Category Archives: career

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I’m a singer — but I drift from waitress job to waitress job

 I don’t know how to settle down. But I’m almost 30 and don’t want to waste my life!

Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, OCT 3, 2008

Dear Cary,

I’ve written to so many advice columnists and no one ever answers. I am plagued by problems — for years. In general, what the hell is the deal with me? I was so blithe and great and happy in childhood — but ever since I was, oh, 15, things have gone downhill, and I’m just about 29 now.

After high school, I moved away to go to college, but I quit after two years because I wasn’t really happy. I wanted to be a singer, as I had since I was 5, and I was doing some singing. But in general I felt unhappy, there was something lacking, and also I was in a relationship I wanted to get away from. So I quit school and moved away. In my new location, I sang a bit, got into another relationship, really wanted to get out of it, and moved away again. In my new location, I sang more, met another man, moved away with him, definitely had to leave, and — yes, moved away again. That was when I moved back in with my parents. I waitressed, moved to a new place, waitressed and sang there, then decided to finish school and did, but hated it the whole time. The school was lacking academically and was in a podunk town– where I met a new man, moved in with him, and then, about a year later, yes, moved away. Now I am living with my parents again and feeling quite at a loss.

I always dreamed of great things in life. But I’m going to be 30 and I’ve done nothing — nothing to be able to say, “Hey, I’ve made it!” In short, I’ve made nothing for myself (except learning the hard way whom not to fall in love with). I’m waitressing again, and yes, singing (in a tiny show where I make $75 a week and wear a rubber cone head — don’t ask). I think I’ll stop moving — I’ve wanted to for years. (Though I will move out of my parents’ house.) But just what the hell should I do? I’ve moved around since childhood — four years is the longest I’ve ever lived anywhere, and one year is the longest I’ve ever held a job. There are so many things I am interested in — writing, editing, singing, dancing — but career-wise, my résumé is just a long list of waitressing and oddities.

Where I am now is the closest thing I have to a childhood home, and I have family here (my parents only live here half the year), and so I feel I might stick here. So sometimes I think I am finally ready to do “my life” and make something out of it, besides a mess. But other times I am very scared to think of the future — I don’t want to be forever drifting. I want a fulfilling career, a husband and family. But how to start? What am I to do? I am so bored waitressing and I have about three friends spread over the U.S. due to me being neither here nor there but always taken up with a tumultuous relationship with a man.

Tell me — where shall I start and while I’m waiting for roots to grow, how can I not be so bored?

Chronically Waiting, Dreaming and Scheming for a Life That Is Passing Me By

P.S. I have thought about performing musicals on a cruise ship but I need to build something for the future, not just another temporary excitement!

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Dear Chronically Waiting,

So you’ve written to lots of advice columnists and nobody ever writes back? Well, I’ll write back. I’ll write back because there are certain things you need to know that no one tells you, things I have learned the hard way, things that are simple but can take a lifetime. You don’t have a lifetime.

So here is the deal in a nutshell: Your actions have put you in the spot you’re in. I’m not blaming you. I’m just directing your attention to the correct area. It’s time to change your actions. How do you do that? You adopt a different set of criteria for making decisions.

You left college after two years because you weren’t happy. “Happy” was a criterion for leaving college. That will have to change. “Happy” is not a criterion anymore. “Required for the next step” is a your new criterion.

For the next five years I suggest you do only those things that are required to take you to the next step. It will be hard to change but it is doable and simple and it will give you a much better shot at being happy.

Where do you start? You start by clarifying the goal toward which you are going to struggle for the next five years. I suggest creating a goal that is obtainable through hard work and that is measurable. I would say your goal right now should be to attain proficiency and excellence in your craft.

You may want to be a star. You may think that should be your goal. But I don’t think so. I think your goal should be to attain proficiency and excellence in your craft. The desire to be a star may be a vision that motivates you. You may benefit from visualizing yourself as a star. But for a goal you need something that is under your control. Proficiency and excellence in your craft is something you can actually attain. It may sometimes precede stardom, but it is never a guarantee of stardom. There is no guarantee of stardom. But there are guaranteed milestones of proficiency and excellence that are obtainable.

So let’s say that your No. 1 goal in life is now to attain proficiency and excellence in your craft of singing and acting. That’s very simple. How is that done? It’s done through education and hard work.

If you adopt this one goal, your decisions can all flow from this one premise: Your purpose is to attain proficiency and excellence in your craft. What do you do? Whatever you have to do in order to attain proficiency and excellence in your craft, that’s what you do.

How? You take voice lessons and acting lessons. You build your network of fellow singers and actors. You locate yourself in the best place possible for getting that kind of education, experience and contacts.

What place is that?

Well, there’s no doubt that Los Angeles and New York are the best places to go if you already have the skills. But where are the best places to learn these skills? Not necessarily Los Angeles and New York.

I’m not saying categorically that you should go back to school for a B.A. in performance. But I’m saying you want to gain the hard facts and take concrete actions. Maybe you look and find the best teacher and that teacher is in one of these towns with a top-rated drama and voice program. The talent tends to cluster. So you might move to a town with one of the top-rated schools. It’s this kind of thinking that I’m suggesting.

You may find it impossible to sit long enough and concentrate long enough to make the right plans. There may be more work involved in doing this. Some of this work may involve understanding what happened when you were 15. You were happy and then something happened. Sometimes things happen in adolescence and we form patterns of behavior as a result and we don’t find out until years later how that happened. We underestimate the power of these events somehow; we believe that we are able to make the right decisions but those decisions keep putting us in a bad spot. So in order to make this orderly shift, you may have to enlist the help of others. That would make sense.

Want to know a secret? I can hardly do anything on my own. Actually, I now have three professionals helping me cope with life. Three! One of these people is paid for by the city, as one of its programs to help small businesses. One is paid by my health insurance through my employer. And one of them I pay out of my pocket. OK, I’m kind of a basket case, but I’m just saying, there’s nothing wrong with going out into the world and asking for help. It’s all worth it.

Want to know another secret? I want to be a singer, too. I used to be in a punk/new wave band. You want to hear me sing a punk song? I’m pretty bad! Tell you what. If you will promise me that you will go and start working seriously on your craft, I will send you — no, better yet, I will place on the Web for all to hear — a song that I wrote and sang in the early 1980s and, well, OK, that’s just the deal I’m offering. Because you need some kind of “accountability buddy.” You need somebody to be accountable to who won’t let you slide.

So you write to me and let me know what you’re doing, and then I will do this. I will place myself on the line, so that we have some accountability, you and me. So we have a deal.

I’m almost at my deadline now so I have to wrap up. But I want to say that the beauty of changing your life in this way, wrapping it around a purpose, is that your life begins to have a demonstrable shape. Someone asks, well, what brings you to Evanston, Ill.? And you say, well, I’m trying to become the best singer I can possibly be, and they have the best teachers here.

Having a goal makes your life a story. What is a story? It’s somebody who wants something and tries to get it. It’s what the person wanted and how he or she went about trying to get it. So you make your life a story. Then everything falls into place.

It’s not as easy as it looks. It’s not easy to change your life. It’s not easy to do things differently. But it can be done.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

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My husband thinks I should make more money

I’m doing the kind of work I love, but he’s earning so much more!

Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, FEB 16, 2006

Dear Cary,

How do I get my husband to stop telling me that I make too little money? I am a full-time copy editor at a magazine, making what copy editors make when they first start out in their careers. I love my job and feel that I am well suited for it; unfortunately, the pay is crap (you’re well aware of this, I believe).

My husband is a first-year attorney at a prestigious firm, earning more than triple my salary. He has worked hard to get where he is, putting himself through law school at night while working a full-time job at a firm during the day for four years. He grew up without much money, and the result is that he’s not only deeply concerned about financial security, he now always wants (I’d even say needs) the best that money can buy.

He associates with a lot of attorneys whose wives are also attorneys or hold high-paying positions, and these people live it up in a way that we can’t. This frustrates my husband and sometimes when we’re confronted with this, he’ll ask me why I can’t get a better-paying job, perhaps go to law school and become an attorney myself. I’ve told him that comments like these are demoralizing, not to mention unfair, since this is the path that I’ve chosen for myself and I’ve worked hard at it — he just works harder. He’ll acknowledge that his comments are not supportive, but add that that’s just the way he feels — that I’m not working as hard as I could while reaping all the benefits of his hard work.

I know it’s true that I benefit from our situation while he puts in long hours at a job that’s not his passion, but it’s not that I’ve ever asked him for any of this. In fact, I’d rather he switch careers and do something that makes him happier, since it’s quite clear that he doesn’t love any aspect of his job except for the salary. But he completely rejects that idea.

Sometimes I wonder if maybe he’s right. He does half the housework and is a caring and loving husband in every other respect. In fact, I’d say that his disapproval of my career choice is out of character for him — he’s really quite easygoing about most other things and I can’t say that we seriously fight over anything else. Do I need to suck it up, start bringing home half the bacon? Am I being a slacker? My heart tells me no, but maybe that’s just because my mind is screaming, “I don’t want to work any harder than I have to!”

A Grim Reaper

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Dear Grim Reaper,

There are three interlocking issues here. The first is political — how two working partners of different sexes apportion the labor fairly. The second is personal — why he at this particular time seems to have a need for you to make more money, and how you personally respond to that. And the third is historical — what family history and long-standing needs are being expressed here.

To answer the first question, what is a fair distribution of labor in a marriage partnership between equals, I think the obvious answer is that it should be 50-50. But of course you have different abilities and different needs, so you make adjustments. And don’t forget, you also have a question about how to share in the rewards. So ask yourselves, What is a fair way for both partners to share in the labor and the proceeds from the labor, if each partner’s labor is disproportionately rewarded?

If you and he can agree in principle, you will have a common goal of fairness that you are both working toward. You probably cannot answer these questions with certainty and exactitude — people have been trying to do so for decades! — but discussing them and struggling to find a balanced answer will reveal much, particularly any previously unexpressed beliefs and expectations that may be influencing you.

The second question involves a bit of a mystery: Why does he at this particular time need for you to make more money? You say this behavior is out of character. That suggests that he has recently encountered some new kind of stress that is too great for him to handle in his accustomed ways. Most likely that new stress comes from his job. Since he is a first-year lawyer, he is working long hours under intense pressure to perform at a high level. That alone can change somebody. But second, he is in a new social realm, and while the work pressure is intense, I am going to guess that it is the social pressure that he is finding most painful.

You say he grew up without much money. Many of the lawyers he now socializes with probably grew up quite comfortably. He may find himself a little intimidated though he might not come right out and say so. Instead, it would express itself as an aspiration: If I only had what they’ve got, I’d be on top of the world (i.e., the unexpressed thought: I would not be as intensely uncomfortable as I am right now).

He has advanced socioeconomically, but that does not mean he automatically belongs to the club; climbing the ladder in America is not a painless experience; it takes guts; it cannot be done without some sacrifice of confidence and dignity and self-worth. He is going to feel small and unentitled at times. He is going to be a small fish. So perhaps in addition to a typically murderous workload for a new associate, he is feeling socially inferior, his manhood and status are being challenged, and he has begun fantasizing how nice it would be to have a high-powered wife, a diplomat or movie star, to bring to the party, to bring to the table, to display to his boss. It would be natural to envy the men who squire rich, beautiful wives to the office functions, to long for the kind of ease and power represented by their addresses and their automobiles.

As to the third issue, it would be a mistake to underestimate the power of family history in shaping our attitudes toward work. Having come from a family with little money, but being quite ambitious by nature, he may have grown impatient with his father and mother, wishing they had made smarter choices and worked harder. It’s possible he’s responding to you with the same impatience with which he responded to his family.

If he thought that once he became a lawyer life would be cleansed of doubt and fear, he may now be dismayed and frustrated at how difficult such transformation is. When we are under stress we sometimes combine several issues in one symbol. So although he knows better, he may see your job as the one thing that now stands between him and the realization of his grand vision. (Perhaps that’s overstating it, but it’s the kind of thought-knot we can get into when frustrated.)

His family history is not the only one that is relevant here. It is likely that you got your values and attitudes about work partly from your family as well.

You have different attitudes toward work. You like work for its intrinsic value, how it opens up and magnifies your abilities and your interests; he sees work as a vehicle to survival, status and acquisition. Neither approach is wrong. Most kinds of work have elements of both. But for him to suggest you take his approach to work instead of your own — I can see why it is demoralizing. You probably feel it as an attack on yourself — because your choice of work is an expression of who you are, not where you are trying to get to.

You need to sort these things out together.

You’ve got a lot to talk about. Good luck!

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

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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.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

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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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Help! I’m committing professional suicide!

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


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

Dear Cary,

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

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

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

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

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

Any advice?

Stuck and panicking

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Dear Stuck,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ha ha.

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

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

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

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All my traveling makes my husband jealous

 

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, SEP 4, 2008

He seems to believe that when I travel I must be sleeping with my boss.


Dear Cary,

I married my second husband in 2002, just a couple of months after completing chemo treatments for ovarian cancer. We’d been together a year and a half before I was diagnosed. Several times during the time I was being treated, he made the suggestion that we get married and I said no each time.

I was a little anxious after my sixth and final chemo and my oncologist prescribed an antidepressant to take for six months. Everything seemed so much clearer once I was taking the drug and I actually told him that I would indeed marry him.

I stopped working for nearly a year during my illness, but when we met, I was selling software and traveling very much. But, honestly, I have always traveled since I was 14 and I lived more than a decade in the north of Italy. I speak fluent Italian and French, some Spanish and Portuguese.

Initially, he was fine with my travel, but after six months or so, he would just go crazy when I would have to take a business trip (this was where my reluctance to marry him came from). I’m embarrassed to say that once, before leaving on a two-week business trip to South America, I didn’t tell him until I walked out of the door with my suitcases. I found that telling him ahead of time to prepare him only made him bitterly angry for the entire time before I needed to leave — he’d stop speaking to me. It is incredibly stressful.

Cut to six years later. I’ve been working for a fantastic software company for the past four years with very smart people who are at the cutting edge of our industry. I am again selling software but have been promoted and am also leading a team. I’m making a lot of money — almost twice as much as him. Our two salaries give us the ability to do nearly anything we want and save much of what we earn. We have a lovely home that we enjoy retreating to. We have everything anyone could want.

I have really tried to curb the amount of travel I do because I know it distresses him, but there are at least six or seven overnights a year and a few day trips that I must take, otherwise I’m not doing my job properly.

Between the trips, we get along fine. I say fine as opposed to fantastic because, frankly, each time he wigs out because of a business trip, I feel far less willing to give him any sort of benefit of the doubt, or trust. I mean, part of me thinks that anyone so suspicious of business trips has to be totally screwing around while away. Note that while he travels far less for his job, he actually does have to go away, and I suspect he limits his trips because of me, and that this actually causes him some issues. (I love when he goes away; I get the house to myself — I am free for a while!)

I become more immature in my dealings with him when he acts like such an ass — I hate that because I vowed to myself that this would be my last marriage and that I would act in a way that was as mature and loving and supportive as possible.

So, yesterday I got up at 6 a.m., caught an 8:35 a.m. train to New York, arrived at 11:20 a.m. for a noon meeting that lasted about two and a half hours. My boss was with me at this meeting. I invited him to come — it’s an important potential account for us and I felt that it was important that he join me. One of my sisters happened to be visiting NYC with my niece, so immediately following the meeting I caught a cab (sans boss) to meet them to say hello. I told my boss not to worry, to just catch the train home. He said he’d wait and we agreed to meet back at the station to take a slightly earlier train.

There was a ton of traffic yesterday and cabs were few and far between anyway, so I decided to walk to Penn Station and arrived only four minutes before the train left; my boss was waiting there for me. I told him I hadn’t changed my ticket, and neither had he, so we decided to stick with the game plan and take the 5:39 train. Neither of us had eaten anything the entire day. So we sat at the bar at Hooligan’s in Penn Station for an hour, had a drink and a bite to eat. My husband called me while we were eating but I didn’t answer. There was music in the restaurant and I didn’t want the hassle of him asking me where I was (I guess eating and drinking is foreplay — whatever). I called him immediately after we left the restaurant and were about to board the train. He asked me if my boss was taking the same train and I said yes. He said he should have known I was “out drinking” with my boss, implying as usual that I was committing adultery. By the way, the thought has crossed my mind to tell him no, I’m by myself. But for chrissakes, I have nothing to lie about. (Sometimes I’ll ask him to look me in the eyes and tell me he honestly believes I am having an affair — he can’t.)

I have spent three or four days away on business without ever speaking to him — he won’t call. He used to make repeated calls, like 30 calls in a row and when I would answer he’d scream so loud that others would hear, so I don’t trust him enough to answer the phone unless I’m alone. Once he canceled the credit card we both had an account on, so my card was denied. (I immediately got my own account following that episode.) When I do arrive home I am so happy to be there. I have two border collies and I love them; they are so happy to see me. But upon my return, my husband and I will go days and days and days without speaking. Life is too short for silence. And marriage is hard work; you can take baby steps forward and giant leaps back. These periods of silence are the giant leaps back for me.

I have repeated over and over again to him that I have never conducted myself in a way that could even be remotely construed as undignified — and it is the truth. I want to work hard, make money, come home to a supportive companion, be an honest, loving companion, be with my dogs and feel peace.

But this situation leaves me feeling as though I have no peace.

We have not seen a marriage counselor; however, I’ve tried other things, like laying out in advance the trips I know I’ll be taking. It doesn’t help for long, and he reverts to this outlandish behavior.

What do I need to do?

Dispirited, Disgusted, Distraught

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Dear Dispirited,

One possibility is that your husband lives in mortal dread of being deceived by a woman. This dread may derive from experiences in his romantic past as well as from his childhood, and is probably part of a lifetime pattern of relationships in which he does not feel secure. Because this fear is so ingrained, and not actually conscious, he may not be able to see how stifling his behavior is; he may believe he is simply showing concern about your whereabouts as a normal precaution.

If he were to become conscious of this, like a man awakening from some kind of foggy dream, he might be able to say to you, I’m sorry, my love, I have been acting like a crazy man, and this is why: because I live in deep, mortal fear of abandonment and betrayal, and I’m sorry, I’ll try to stop acting like such a crazy man, I’ll try to get a more realistic view.

But until he becomes conscious of what he is doing, he will not be able to shine any light on this for you. Instead, he will keep you a prisoner of his fear.

Another possibility is that he himself is either involved or contemplating becoming involved in an outside affair. If this were the case then we might say he is projecting onto you his fear of discovery and his guilt about his dishonesty; he is seeing you as the untrustworthy party, the one who is deceiving him. He is projecting.

That sounds sort of clichéd but a friend told me a story, a very strange story, of just such an incident. A man she knew suddenly cut off all contact with her and began acting very crazy because he believed his wife was cheating on him. He believed this because he was cheating on her. There was no evidence that she was cheating. It was all because he was cheating and believed, therefore, that she must be cheating also. Very strange but true. He was imagining her to be having the same thoughts and feelings that he was having, and then he responded to her as though these projected thoughts and feelings were hers, not the products of his own guilt-driven imagination.

So such things are possible in our world. You will have to discover what is driving him. Is he simply afraid that you will abandon him, or is he himself being somehow unfaithful?

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But even after you discover, through couples counseling or principled individual struggle with him, what exactly is the basis for his behavior — insisting, that is, that he tell you the unvarnished truth about his life and not relenting until you get what you feel is a complete and satisfactory answer — you have only begun to solve the larger issue.

Because here is what we do in a marriage: We try to protect what we have. We see where things can lead. So we guard ourselves against the weak moment, the seductive situation, the enticing opportunity; we avoid them. Of course we do. We screw ourselves down tight.

But in doing so we risk cutting ourselves off from our very sources of vitality and beauty and pleasure. We turn away from the life force that created us in the first place and which is the only thing that can sustain us.

We try to shut out danger but we shut out life. We shut ourselves off from the source of our energy and beauty. We shut out eros.

We all want to survive. We all want to avoid pain. We all want to avoid situations in which our wives are fucking strange men doggy style in high, luxurious rooms in hotels in faraway cities and not telling us about it until the day they decide to pack a suitcase full of lingerie and perfume, and we sit on the bed watching in a rage of paralysis and incomprehension, flooded with emotions about the packing of the suitcase, baffled by why the suitcase full of lingerie and perfume is being packed right at that moment, baffled about what specifically might be wrong with us physically or psychologically that caused the wife to pack the suitcase full of lingerie and perfume on that particular afternoon when we might otherwise be watching television or eating or watering the lawn.

We all wish to avoid such moments. So we seek safety and routine.

But in seeking safety and routine we court death. In seeking safety we cut ourselves off from the wealth and abundance of life forces that created us in the first place and that will sustain us only if we expose ourselves to them. We cut ourselves off from temptation and we cut ourselves off from life. We bloom a suicidal purity. We blossom dead flowers. We kill ourselves to keep ourselves safe. Such murder flows from deep distrust. It is not just distrust of you. It is broader. It is a distrust of the enterprise of living. It is a wrong relationship to the world. It is a relationship to the world premised on illusory control. We forget that we are not our own creators. We forget that our blood is a gift, that our brain is a gift, that our water and sweat and semen and tears and arm hairs and tongue, teeth, gums, jawbone, epiglottis, eustachian tubes, nose and throat and eyes, our spit and our urine and our shit, our hipbones and toenails and kneecaps, that all of us is a gift, that we have a source in the world, that cut off from that source we die. We forget this. We have to be reminded now and then. So we go out into the desert and somehow we are reminded.

My trip to Burning Man has reminded me that it is good to go outside our situation to see our situation. This is the beauty of it: Put people together in the desert without social rules and restrictions and what do they do? They make things and help each other. This human goodness, this desire to make things and help each other, if given a time and place, seems to arise spontaneously.

How easily we can become accustomed to thinking of our relationships, our philosophical posture and our behavior as things that we control and so must constantly work on! And of course this is not a bad thing to do, to ceaselessly struggle to find a right way to live and a right way to behave. But in the struggle we can forget about the source of all that we are. We can forget that underneath our effort and our conflict there is a bubbling spring of goodness, creativity, love, light, desire to help, kindness, wit, humor, warmth, togetherness, grand vision and fine craft, deep humanity, which requires only that we partake of it, only that we give it a little space to bloom. We forget that we are not in charge of these human qualities but that we are the recipients of them. We forget that we have to reach outside our sphere of domestic arrangements to something mystical and beyond us.

You faced death and you endured illness. In this you perhaps came in contact with this force outside us; you felt it; you felt the life force bubbling up through you of its own accord: the life, the priceless force.

So I sense that the solution to your conflict lies not just in solving the immediate conflict about your travel but in the two of you finding new sources of life and vitality that can flow into the marriage and make it richer and fuller. You already have such sources — in your work and your travel. These things give you energy and inspiration. He must find such things as well. And he must find out what has happened in his past to make him so afraid. Each of you has to find strength enough to endure the other’s absence, or the marriage bed will be a prison cell, stifling and dead.

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Dammit, don’t tell me I need to be more “assertive”!

 
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Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, SEP 15, 2004

You’d think a Ph.D. in Renaissance literature from an Ivy League school would count for something in the business world.


Dear Cary,

On paper, I am talented, bright, creative … almost perfect. I am 33 years old; I have a Ph.D. in Renaissance literature from a prestigious Ivy League university. I’ve been married for 10 years to a wonderful husband. However, if you met me, you would not be able to surmise any of that based on how I look and act.

I work as a copy editor for a small company. I have the most credentials of all my co-workers and yet I am constantly passed over for promotions or leadership roles in projects. Time and time again, my reviews have indicated that I need to be more assertive and confident. I’m very shy and rarely speak in meetings.

I was the same way in graduate school. Yet not only did I manage to earn my degree, but I also taught undergraduate classes and presented papers at conferences. Basically, when it was time to perform in public, I somehow gained the strength and got through it. But these experiences seemed like walking on fire. I dreaded them. After graduating I had several promising interviews for teaching jobs. But I failed horribly and never received an offer. Five years and several degrading jobs later, I am now in my present position. Instead of being proud of my education, I have come to resent my Ph.D. I feel like I wasted those 10 years on graduate school. When I meet new people, I no longer tell them I have a doctorate for fear that they will look at me like I am a freak.

I want desperately to be confident and possess the spirit and aura that befit my achievements. I know I can do better, but I am paralyzed. I’ve taken more public speaking and assertiveness classes than I can count. They have not helped. I’m beginning to think it’s genetic and I am destined to be underemployed and miserable forever. Please tell me I’m wrong.

Cubicle Dwelling Ph.D.

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Dear Cubicle Dweller,

Of course you don’t have to be underemployed and miserable. You just need to find a place where you fit in. If I were to meet you on the street, I’d know for sure, but just from your letter, I’m going to guess that you are an introverted intuitive type. That would explain a lot — why you were so successful in academia, why your interviews went poorly, why you’re slaving away in a job that you’re probably doing very well but not getting credit for, and why people keep telling you to be more assertive.

If my hunch is correct, telling you to be more assertive is like telling a cat to bark. It’s not that you lack self-confidence; I’m sure you’re quite confident in your own abilities. But you’re stuck in a world whose symbols are alien. Business is burlesque! Competence is signaled symbolically. You go around acting all confident and assertive and people go — Look! She’s confident and assertive! We’d better promote her! Business is filled with people who aren’t really thinking straight. It’s full of voodoo. If I were you, I’d get back into academia fast.

But first, let’s talk about your type. Perhaps you have never given much thought to your underlying type. Perhaps “type” seems mundane or shallow; perhaps you find the idea distastefully deterministic. Perhaps you think of Jung as cultish. But I have found it useful to learn about Jungian types as they are simplified and codified in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.

The introvert is the ruler of a vast interior dominion. For the introvert, everything happens there. Who else would get a Ph.D. in Renaissance literature? Who else would live in a world accessible only through art? We extroverts out here in our hiking shorts and blazers don’t get to see what’s going on inside that head — whose eyes are sometimes cast slightly downward as if trying to see inside themselves. It bugs us that we can’t tell what’s going on in there, and that she won’t just come out and explain how she got to where she is. When the introvert speaks, sometimes it seems to come out of nowhere. What is she talking about? It seems as though she’s jumped from A to Z.
The introvert doesn’t share her feelings with us in that easy, cooperative extroverted way that we snowmobilers prefer. She’s not going to say, Hey y’all, come on in, let’s all do therapy together, let’s tinker with my dreams! Paradoxically, the introvert doesn’t really notice her interior world as something distinct from who she is; to the introvert, the interior is real. We extroverts crow about our grand excursions into psychic space, but we’re just tourists there, handling every object with dumb amazement: Look Ma, I’ve found an intuitive connection! The introvert sits on her porch and watches with detachment — or perhaps mild annoyance — as we bumble through her domain.

You get what I’m saying? Some of it may ring true, some may not. There are degrees. I’m winging it. That’s my talent. I’m an improviser. It’s an extroverted talent. I don’t mind getting up here and winging it. I’m a bit of a showoff, something you probably don’t like in a man, but there it is, we’re different. The thing is, though, I know who you are. And I know you don’t belong in an office full of people who think you should be more assertive.

So if I were you, I’d begin looking again for employment in academia. If you cannot find a teaching job, take another job in academia. That is where you thrived. That is where you belong. That is where you will be appreciated. If you can’t get a job in academia, then look in fields where intellectual talent is valued above a go-getter’s bravado — in research, for instance, or publishing, or journalism. Look for a firm where others with advanced degrees also work; chances are if they are happy there, you can be too.

And then, once you’ve secured a new job, go to your old boss and say, “Hey, motherfucker, get this: I don’t do ‘assertive and confident’! I quit! I’m an introvert, damn it!”

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Turning 50: It’s all downhill from here

 

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Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, OCT 6, 2009

I’ve got only a genetic disease and old age to look forward to


 

Dear Cary,

I have been reading your column for a while and always find your advice useful in a roundabout way, but I especially find it honest.

I’m going to be turning 50 this year and have learned I have a fairly rare genetic disease that will (and, indeed, has already begun to) cause great suffering in the years to come, though it likely won’t end my life prematurely.

Unfortunately, I have seen what this disease has done to my father, who is now in his 80s, and I have no desire to go through the endless hospitalizations, treatments, etc., that he endures just to keep on living. I feel tense and anxious most of the time, and also sad.

I’m realizing, however, that the disease is not the only factor in my feelings. Frankly, life in middle age is a tedious, boring chore. I become sad when I think back to my 20s, which was really my peak — a series of endless mental and physical challenges, pleasures and obstacles to overcome.

I’m stuck in an unchallenging but well-enough paying job that I despise. Leaving it would mean competing with people half my age for less pay, and I probably can never get health insurance again, so that option is out.

My home life isn’t much better. I’m stuck with a partner who offers, at best, extremely mediocre sex once every couple weeks. I watch porn to remember the types of adventures I used to have in real life, but it only makes me more sad, angry and resentful.

I’ve given up most of my hobbies as they were fairly pointless wastes of time. Even volunteer work became unsatisfying. For every person or animal I was able to help, there were hundreds of others for whom I could do nothing.

My one true pleasure, hiking in the hills with my dog for hours on end, ended when the dog became severely ill and I had to euthanize her a month ago. Yes, I could get another dog, and yes, I realize everyone anthropomorphizes their pets, but this dog was indeed unique and irreplaceable and her spirit is sorely missed. Her sweet nature and enthusiasm could melt even the most cynical heart.

Well, I will stop with this pity party, but it seems to me that nature had the right idea with human life spans that used to be so short. Now it seems we get 30 or so good years, then 50 years to sit around and wait for the inevitable.

In youth, there is excitement of the unknown. Unfortunately, at this point, I pretty much know how my life is going to go: a slow, steady, physical decline; deaths of more friends and loved ones; and a relationship that will become nothing more than buried resentment over a complete lack of sexual fulfillment.

Frankly, I see very little to look forward to, and I’m not even sure what I’m asking you.

Nothing to Look Forward To

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Dear Nothing to Look Forward To,

Well, my friend, I don’t have the skills to persuade you of what I intuit, or the power to compel you to do as I ask, nor do I have the kind of deep responsibility toward you that a family member or loved one might feel, so I am just going to say what is clear to me and hope that you can overcome the voices in your own head telling you the contrary long enough to act on my suggestion. First of all, and I don’t know why I really want to say this, but I’m just going to trust the impulse: You are going to be taken care of. You’re on a road. You’re not just a forlorn sack of chemicals in a marriage; you’re a human being; you’re a person; you’re a being; you have a place in this world. I also feel this: I feel that you are grieving. You may be depressed, but “depressed” feels vague. To me, you are grieving. “Depression” feels like the damming-up of that grief, not the grief itself. You are grieving the loss of your dog and your connection to nature. You are grieving the loss of your dog and your connection to nature but you are also berating yourself for your grief, perhaps to protect yourself from its full, wracking extent.

You also sound like you are grieving for your youth. For that I salute you. Yes, I salute you. Why don’t more of us openly grieve our youths? Why don’t more of us admit that when we wake up one day and find ourselves no longer 20 and hard, indefatigable and quick, irresistible all night, a world ahead of us just for the asking, etc., etc., (I’m not trying to lyrically eulogize it; I’m just trying to name it), why don’t more of us admit that we are filled with a deep and painful sadness? Why don’t we have rites for this? Why do we have to say goodbye to our youth alone, in the shame of our advancing decrepitude?

(I tried to do this publicly, in a way, seven years ago, back in 2002, and indeed it did help to acknowledge publicly that I was no longer 20, although of course it did not arrest the arrow of time.)

You are grieving the loss of your youth and the loss of your dog and you are also living in fear of the future.

That makes you a perfect candidate for membership in the moment.

So, my friend, make your application now!

Yes, you, my friend, are a perfect candidate for membership in the moment. There is always room for one more. So welcome. Come on in. Welcome to the now. Welcome to the now that’s up on the trail, the glistening, humming, vibrating, iridescent, incalculable, inescapable now: Welcome to this very moment, wherever you are. Unless one of us is traveling faster than the speed of light, you and I are both inhabiting this mathematical simultaneity we call the now; we are in it, you and I, right now, so it might be said, though it sounds silly, that we are even together in the now, that as I sit near the window of the cafe in early morning, shivering in the first frost (there was ice on my truck this morning, for heavens sake!) and wondering idly why the employees have the windows and the door open (I know, it gets hot back there) that you and I are, in this moment, perhaps sharing a breath; perhaps as I breathe in you are breathing in too, and the innumerable creatures and souls who also inhabit this moment are also breathing in or breathing out, and the unfathomable underpinnings of our enterprise are operable; the equations and magics of chlorophyll and ganglia are in effect; the infinite, expanding factory of existence is running all night; it’s all going on right now. Welcome.

In this moment you have many choices. You can concentrate on the breath alone, climbing the breath like a rope into the heavens, following the breath back to the beginning of time, rising and falling with the breath like a column of smoke, with every inhalation and exhalation rehearsing the beginning and the end, the creation and the obliteration of the cosmos and the beginning and the end of your life, your wakefulness and your sleep. You can do that in this moment. You can do that in this moment and it may free you momentarily from your stranglehold on the future, or the future’s stranglehold on you, or however you want to place subject and verb in expressing that asphyxiating entanglement.

You can also in this moment allow thoughts of your next move to arise. You can, for instance, determine to contact a cognitive therapist and see about pruning some of the vines.

Yes, you can also in this moment choose to contact a cognitive therapist and get to work on that pattern of thinking that has overtaken you like a vine overtaking a healthy tree. You are wrapped in vines of dread, vines of grief. You are wrapped in vines. You have fed them and given them a home and now they are suffocating you. But you are not yet so completely entwined that you cannot reach out just far enough to gain the attention of a skilled cognitive therapist who can show you how to clip the vines back and get some air.

It is both the joy and the curse of this job that I cannot make you do this. If I could make you do this, my job would be unbearable; every time I failed to make someone do something I would be burdened; every time someone exercised their freedom of choice I would be a failure. Every time someone failed I would fail as well. Luckily, that is not the case. I can say what I say and that is that. We are just two living strangers inhabiting the same moment. It is as though you might overhear me in a cafe advising someone else to go get some cognitive therapy to clip back the vines of depression. I am speaking to the wind. That is fine. I am happy doing that. I am happy speaking to the wind.

But I speak hoping you will overhear me and take it to heart.

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I survived — now how do I survive my survival?

 

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Cary’s classic column fromWEDNESDAY, JUL 2, 2008

 


Cancer changed everything. I need a new paradigm.


 

Dear Cary,

Please help me figure out how to survive surviving.

Three years ago I was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. After a year of surgery, chemo and radiation, my cancer, for the time being, seems to be at bay. My doctors tell me that this type of cancer cannot be cured, but that I have a 2-in-3 chance of living beyond five years. I’ve come through all of this slightly scarred, and bearing some permanent side effects from my treatment, but otherwise feeling pretty good, at least physically.

My problem is that my entire worldview has radically shifted, and things that were once important to me no longer are. It’s not the first time that I’ve had to figure out a way to reinvent myself, but for the first time in my life, I have no idea what changes I need to make in order to feel better about being alive, and to be happy.

My unhappiness seems to center mostly around my employment. I worked my way up the ladder into a well-paying but dead-end job. For the first time in my life, I haven’t had to work long hours and struggle to make ends meet to provide for my family (I was a single mom). On the other hand, the company I work for is no longer the edgy high-tech firm that it was when I started there 14 years ago. Instead of contributing new ideas and feeling part of a team, I’m stuck, along with everyone else, in a gray cubicle farm. I can work from home if I want to, and I often do, but doing so makes me feel even less a part of the team. Most of the work has lately been outsourced, and many of my favorite co-workers have lost their jobs. I miss my friends, and dread that I could be the next one to go. In the past, this wouldn’t have gotten me down. I would have brushed up my résumé, and perhaps even started proactively looking for another job. But now, I’m petrified to move. I desperately need my health insurance because of my cancer. I’m also physically much weaker now, and just the thought of looking for another job, going to interviews, pounding the pavement, tires me out. In three words: I feel trapped.

Aside from feeling trapped, though, I’m also questioning what I’m doing. After surviving cancer, and knowing just how fragile my hold is on life, I can’t help but wonder if this is really what I want to do with the rest of my life. And even if I can figure out what it is that I want to do next, will someone want to hire a middle-aged cancer survivor?

In my heart of hearts, what I would love to do is to take three or four months off to explore other options, to work on getting my strength and endurance back, perhaps take a class or two. However, I need to keep working. Even with insurance, my medical expenses have eaten away all of my savings, and I have nothing to fall back on. This depression isn’t helping. I’ve lost interest in many of the things that made me happy in the past. And the physical activities that I used to love, like hiking and dancing, I can no longer do.

I’m stuck. How do I get unstuck?

Grateful to Be Alive (I Think)

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Dear Grateful,

What I want to suggest to you is that you find a group of cancer survivors and throw yourself into work with them. Help them cope with the same questions you are coping with. Make this the dominant, driving force in your life. Trust that the other elements will fall into place. If this means continuing to work, for now, in your same gray cubicle, then paint your cubicle pink — or green, or purple, or black if you like! Fill it with flowers. Fill it with sunshine.

You can’t go back to the cubicle and the way things were. You just can’t. It isn’t right. That life is gone. I imagine you in that cubicle, just surviving your days, and it breaks my heart. It breaks my heart not just for you but for the world. The world needs you in the hospitals and living rooms of fellow survivors.

If you can get the sabbatical you so desperately need, take it. If you must continue to work, in your mind let it go. It is no longer the most important thing in your life. It is just a place you spend some time. Throw your energy into helping others like yourself. They need to know how you got through it and what it feels like and how you cope with the questions that arise. They need to know how you get through another day.

So how do you get through another day? That is a good question. Answer it. Ask others how they get through the day. Acquire knowledge about this central question: How does the cancer survivor, whose future is uncertain and whose present is compromised, get through another day?

I think you will find that the answer is circular; that is, you get through the day by helping others get through another day. And, in being circular and tautological, it is partly an impractical act of faith. But the faith involved is a pragmatic faith. It is a pragmatic faith in the workings of deep human community. You will find, if you turn to a life of service, that certain ancient forces of human community coalesce to benefit you. These forces may seem mysterious and full of paradox, but they are real and historical and if we must reduce them to the biological they probably serve some purpose in the continuation of the species. Compassion, agape, selflessness — whether these are evidence of our divinity, our material and social arrangements or our biology, they are dependably awakened in crises and will come to your aid. Open your mind to these forces beyond your conscious understanding. Consider the possibility that this encounter with grave illness has put you in touch with the mystic stream of life itself in its most basic and primal reality.

If you are religious, or mystical, or interested in the arts, or if you have always wanted to sing, or if you are secretly happiest when you are gardening or sewing clothes or doing math problems, turn to these things. Turn to the things that have always given you the greatest happiness. Turn to them because they are a source of joy and joy is a gift to the world. In that way, you will contribute to the world, and you will gain what you need.

At work, if it is possible to cut your hours in half and maintain your medical coverage, do so. If you can take a loan to pay your medical expenses so that you do not have to work full-time, do so. If there are resources at your disposal, such as a house that can be sold or mortgaged over, do so. I know you said you have nothing to fall back on but when you begin asking around unseen resources may emerge. Ask others for help. These years are precious, unique and unrecoverable.

Never before have you been handed such an opportunity to place your life on a new footing. Always you have been working in the system. Always you have been tied down by the struggle to make your payments. These payments are not just checks and cash. We make our payments when we knuckle under. We make our payments when we live in fear. We make our payments when we pretend the emperor is clothed in the finest raiments of the land. We make our payments when we “buy in.”

I want you to stop making payments but I do not want you to do anything crazy.

Well, yes, actually, to be truthful, I suppose I do want you to do something crazy. I do. When we face life in its starkest terms we see that, indeed, our previous life is the life that was crazy. We see that we might have gone on knuckling under for the rest of our lives, still playing the role prescribed for us by people to whom we are just a number.

By suggesting that you stop making your payments, what I mean is, step out of the system as you know it. The system of work as you know it is geared to competition and based in fear. It is based on the premise that there is not enough and that no one is going to help you. There is another way to live, based on the premise that there is indeed enough, and that everyone is going to help you. By helping others, and asking for help, you live in a different system. Try that. Try asking for help, and doing what is right and true instead of what is practical and necessary. Try doing what is important — helping another cancer survivor buy groceries, helping someone who has just been diagnosed figure out what to do next, helping someone after surgery, helping the families of the sick and diagnosed and recovering. Try helping. Try helping, with the assumption — you do not have to call it faith, you can just call it a working assumption — that whether for sociological or psychological or spiritual reasons, the help you give is going to return to you; you are in return going to be helped, and loved, and carried forward.

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Panicked in Rome

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Cary’s classic column from

Should I give up my career and live the life of an Italian housewife?


Dear Cary,

I graduated from college nearly two years ago and moved to Italy, where I have fallen in love with a wonderful man I have known since April and dated seriously since June. On all fronts the relationship is sound: communication is clear and honest; sex is good, frequent, joyful; we have similar levels of education and opportunity and are both fluent in the other person’s mother tongue. I am happier than I ever have been and entertain thoughts on the bus and the elevator of marrying this guy, having children, and becoming an Italian housewife. I do like to cook. While living in Rome, I have been editing publications for the U.N., which sounds like an interesting job but is actually very boring and unsatisfying. It is also unstable. I ignore my problematic work life because everything else is so pleasurable.

Before I met him, I wanted to accumulate designer degrees and pursue an ambitious career at the United Nations or some international agency. I was also anxious and prone to panic attacks. In order to pursue the old dream, I need to go back to school, but there are no schools in Italy that interest me. Since being with this man I have been noticeably calmer, more energetic, and I don’t panic when I’m in the house alone or while waiting for the train. I wonder if this means I am too dependent on him, but my friends and family enthusiastically affirm that he is a great influence on me. I feel secure. In addition, I like my life here irrespective of him. Nice weather, good food, a handful of people I care about.

I find that my desire to apply to school is dwindling, and the housewife option looks snuggly, warm and happy. I have always defined myself as an avid student, a liberated woman, someone with ambition. Now I’m just turning into a oozy cuddly dwarf rabbit. I have discussed this with my boyfriend. who says I should apply for the degree as if I have no love story and decide after the results come. All the same, I am blocked when I sit down to fill out the forms. I just can’t do it. Organizing my sock drawer looks more interesting.

Do I sound like a shriveled woman from the 1950s, instead of the college-educated, active women I believe myself to be, if I decide to stay with him instead of going back to school? Or does it perhaps take more strength to chose contentment and satisfaction with simple things? I can’t tell how much my thinking is clouded by being in love and the general complacency of my surroundings, but I know that I am more relaxed than I was when living in New York, city of perpetual self-dissatisfaction.

It would be an easier decision if he wasn’t such a good boyfriend. The problem is, if I leave next year I feel I would be nipping the relationship in the bud, meaning, we wouldn’t have had enough time to know if this could really work out. I hate the thought of a long-distance relationship. Do they ever work out? Should I risk losing him anyway?

You see, I’m panicking again.

Dear Panicking,

You know, I have become fairly good at analyzing a situation where one choice is clearly better. But in other situations, such as yours, it seems that one has been very lucky, that one is in paradise, facing two equally wonderful opportunities, and that one is suffering not because the choices are unpleasant but because the act of thinking about them is fraught with fear and anxiety. In such cases, one wants to say something trite like “Just enjoy yourself!” But one knows that the person asking the question is far too intelligent to take such trite advice, that, in fact, it is her intelligence that is contributing to the problem — a dumb person would just lie in the sun, screw the boyfriend, cook veal and lord it over all her friends back in New York, sending them postcards from Tuscany and little notes scribbled in the stern of a gondola, with a little water stain from where you dragged your fingers in the cool water and thought of your dear friends riding the subway at rush hour in July.

You’re too smart to do that. But I sometimes think intelligence is misused out of perversity, that it becomes not a route to ever more intense and refined pleasure in this magnificent world but instead, because of some unacknowledged slight or long-held resentment, because of some fear that we will never measure up or never accomplish anything, some belief in an image of who it is we must become, that because of these things intelligence becomes instead a knife with which we tear ourselves open and watch ourselves bleed. We humans love to suffer — in different ways, quietly or loudly, through intricate subterfuge or broad physicality — just the same, we humans love to suffer. And one of the ways we suffer is by pretending that there is some cultural ideal we must worship and dedicate our lives to achieving.

Well, it simply isn’t true. Our lives belong to us. There is no cultural ideal you have to live up to. And the paradoxical thing is, those very people who have now become cultural ideals that you think you have to live up to were the ones who achieved what they achieved by flouting the very idea of living up to some received cultural ideal. You feel me, sister? The feminists whom you think you’re supposed to emulate got where they got by saying fuck you to whatever the world said they were supposed to do. And now you’re cowering before some received notion of how you’re supposed to be, which is not what they would have wanted. So I suggest you truly do as they did and say fuck you to these warmed-over notions of female heroism: If anything, their gift to you is that you get to live your life any way you want; the last thing your feminist heroes would want is for you to feel obligated to strive for some powerful position in government when what you really want to do is perfect your veal piccata and count the thousand different shades of a Roman dusk.

You are here to enjoy your life. If you don’t want to be a highly placed U.N. official in a smart black suit and chestnut hair taking Concorde to a top-level negotiation with Zambian rebels in a villa outside Paris, you don’t have to be. You don’t owe anything to anybody. All you have to do is be happy. Try looking around you. Cook a nice meal. Just live this one day.

And, hey, at the same time, don’t sell yourself short. Fill out the application. It can’t hurt. Your boyfriend sounds like a smart guy. You don’t have to do it, but it’s nice to have the option. Have a good life. Don’t panic. It’ll work out.