his dependency on us or the excessive toll caring for him is taking.

In the last several months a few events have happened that have pushed the situation to a crisis point. First, an aide we hired to come to his house to assist him with medicines, buy groceries, etc. has become a romantic obsession for him. This came to our attention after he asked her to buy condoms so that they could “have sex ” because he is “in love” with her. Since she entered his life, he has attempted to transfer all of the duties my sister had been performing for him (and before that, our mother) to her, and became very irate when we interfered with this make-believe relationship by limiting the amount of time and types of activities the aide could perform. Next, his license was suspended (and will soon be revoked) because he is not fit to drive, an event we hoped would “wake him up” once and for all to the situation he is in, but it only gave him an excuse to rely more heavily on his aide. When she is not available, he continues to drive, putting at risk his own life and the lives of countless numbers of people unlucky enough to share the road with him.

Last weekend my sister and her husband drove down to his house to disable his car and ask him once again to come back with them, but unsurprisingly he refused. Then, he got it into his head that my brother-in-law must be at the bottom of this conspiracy (when in fact he has only been an exceedingly patient observer) and came after him with fists up. My brother-in-law restrained him, telling him he didn’t like the way he was treating his wife and the rest of his family, to which my father replied, “She’s my daughter and I’ll treat her any way I like.” When they decided to leave, my father ran after them, telling my sister that although she was once his “favorite” he didn’t love her anymore, and that he was soon going to buy a rifle and kill us all and chop us up into little pieces.

To say the least, we are fed up and disgusted. After the considerable investment of time and emotional energy she has contributed to our father’s cause over the past few years, my sister is devastated. He was a shitty father always, but when our mother was alive she was a buffer between him and the rest of us. It has only been in the last several years that we’ve had to face, so starkly, how much we truly do dislike him.

The question is, what to do? If he won’t help himself, and refuses to let us help him, what obligation do we have to bend to his whims? We can no longer care for him from where we live, and we no longer want him to move closer to us. It may sound cruel, but as the situation is not likely to get better, we would prefer to distance ourselves from it altogether. If he wants to be alone and as isolated from us as he is from the rest of the world, what obligation do we have to subject ourselves to his abuse and disdain?

Practically Fatherless

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Dear Practically Fatherless,

I would say you have very little filial obligation at this point, aside from the bill paying and medical scheduling that your sister is already doing. Because the relationship with a parent is felt to be so special, we sometimes neglect to consider the ways in which it is just another human relationship that must conform to the same norms and standards that every other human relationship conforms to. We overlook behavior that is in fact beyond the pale and intolerable, and that leads to insoluble conflicts and impossible situations.

It is understandable that you feel the age-old pull of fatherly gravity, that you are susceptible to an ancient wish to make things right. But not only do your well-meaning efforts meet with resistance — they seem to make matters worse. So remember this:

Your father is still capable of making choices. They may be bad choices, but they’re his choices.

In this case, he chose to chase the car down the road, threatening to buy a rifle and shoot you all and cut you up into pieces.

His threat may indicate that he is mentally unstable and in need of care. So I advise you to consult local psychiatric social services about what you can do in this regard. For while your obligation to involve yourself further may be limited, you do have an obligation to understand the legal and medical situation, so you can make informed choices. If he were willing to give up certain of his rights, by appointing someone his guardian and/or assigning durable power of attorney to someone, then you would have certain powers to conduct his financial affairs and restrict his movements. In this area, in addition to consulting with social services, you should get a full accounting of your legal rights and responsibilities from an attorney with experience and expertise in elder law. The SeniorLaw Web site lists many resources. An aging person, with certain indications of dementia, does not proceed neatly one day from “competent” to “incompetent.” Rather, for a period of time one is lucid at times and not at others. So I think unless and until he is declared incompetent, you must judge him by the standards you would use to judge anyone else.

All this becomes moot once he buys the rifle.

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Few prospects are more chilling than filicide. And, as this short monograph on Answer.com reminds us, Freud maintained that where there is a prohibition, there is a wish. Else why the prohibition, eh?

And parents do not just kill their little babies. They also kill their adult children. According to “Classifications and Descriptions of Parents Who Commit Filicide,” a research report authored by Linda Cylc while she was doing graduate work in psychology at Villanova University, “fathers generally kill older children. Murderous fathers frequently have histories of drug and alcohol abuse, previous criminal records, and very high levels of environmental stress, and the murdered children often have had previous injuries (Palermo, 2002; Stanton & Simpson, 2002) … One more stressor seems to be important; fathers who kill their children are very often going through a separation from their wife or other marriage/relationship problems, and this can be seen as an additional risk factor (Marleau, et al., 1999).”

So do what you can, and absolve yourself of guilt. Consult with legal and social services to get a firm understanding of what your options are. Try to define a trigger point at which you would petition the court to have your father declared incompetent. Otherwise, stay out of his way. And warn the neighbors!

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How long does it take to get what you want?

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I’m trying to get a job where my boyfriend’s living and it’s just not working!


Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, MAY 5, 2005

Dear Cary,

My boyfriend and I were together for the first year of our relationship, then moved to separate cities after college. That was two years ago. I’ve planned to move up there as soon as I get a job, but in two years, I haven’t found anything. I’ve had some interviews. They all tell me they love me but I’m either overqualified (because of my education) or I have no practical experience in the field (which is true but how can I get it if no one gives me a chance?). In the meantime, I’ve been getting my master’s (which I am now finishing up) and working a mind-numbing administrative job here but I haven’t gotten any of the literally hundreds of jobs I’ve applied for. I’ve tried recruiters, family, friends, colleagues — I always get great feedback, and no one can tell me what I’m doing wrong. I can’t quit my job to do an internship or volunteer in the field because I really need the income. Not only is this extremely frustrating professionally — my self-esteem is in the toilet right about now — but I feel like my relationship can’t move on until we’re in the same city. I am so tired of doing the long-distance thing and it’s really straining our relationship. My boyfriend can’t move here because of his career (unlike me, he’s very successful). He tells me I should just quit my job and move there. I can stay with him in the 450-square-foot apartment that he shares with his odd roommate who doesn’t speak to me!

Cary, I have enough trouble with his tiny apartment just when I come stay with him — tripping over my suitcase, contorting into strange positions just to use the toilet, going nuts over how cramped everything is — the thought of living there indefinitely makes me want to rip my hair out. He simply does not get that I need at least a little personal space for sanity’s sake. He thinks I’m being prissy and stubborn. Even more pressing than that, I have no money and he lives in one of the most expensive cities in the world. He’s generous and offers to take care of me, but I don’t want to depend on someone else financially — it’s just not an option for me. I am not comfortable with the idea of moving to this city with no job, no financial security. If I could just get a decent job up there, I could figure the rest out, but it’s like some cosmic force wants me to remain miserable in my boring job and distant relationship forever. I’m at a complete loss and would really appreciate any words of wisdom that you could offer.

Frustrated

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Dear Frustrated,

It is taking you a while to find a job in the city where your boyfriend is living. There is nothing unusual about that. It will probably take longer than you would wish. Meanwhile, you have an excellent opportunity to learn how to be patient and tough — lessons life may have neglected so far to teach you. Patience and toughness are qualities some generations are taught earlier than others. Wars and economic depressions teach patience and toughness; peace, global empire and unprecedented economic prosperity, as Jon Stewart would say: Not so much.

I saw Christina Hoff Sommers on “The Daily Show” the other evening. She was promoting her new book, “One Nation Under Therapy: How the Helping Culture Is Eroding Self-Reliance.” Some of what she said sounded shrill and kind of silly, and she has been accused of intellectual sloppiness, but I agree with her that trying to shield children from difficulty is dumb. And I have witnessed firsthand the pampered, fuzzy-headed, glazed look of inflated self-esteem that is the purported fault of our national softness. So when you mention that as a result of these setbacks your self-esteem is “in the toilet,” I can’t help thinking: Perhaps your self-esteem has merely experienced a natural correction.

I’m sorry, that sounds mean. Maybe I’m just being bitchy and jealous of the young. Perhaps I am hungry. What I want to say is that you are young and when you are young the waveforms of experience are short; you are just beginning to experience the yearlong and multiyear fluctuations of fate and circumstance that try the soul and harden the will. So treat your current struggle as an object lesson, and be prepared for similar setbacks. Self-esteem is cheap and, as Sommers pointed out, if she’s got her facts right, it does not correlate with morality or achievement. Persistence, patience, toughness: These qualities are dear and will last you a lifetime.

There, I’ve eaten. Life seems better now. Let me stop bitching and try to be helpful. The main thing is just to be realistic.

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So do this: Make a list of the things you want and are having trouble getting. The list might look something like this:

Finish your master’s degree.

Live with your boyfriend.

Get a job in your boyfriend’s city.

Find your dream job.

There might be other items, I don’t know. And these items all affect one another in complicated ways. But for the moment, clear your mind of how they interrelate, and just pick the one thing that is most important to you right now. If it helps, pretend you are dumb. Simplify. Just pick the one you want the most and put it at the top, without worrying about how doable it is.

Then consider how long that one thing might take.

Write that number down.

Then double it.

That’s probably a realistic target.

You get what I’m saying? Stuff gets harder once you’re out of school. It takes longer, costs more and isn’t as much fun.

But there are compensations. For instance, it’s your life and you can do what you want. Some would say that’s compensation enough.

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My dad is threatening to deck my mom — at my wedding!

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The family’s never gotten along, but I want to give my bride the wedding of her dreams.

Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, SEP 23, 2004


Dear Cary,

I’m 26 years old and divorced. I’m engaged to be married to my best friend from college, the woman I should have been with since day one. There are no snags in our relationship with each other, but I am dreading the wedding because my family is bound to screw it up.

A couple of months before my divorce, my parents announced their separation. It was widely believed, and some claim confirmed, that my dad had an affair on my mother and left her. To be fair, my mother is not a nice woman, and my dad repeatedly talks about the 29 years in hell that was his marriage.

Since their divorce was final, my mother and I have also had a rocky relationship. She feels that she was abandoned by Dad and that her children will also abandon her since we’ve already met the other woman (whom she refers to as Dad’s whore, slut, etc.).

My mother refuses counseling, which I, my brother and her entire family have begged her to seek. She thinks counseling is for the weak. She also maintains she never made a mistake in parenting us at all. At my brother’s wedding, she flipped out — chased me down the aisle, made a beeline for my dad to start something (intercepted by me), and got in an argument at the after-party with my brother. She has not guaranteed me that she won’t be as nutty and disruptive at my wedding. When I asked my father to avoid her, his response was, “I’ll make no moves to approach or contact her, but if she gets in my face, I’ll knock her out.” I wonder what the “perfect parent” guidebook would say about that.

I’m not asking for life advice. That would take you too many articles and would be fodder for the message board for ages, but how do I handle the wedding? Whom do I invite? How do I set ground rules? I just don’t want my churlish and self-centered parents to ruin my bride-to-be’s special day.

My Parents Have Reverted to Teenagers

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Dear Son of Teenagers,

Have you considered hiring security? That was my first thought. But what do I know about weddings and security? In my family, we just get drunk and fight. So I called a wedding planner to see what she would do.

“I would suggest that you hire security,” says Joyce Scardina Becker, president of Events of Distinction in San Francisco.

“I would also,” she said, “in a very diplomatic way, as a wedding planner, have a personal conversation with each of the parties individually. The stress here really is on the couple, and it doesn’t sound like the parents are acting as parents. I would tell the parent that you are going to hire security. Have a conversation with the parent, and if the parent still threatened prior to the actual wedding itself, then I would say, You know, if you really are going to hold this threat over my head, I think it’s best that you do not attend my wedding.”

As to the mechanics of hiring security for a wedding, I talked to Monica Hinojos, a training consultant at Black Bear Security. She said that not only do many wedding facilities and banquet halls require the presence of security as part of their contract with insurers, but that such requests from families, in her experience, have grown more frequent since 9/11. “He should have security there,” she said. “The physical presence of a guard — an effective guard, not one that’s sleeping or slouching — is that they deter incidents from happening. Just their presence alone. It’s called ‘officer presence,’ and it’s a deterrent.” You should also, as Scardina Becker suggested, brief security on the background of your parents, and give them photos so they can pick them out and keep an eye on them.

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I would definitely take this problem seriously, particularly your mother’s refusal to promise not to act up, and your father’s vow to “knock her out” if she approaches him. “You’d be surprised how many family members are killed at Thanksgiving and things like that. Especially if there’s alcohol involved,” Hinojos said. “They’d be smart maybe not to have alcohol served,” she said, but that’s up to you.

If alcohol is going to be served, I’d suggest you not make it an open bar, and identify your mother and father to the bartender so he can go easy on their libations. (Maybe he could even water their drinks!)

This is all assuming that, after your frank talk with both of them, they promise to try and behave. If they don’t, as Scardina Becker suggested, you ought to tell them, difficult as it may be, that you would prefer they not attend.

And as to the long and complicated tale of your unhappy family and how it got that way — the full telling of which you have mercifully postponed for another, longer day — you know as well as I do that what Tolstoy said is so often quoted only because it’s so often true: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

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I get distracted by the Internet when I try to write

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Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, SEP 30, 2008

Every time I start to do my assignment, I find myself surfing the Web instead!


Dear Cary,

I am taking a creative nonfiction writing course, and I’m supposed to be working on a piece about what I ate for breakfast. The problem is, every time I sit down at the computer to work, I start compulsively reading the election coverage online, sometimes spending two hours or more on variations on the same five articles. I am ashamed of my lack of self-control in this area. It is really unusual for me, because in my normal life I am a very capable person. I am a stay-at-home mom of two boys, ages 8 and 6, with a great marriage. I keep a neat house, get the kids to school on time, and fix organic, gourmet meals. But in this one area, this writing class, I can’t seem to do the task in front of me.

I have always been a terrific student. I have a master’s degree in anthropology from the University of Chicago, and until I got married, I always figured I would finish my Ph.D. and work in research or teach somewhere. Instead, I decided I wanted to be home with my kids and fix up our house. I learned to garden and bake pies, and basically dug my heels into domestic life. It suits me, as I am basically an introvert who likes to take care of people. I am happy here, but I see my kids growing up and not needing me as much, and rather than stifle them with overattentiveness, I decided to take some classes and get a hobby, as they say. The sewing class is going great; I’ve made a skirt and might work on curtains next week. But the writing class, the one I really care about, has me totally stumped. I can’t seem to stop myself from clicking on the Google news page. Cary, is this self-sabotage, or simply escapism? What should I do? I’ve read that all writers need a lot of time to just sit and stare, but the Internet news is just wearing out my brain to the point where I can’t work at all.

I’m afraid that I am not allowing myself to do the one thing I’d be really good at, maybe for fear of failure, or just because it seems too selfish. My mother worked at a high-powered job throughout my childhood, and my parents were divorced, so I have issues about being ignored as a kid. I swore that I would be the mom who made cookies and was always there when you needed her. The problem is, my kids don’t seem to care one way or another, since they’ve never known any different. Cary, I feel sometimes like a doormat or a dishrag, like I am wasting all of my potential, and no matter how many Terence Conran house books I read or Julia Child cookbooks I memorize, I am still not getting what I need.

I think I need this writing thing way more than I will admit to myself. So, how do I let myself just do it, without all of the distractions? On the other hand, am I just kidding myself with this fantasy that I might have great untapped potential? Maybe I should just accept the choices I’ve made and be happy planting tomatoes.

Stumped

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Dear Stumped,

There are certain things you’re just going to have to assume from the outset. Assume that your writing is important. Assume that you have the right to do it and that it’s necessary and important. Assume that something has happened in your life such that you must attend to certain moral, aesthetic and philosophical needs, or that you have reached a certain passage, or phase, or that you have been blessed, contacted by aliens, touched by God, whatever works, however you want to put it. Something has happened. You have received a call. Assume whatever you need to assume in order to answer the call.

That is what I would suggest.

For that’s what it is: It is a call. It might not be clear exactly what it is yet. But something is calling you and you have to answer the call. It might be frightening to answer — it might be asking you to face certain fears about your own competence and value. It may be asking you to take up a challenge. But I believe that whatever it is you are trying to accomplish, it is best to begin with your own motivation and your own desire, and work from that place, rather than concentrate on the phenomenon of distractions and try to eliminate them. You will find more energy in focusing on your objective than in focusing on defeating the distractions. Now, it’s true, as a tactical matter, I often have to turn off my browser. I have to sit in silence. I have to find places and techniques. But the main thing is to find the deep emotional or spiritual hunger that fuels our creativity. Assume that this is important and you will find it easier to take the necessary steps. And as I said, you may be called to difficulty, to facing fears.

In facing your fears, I advise this: Guard against contemporary assumptions about cultural value, particularly our assumptions about what it means to be a writer. You are trained in anthropology. So look at our culture as an anthropologist would look at it. Notice the beliefs we express about writing and writers. Observe how we revere certain writers and vilify others. Notice that we seem to harbor some primitive belief in writing as a magical act; notice how we behave toward certain writers as though they were shamans or gods or priests; notice how as we do this we also devalue our own native abilities and thus become consumers rather than producers. Notice how we devalue our own desires to write, buying into such notions that only a select few are called to do this holy and sacred thing. See how undemocratic that is. Notice how much hogwash we are wading through. Keep all this in mind as you begin to write.

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Also pay attention to what conditions allow you to write and what conditions hinder your writing. Where can you go to write? Can you park your car on a lakeside, sip a cappuccino and write? Can you take a trip and write? Can you sit in an attic room and write? How much time can you put aside to write? Can you use a timer? Have you tried free-writing? Is it possible that the nonfiction class you are taking does not offer productive methods? For instance, if you were simply told to go home and write about what you had for breakfast, it might be that such a thing does not work for you. I do not know if I could write about what I had for breakfast. I might feel compelled to think about it too much. Maybe if you started with, “Today for breakfast I had …” then words might follow. You might end up writing, “Today for breakfast I had a fucking hard time of it.” Or “Today for breakfast I had none of your fucking oatmeal.” I don’t know. You might find things arising that you did not expect. It is fun to see what words come. You might find anger and pain arising first. That is often the case. It may be that you do not want anger and pain to arise. That might be why you are not writing at all. If so, you may be helped by the support of a group. You might look around in your area and see if there are any groups that follow the writing process movement, or the Amherst Writers and Artists method.

Oh, here is something else: Part of writing seems to involve rebellion. One challenges the gods; one steals fire; one dares to create; one plays Prometheus. I note that you say you have been a good student. Good students do what they are told. Writers do what they are not told; they have to tell rather than be told, so a bit of rebellion is involved. Being a good student might be holding you back. Being a bad student might be better. It is fun to be a bad student for once. Be a bad student by disobeying the teacher. Try giving the teacher what she does not want. Try being bad. Try writing badly. Just put a mess of words down.

Let it go.

In other words, in order to overcome this habit of distractions, I recommend that you focus first on becoming who you are as a writer, and that you embark on a journey. I recommend that you enact a long-term plan, not just to start writing but to become a writer in the world. Join the worldwide community of writers.
Writing brings great rewards. It makes us happier. It entertains us. It allows us to know others in a unique way. It manifests what is hidden or unexpressed. This makes our lives deeper and more interesting. So, to paraphrase Baudelaire, get writing! Whether by wine, by poetry or by virtue, no matter! But get writing!

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Adventure calls me but not my boyfriend

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I have an offer to study in the Arctic, but I’d have to leave my boyfriend behind.

Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, MAY 2, 2006

Dear Cary,

I am at a crossroads in life and it is difficult. I have been working since high school, building my résumé. I finished my Ph.D., and have had a difficult time getting a job. I am a bit picky — I like romantic jobs, in certain geographic areas (generally the West and/or Alaska). I like adventure. Anyway, I’ve been offered such a job, studying what I want, in Arctic Canada (a village of 600 people, not a lot of English spoken, no roads to get there, $3,000 flight to get there). It is a job that will give me the experience to then go and get a better job; it is a great steppingstone. A ton of awesome experience. However, it is cold, dark (50 percent of the time), lonely, dry (no wine), not English-speaking, no fresh produce, dangerous (10 people have died on similar jobs since the 1970s), requires “barging” in food supplies, and it is far away from friends and family.

And then there is my boyfriend (of two years), and I love him. He is sweet, generous, kind; we love to talk to each other and cook together. We get along, it is very comfortable. This is the best relationship I have ever been in. He said he would rather pull out his teeth with rusty pliers than go to the Arctic. He hates the dark — he has seasonal depression. However, he does not really have career ambitions, and doesn’t have many suggestions on how we will earn a sufficient living for our family in the future (I think the Arctic gig will set me up for a good academic job that will be beneficial for our future). He says, do what you want to do for your career; I say it’s not just for my career, it’s for my spirit, my love of adventure and unique opportunities, and my disdain for suburbia. He says, “I don’t want to be blamed for you not taking this job.” I want him to say, “I love you, I don’t want you to leave, we can work something else out.” But instead, he says, “I love you, I can’t handle being the reason for you not to take this excellent opportunity, but, Sweetie, I don’t want to go up there.” So, I have to make a decision.

It is not as simple as pro and con lists. It is not as simple as listening to my instincts, my gut, either, because honestly I can’t tell what they are saying. Do you have any insights?

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

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Dear Should I Stay,

You say you don’t know what your gut is telling you, but I think you do.

Hold the picture upside down. Then you’ll see. You didn’t say there’s this guy you really, really like, who fits into your plans for the future, who utterly fascinates you, who is in fact just the kind of boyfriend you have been studying about for years, who in a certain way is key to your spirit, who attracts you even though he’s cold, dark and so dangerous that 10 people have died on him since the 1970s. You didn’t say that about your boyfriend. You said that about this village in the Canadian Arctic. That is where your passion is. That is where your life is headed.

Your boyfriend is not an adventure. Your boyfriend is a trip to the store. He may be a trip to the store in a comfortable automobile, but he is not the aurora borealis, or a pride of polar bears, or a village where people are living the way they have been living for a thousand years, or a rare lichen that thrives without light and heat like something from another planet.

The crazy thing is, this crazy thing you want to do is not even all that crazy. It’s squarely in your career path. Again, hold the picture upside down: If you had said you had been working toward a certain career your whole life and then suddenly got this crazy notion to travel up to a village in Canada, it would seem you were running from something or hadn’t thought things through. But this makes perfect career sense. It’s simply a case of your big dream finally starting to come true.

Dreams have a cost. Dreams sometimes mean saying goodbye. I think you should say goodbye. Maybe he will still be there when you get back, but if you love adventure, soon there will be another trip that he doesn’t want to go on but doesn’t want you to turn down on account of him. I think it’s an unfortunate pattern that could hamper your prospects for happiness. So say goodbye and go.

There may be one more lichen up there waiting to be discovered.

Find it.

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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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