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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.

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My freeloader boyfriend

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Cary’s classic column from

He followed me on a work-related move and now he’s sitting around reading comic books


Cary,

About six months ago, I got a major promotion that came with a moderate pay raise. I needed to transfer from my company’s Northern California office to our office in Georgia. I had been dating a man for just under a year when I got the promotion, and he was less than supportive and took the news quite hard. After days of fights and tears, he apologized and said he wanted to be with me wherever I was. I never asked him to come with me … he just kind of tagged along. But I loved him, so it was OK.

Fast-forward six months. He hates it here. It’s too hot. It’s too humid. There are no mountains. The bugs freak him out. He hates our apartment. And he’s unemployed. He’s a chemist by trade and can’t seem to find a job. He tells me that everywhere he looks, nobody is hiring. That may be true, but when I come home at night I never see him looking. He never tells me he’s been out dropping off résumés or networking. He fills out one online application per day and then reads his comic books. He’s in his mid-30s, and I am absolutely appalled at this man’s lack of motivation and inability to sell himself as a valuable employee to another company.

I told myself that if the shoe were on the other foot, I know he’d do the same for me. But if the shoe were on the other foot, I’d be flipping burgers somewhere in the interim so I felt I was carrying my weight financially. His bills have piled up. I’m paying rent plus utilities, plus MY bills, plus buying his food. And it drains me down to the last penny every month. The original deal I made with myself was that he had 30 days before I kicked him out. But six months later I can’t do it. I can’t work up the nerve to break his heart. And he can’t afford to move anywhere anyway … so I don’t know what good breaking up with him would serve. But I know this is not the man I am supposed to be with, and I have totally fallen out of love with him. I need a man with a professional drive and ambition that matches mine. I need a man who shows that he can be a provider. This man is neither of those things. How do I bow out gracefully?

Sole Provider

Cary Tennis Writing Retreat in France

Dear Sole Provider,

The important thing is to bow out, even if it’s not graceful. His attachment to you may be a kind of love, but it does not sound like the kind of mature, independent, big-hearted love that would allow him to applaud your good fortune and wish you well on your journey.

Instead, when something good happened for you, his first reaction was not to support you but to think only of himself, perhaps with the unconscious intent of thwarting your departure. When that did not work, then in his emotional dependence he blindly followed you. Now he finds himself unhappy and stuck. Quelle surprise!

So do him the favor of unsticking him. Put him on a plane back to California. It may not feel graceful, but it will feel right. It is the kindest thing you could do.

And do not worry too much about breaking his heart. When a dependent person is stuck, it can actually be a relief to receive some instructions — even harsh and demanding instructions.

So send him home, send him a bill for what he owes you, and be patient.

He is a chemist. Perhaps in the realm of human affairs he is a little dense. He may have thought that people can change states as easily as matter.

I don’t know why I should be so optimistic — perhaps because it takes intelligence to be a chemist, even a dense one — but I have a feeling he will soon realize what happened, will see that he was on a fool’s journey, that he owes you and will pay you back.

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In which Cary Tennis attempts to revive the spirit of the questing, searching essay form while maintaining token loyalty to the old, reliable advice column

 

Am I doing it right?

 

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Dear Reader,

When I was writing the Since You Asked advice column for Salon.com, I often would meander from the “given” form in ways that some readers found aesthetically displeasing. They were experiencing genre shock. (As though they had walked into a movie theater expecting Love Story and got Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Or, more contemporary, expecting Spiderman 2 and getting … Oh, take your pick, what do I know of modern movies anyway? I scarcely leave the house these days unless it is to walk to the mailbox and remark on the men building the brick wall around the new preschool to take the place of the old captain’s cottage at 48th and Pacheco.) I took some heat for my perambulations at the time, but now that I have been unceremoniously released from my 12-year stint of service I look back and wonder why I didn’t take even more liberties with the form.

This is the kind of digression I would try to avoid when I was drawing a salary from Salon.com—even though I did it often enough anyway! It seemed like bad form. It may still seem like bad form.

But I am free to do what I wish now! I would probably be fired for writing like this if I were employed but I’m not employed, and very few people read this anyway, a diminishing number if our observations are correct, so: I am free! I am free! 

Furthermore, my spirits have been enlivened by reading Philip Lopate’s thoughts on William Hazlitt and Montaigne. I am realizing now that some of my periodic odd thoughts and zig-zags were part of a hazily remembered tradition but one deeply planted in my bones, a tradition that my father also was a part of. His craziness was not just craziness but part of a certain literary tradition and cast of mind that allowed for the mind to wander where it would, kicking at this tin can and that old master and this tree limb and that dog and child and garden gate and snail and rabbit and lost locket of a mistress or a temptress or a goddess wherever such were encountered. That is . . . It was a tradition of making sentences go wherever they would go, trusting the net of syntax to hold us together even if the strands grew thin, testing the mind to hold it together too, testing the mind to hold together the sense of a sentence even as it meandered, as long as it held to certain rules and maintained its tensile strength.

I didn’t take things far enough. Though some thought I went too far, think I did not go nearly far enough! Sure, I occasionally would write a column in the form of an imagined scene, with dialog and setting. And I would occasionally rant on. But I was trying to remain within the bounds of the journalistic trade I had learned.

No longer. There is no longer any reason for me to try to remain within any journalistic boundaries, for I am no longer doing journalism. That is quite freeing to realize. I have been wondering, in fact, how to make the transition to the new frontier that I am facing as a writer. Nothing could be simpler: Just jump over the fence!

And it has been enlightening to read Lopate, actually, and also Gornick, and I’m going to read Burroway when I can get my hands on her, and also Hazlitt and Montaigne, to see what the roots of this current craze are, and I’m not going to worry about much. Like am I doing it right?

Say that you have a problem and you have written to me.

There are many scenes this can evoke. Say you have come to me trusting me to think carefully about your problem and I instead seem intent on my own. You write to me expecting that your letter will be read carefully and considered, that I will weigh your problem with the same gravity with which you yourself weigh it. You don’t expect me to say, Hey, that’s not a problem, you selfish, privileged person! You don’t expect me to malign your motives. That’s part of the bargain.

But breaking the bargain is interesting, too, as long as it happens in an interesting way. So for instance say you have a desire to be punished. How can I know that? I can’t. But I can guess, in the interests of drama—which immediately is breaking the presumed bond of my promise to be helpful and kind. But might the column fulfill your wishes in that way, if your wishes only were known? Why must the advice columnist always play the nurturing role? That is the role I play all the time. But it is simply a role, as I have insisted all these years, when people would ask me, how can you be so compassionate, so wise? Because I am playing a role! Because I am at heart a spinner of tales, a writer of fiction, a prevaricator of the first order! I play a good man on the Internet but I am not really a good man all the time any more than you are a good person all the time. So I have to fight through, in the moment, my various unsavory impulses, in order to fulfill my mandate. But my mandate is gone!

As my wife and I were sitting down to a lunch of delicious stuffed cabbage yesterday, I remarked to her, You know, the roots of civilization are in not saying the first thing that comes to mind, in having some restraint.

Now at the word “restraint” if you were of the guilty, masochistic type, you might think of physical restraint. In fact we might explore the extent to which the erotic interest in physical restraints is a speaking-out of civilization’s need for metaphysical and spiritual restraint: A way of acting out our need to develop a way of living within society; the restraints, or bonds, might be considered our superego, doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves.

Anyway, after long consideration, I have decided that if this new column on my site is going to have any value at all, its value will lie in my commitment to follow my mind where it may lead, and to attempt to bring some order and clarity to my flitting thoughts, while also answering your letter in some form or other. It will be far more interesting to me and perhaps to you as well. For after all the mind is a crazy and barely tamed thing, full of associations that are at first puzzling but which can be made clear once all their dimensions are sorted out and brought to light.

It will be rough going, there’s no doubt. I won’t be cleaning it up like I used to at Salon. (You should see the many thousands and thousands of words that I removed from my columns over the years. In fact, I may begin posting them just for the sheer strangeness of it, to say, this is the mind’s detritus, this is what is left over, these are all the stray thoughts that in a perfect world, would be loved as much as their well-groomed brothers and sisters who were allowed to go to the fair.)

For this style to work it must not seem random. There must be a hidden rigor to it. I must leap off the cliff and then improvise on the way down, making it look easy, making it look like I knew exactly what I was doing when I jumped off the cliff!  I must reveal my thoughts as they arise but also to make some sense of them, to string them together so that you can see that I am not just putting out random thoughts without any effort to connect them. You must see that I am struggling to do something that is hard—as I was when I was working at Salon, only now with fewer restraints. There’s that word “restraint” again. I do wish to be tied. I do wish to have my freedom taken from me. I do wish to meld into a oneness, to merge, to leave my separate self, and being restrained is a part of that, too. But, being a writer, I take the route of thinking. OK, so maybe I tie my hands together and try to type. That would be funny. Maybe I make a video of me typing with my hands tied together and blindfolded, with a gag in my mouth. That is the writer at work in some settings, is it not? And we think of writers in repressive regimes and wonder if in some way they did not welcome the silencing of their thoughts, for our thoughts are not angels; our thoughts are devils. Our thoughts are malevolent beings that attempt to take control of us. I remember my first visit to the Jung Institute in San Francisco, my interviewer asked me, do I hear voices? and I said of course I do, and he asked, do they tell you to do things? And that was a harder question. For if they told me to do things I still retained the dispassionate interest in them to regard their instructions with haughty disdain or contempt. But our thoughts do not have to be telling us to do things in order to be devils and distractions and sources of discomfort. Their mere presence, like the presence of a jack hammer outside the window, or a dog barking, or a Harley going up the street (p.s. how do they get to be so loud? How can anything be that loud? How is it legal?) is a distraction.

So we might say, too, that journalistic restraints are a way of recognizing the essential unruliness of our own minds, as well as of our society. I’m of at least two minds about this. (ha ha) Because I tell you, in a sober, adult voice, journalism—disciplined, traditional, “objective” journalism—is a wonderful thing. It’s super valuable! It’s how we can know something. It’s how we attain the meager certainty that we can attain, given the uncertainty of our universe. It’s like science. It’s a way of knowing something pretty surely, as surely as we can know, given the uncertainties of time and, to be sure, the uncertainties of knowing itself, of the universe itself as we conceive it. It’s the best we can do. And for that it is of immense value.

But the fact that we attain some degree of knowledge and certainty does not mean that we are civilized and in control. To the contrary, the sheer difficulty with which we attain even the most meager knowledge and certainty, the rarity of such certainty, the number of years and the training it takes to learn to do it—to learn to have several sources and to tease out the implications of a piece of reporting, to see it from all angles, to discuss it with other editors and reporters, to compare notes—all this only indicates how truly slippery reality is and how essentially crazy the world is.

If the world weren’t crazy, we wouldn’t have to work so hard to make sense of it. So maybe we are working too hard to make too much sense of it. Maybe, rather than remove all that is nonsensical—which is what we are up to when we are doing careful journalism—right now I prefer the model of admitting all that is nonsensical and random into the discourse, but then following each random and nonsensical item to its source, and searching out its relations, until it becomes clear in some kind of context. Like for instance why I am thinking about restraint and all its implications, both in the world of sadomasochism and in the world of journalism, and in our day-to-day attempts to live civilized, decent lives in which we do not bring harm to those around us.

I do not want to be reductive. I want to include everything. It will get exhausting but that is the price of occasional insight.

So on to the letter and we will see where this leads us.

(You see, it has taken a few months for me to find my footing.)

Here is the letter.

France_Ad_fix

Hi Cary,

For the past four years, I’ve enjoyed your advice column. I’ve always found something in your responses that I could take away and apply to my own life. Sometimes it was made me aware of how people affect me, sometimes how I have been affecting people.

Here is some context for myself – I am a creative practitioner in my late twenties. My field of work is a very… labour and hours intensive one. It is not uncommon for me to work into the night, and through weekends. This might sound anti-social, but I work as much as I do because it is what I love most. I’ve always found people really difficult to understand because of my childhood circumstances (hence why your column was so enlightening to me), so I feel like the solitary nature of my work is the perfect partner to my personality.

This is partly the reason why I quit my stable job 2 years ago and begin working for myself. That situation has been up and down, but I’ve been able to keep my head above water, and the massive upside is that I get to choose what I work on. I’m able to have an amount of passion for everything that I take on – and clients don’t mind if I’m crazy about work and socially awkward as long I’m pumping out the work they like. This whole venture has meant I have to drink cheap coffee, make my own food to last weeks, and not have new clothes, but it’s been worth it!

Late last year I entered a period of financial stability, which coincided with meeting someone I felt I connected with.

She’s an artist, older than me, works in a cafe, and has had a lot more experience in anything about everything. She is also up front about her past of substance abuse, even though she is clean now. A lot about her partying past scares me – the types of people, the types of things they did… I’ve been close to someone that was into that type of existence, and I still get painful feelings thinking about it. She was so completely different to me in every way, but I could stop myself from liking her.

We would have talks – she would come around to where I lived so we could work on a special creative project together. I gave her bits of work from my own jobs, because I knew that she was good. When her living situation imploded, she spent a month on my couch. I felt like I had found someone that was going to go on creative adventures with me.

The possibility of renting a cottage together came up – she needed a place to live, I needed a place to work. We applied and were successful, I moved my office into the place while she was away visiting her family. When she came back, we moved all her stuff in. Since then, a lot has happened. I could go on about lots of little things, but that would be a bit granular so I’ll try and summarise.

I have the habit of emotionally exploding. One time, I went around to the office to pick up something I’d left there and forgotten the day before. It was our arranged ‘day off’ where she has the house to herself, but I needed this item to do work. I knocked on the door, and she was very angry for almost a week. Her anger at this, really shook me. 3 months later, I am not allowed to be in the house at night-time. That in itself is really hard for me, since being separated from my equipment is painful and means I can’t work. She made a specific meeting to tell me that we should stop hanging out and having dinner together. Recently, I emotionally snapped, because I couldn’t take the tension of not being on speaking terms with someone I share a floor with.

After this, I tried to dial back, however I was told that she can’t have me in the house. A summary of her words were, she really likes the work and the jobs we do together, but she didn’t sign up to deal with all the emotions I’ve been exhibiting. I proposed that if we tried to talk more I wouldn’t be so uncomfortable around her – her response was that she’s not going to change anything to deal with my problems. So I moved out my equipment, and into a garage someone has kindly let me occupy. As I was packing up my stuff that afternoon, she told me it’s not like we aren’t going to communicate, after all we still have jobs to complete. Then her friend picked her up to drive her to her yoga class.

I had contracted her to work on some jobs that I had sourced, well before things got so bad. Within a few days I received some emails with one line sentences and phone pictures of sketches she had done. When I critiqued one and asked for further clarification of design details, I got a curt response with an exclamation point. Because she doesn’t have time to work on them any further, I have to pick up the remaining work and finish it in a couple of days.

This is really affecting me. I can’t get out of bed, I don’t want to answer the phone. This garage is horrible, and I’m still on the lease at the house even though I can’t go there anymore. I’ve been treated for depression before, and I thought I was doing well these past few years but now I don’t know what to do. I have no idea. All these work deadlines are hitting me and I can’t work. I feel like a fool, because if I’d just been able to control my emotional reactions maybe I wouldn’t be in this pain.

Sincerely,
Creatively dumped

Connecticut_SlightlySmaller

Dear Creatively Dumped,

There has been a breakdown in your work relationship with this person that is affecting your ability to deliver the work you’ve promised. For the time being, you need to put aside attempts to make the personal relationship work and just finish the jobs you’re doing with her.

If you can finish the work without her involvement, do so. If you can find another collaborator to finish the work with, do so. If you end up owing her a kill fee, pay her the kill fee and be done with it. If you must continue with her, then continue with her until the jobs you’ve currently agreed to perform together are concluded. Then end your relationship with this person.

Your mistake was to mix personal space with work space. It’s always risky. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Just recognize that you have to be careful mixing work and friendship.

Can I just say something, though? Why don’t you say you are a painter, or sculptor, or filmmaker, or clothing designer, or whatever you are? Why are you so circumspect about what it is you actually do? I have wondered this about letter writers for a long time and I’m finally going to just start asking: Why are people so vague about what they are actually doing? It would be extremely helpful to know exactly what kind of work you do.

I am curious, too, about what this reticence means culturally. What is the “social space” in which this reticence occurs? Is that social space in some way the problem? That is, we have a problem that is very much about material circumstances. Material circumstances are very concrete. Space, time, money, objects, equipment, contracts, labor, hours: These are all very concrete things about which agreements can be made that eliminate later confusion. Clearly, the reason you have a problem with this person is that you did not negotiate in enough detail, in a concrete enough way.

Perhaps it seemed silly or rude to talk about exact hours and spaces and times of day and so forth, in the context of your personal relationship. And yet now we see the problems that result. You are in a garage.

Here’s another thing. She has her share of problems. We don’t know what they are, precisely, but we know she has her share of problems. It’s possible that she has screwed you over. But you’ve let her screw you over. So we’re back to the question of restraint. If we let someone screw us over, are they to blame? Well, yes, of course they are. And are we to blame for letting them screw us over? Yes, of course we are. It takes two. Either party could prevent this. In the “real world,” people screw you over if they can.

So don’t get screwed over. Accept that people will screw you over if you let them. Don’t let them.

What does that mean?Here’s an idea that’s very concrete: Take some self-defense courses. Seriously. You may be able to get to the psychological thing you need through the body. Try it. Try getting into battle in a physical way and see if that doesn’t tell you something about your vulnerable posture in the world.

And that’s it from me.

So this has been rather rough and not at all the type of column I used to write for Salon. In a sense, I am reinventing my practice once again—now that the restraints are off. Increasingly, as the weeks go by, you will see a shift from a straight advice column to something else, whose outlines will remain fuzzy, but which will take more chances, be more rhetorical, more questioning, more immediate, and perhaps, on certain days, crazier. People will hate it or love it. That’s nothing new. What’s new is that I’m currying favor neither with readers nor with an employer. I’m back in the business of confronting my own soul, which has ever been the only business a writer can be in.

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I’m a gay man in a small town working at a gas station. So?

Write for Advice

Cary’s classic column Tuesday, Mar 18, 2008

I have a feeling maybe I should move to the city, but I like my job, I like my town and I like my family.


Dear Cary,

I have several concurrent problems for you. Bet you can’t wait. Firstly, my job … I work in a small gas station as a cashier. My job is like a pair of slippers. It’s comfortable. The pay’s peanuts, it’s easy, the hours suit me and it’s totally unchallenging. Frankly, a monkey could do it. I get on with my boss, I like the banter I have with the customers, and sometimes it’s quiet enough that I can just read a book. But is this reason to stay? I have had some terrible jobs in the past. In fact, virtually all of my previous jobs were awful. I have had so many terrible jobs in fact that I am scared of getting a new one.

Added to that, at 26 I still have no clue what I want to do. In fact I got so tired of thinking about it that I consciously stopped thinking about it altogether about 12 months ago. I got the simplest job I could find and vowed to give myself a break. During that time, I’ve become a different person. I appreciate little things now (like chatting to many different people who pass through while I’m working) and take time to go for walks, write, drive around without having a destination. I get by on little, I am no longer materialistic, and I’ve learned how to live simply. In fact, I enjoy the simple life. It humbles you. I definitely don’t envy my friends in high-stress jobs. However, financially, I probably need to earn more money. That’s if I ever want to clear my debts and find a halfway nice place to live. Somehow, though, I can’t make myself do it. I don’t have a clue what to do next. I can’t think of a single career that I’d be right for. Added to which, I have had a pretty checkered career history, consisting almost entirely of dead-end jobs/career gaps.

OK, wakey-wakey! Problem two. I moved back to my hometown a few years ago, due to financial pressure. However, the longer I’m around, the more I want to stay. This is odd, because I was always so desperate to get away when I was younger. However, as I get older, my family is more important to me, and whereas I was once crying out to get the hell away from them all, now I don’t think I want to be hundreds of miles away. I’m pretty close to them now actually. The only problem with this is that I am gay and this isn’t really the sort of place where you meet any guys. But I just hate the idea of moving to a big city because my sexuality dictates that I must. I’ve never been defined by my sexuality and I ain’t a city person either. I like calm places, nature, landscapes, and I feel at home when I’m close to that.

I realize the answer is simple: Either go or stay and live with the decision. But it’s hard to actually decide. And just to make it all a little more interesting, I’ve fallen for a gardener who fills up where I work. I used to know him a little when we were younger, but it’s not always easy for a guy to ask another guy out, especially in this sort of a place. I have no idea if he’s gay. It all gets me to thinking, is there ever any end to our problems, or do we just replace every one solved with a new one. Goddamnit!

Clueless

France_Ad_fix

Dear Clueless,

There’s something wonderful about your letter. Partly it’s the tone. It is so quiet. You are not screaming about the uselessness and unsuitability of your life. You are just thinking out loud about the possibilities. You have that same vague unsettledness that many of us have, the quiet restlessness and curiosity. But your nature has brought you to this place. It is not unsuitable. It is your place. There is much about it that suits you. That is what is attractive. You know what you like and much of what you like is here in this town. That is attractive.

There is also the presence, within this balanced situation, of one thing that makes you out of place; there is this one issue, this gardener, and the fact that you are gay.

So we like the setup: an orderly existence with a modicum of tension and a mystery at the center: Who is the gardener? What will he say?

The scene you suggest has a cinematic quality. People drive in slowly and stop by the pump. They get out and pump the gas. They come in to pay or to buy a quart of oil or some gum, or they pay by credit card at the pump and drive off. Life proceeds by repetition. Maybe there is a lull after each fill-up, or maybe the fill-ups go on constantly with a lull now and then. It gets busy and it gets slow. When it gets slow you are behind the counter reading “Madame Bovary,” or some old Tarzan pulp, or a French detective novel.

Now I am adding things. It is your story but I am adding things — because imagining you in the gas station makes us remember things.

As children on a long trip in a car we experience the gas station as a place of peculiar power and mystery.

We have been sleeping; we wake up and look out; the car has slowed down; we are coming into somewhere strange and different; a tattooed young man in tight jeans, a greaser from a small town, comes out to pump the gas. He grinds his cigarette butt into the concrete floor of the garage with his boot heel, walks slowly to the driver’s side window and ask if you’d like him to fill it up; he pumps your gas, cleans your windshield with a spray bottle and a blue paper towel, pops your hood (it makes a squawk because the hinges need grease), checks your water and checks your oil. He says you’re a quart low. You say, go ahead and add a quart of 10W-40.

Sometimes you pull in and run over the bell switch and the gas station attendant does not come out. You sit there in the heat wondering where he is. He might be on the john. He might be eating a sandwich. Eventually he will emerge from behind the garage. Once when I was a child traveling through the South with my parents on a hot Saturday afternoon we drove over the bell switch and sat for many minutes. Finally the mechanic emerged from behind the garage, grinning, and his girlfriend peeked out from the side of the white gas station building as he hitched up his pants, buckled his belt and pumped the gas. In the front seat, my mother looked at my father. The girlfriend’s hair was tousled. Her eyes were bright. The mechanic looked down at the ground as he pumped the gas and raised the hood and checked the oil and water. We were a quart low. He poured in a quart of 10W-40. He did not need to use a funnel. He poured it straight into the crankcase with a steady, grease-blackened hand.

So we have memories of gas stations. Those of us lucky enough to have traveled by road when gas stations were still on small roads in small towns remember the mystery and the quiet.

Imagine, by contrast, if you were to think to yourself, Well, I’m a gay man, so I guess I’d better move to San Francisco and sign up for all the activities.

Imagine giving up your family and the land you love; imagine giving up this life where you enjoy casual conversations with people as they drift through the gas station; imagine taking a new job in a big city and being unable to read because there are all these things that have to be done right now because it’s a big city and it’s an important job. Imagine trying to play a role that doesn’t feel right for you — and imagine choosing to do that when you don’t have to!

I think you summed up the situation nicely when you asked, Is there not ever any end to our problems? We do replace every one solved with a new one. But I must say your problems sound fine. Your problems are manageable and contained, and you basically have an enviable situation.

Sure, you are in some conflict. You cannot know the future or see inside other people’s heads. So you cannot know if you are going to get to know the gardener better; you don’t know if he will turn out to be also gay, and interested in you; you cannot know that. All you can do is get to know the gardener. Get to know him as a friend. Detain him in some conversation long enough to determine what his interests are and so forth.

Basically, I’d just say, don’t muck it up. Stick around. I was watching the waves the other day at the ocean and I thought to myself, stick around for the credits. Let’s stay and see how this turns out. Let the wave wash completely up on shore, and watch how it slowly retreats. Watch it the whole way. Notice the details — the foam, the ripples, the reflections. Here’s another wave. Watch it develop. Watch it unfold. Stick around for the credits.

Enjoy this. Maybe you can stretch it out. Maybe you can be one of those people who actually has an OK life for a while. Change will come. There’s no need to rush it.

Connecticut_SlightlySmaller