Category Archives: family

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Will I ever find happiness in the U.S.?

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I could not have stayed in my country of birth, but I feel like my life in America is just unlucky

Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, JUL 1, 2010

Dear Cary,

I am so glad you are back. Thank you for still caring deeply for others while you are battling your health issues. I really need some advice at this point in my life and I need it to come from somebody who does not know me.

The problem is probably more pervasive than I can describe here but I gotta start somewhere. There is something really wrong with me and I don’t know what to do! I just can’t seem to be happy. Don’t get me wrong, I am usually a fairly funny and upbeat person and I always help people with their problems. I can hold myself together for long stretches of time, but I eventually always end up in the same state of mind again.

Let me describe:

I grew up in a different country under a fairly strict regime. Let’s just say that criticism is the choice of communication over there; not as much anymore, but still considerably. As I got older I did poorly in school; I barely made it out of there, had to repeat a grade, and I was a huge disappointment to my family. The focus in the classroom was on repeating prepackaged information and in that circle of negative feedback I always felt out of place. I started not seeing any point in living at around 16. When my parents had me they weren’t even in their 20s yet. I understand that they didn’t have the time, energy or experience to deal with a depressed daughter who couldn’t fit in. This is where I learned not to show any of my weaknesses because my family was overwhelmed with everything anyway. My issues in addition to theirs would have killed them.

As soon as I could leave I did. I came to the U.S. a little bit after graduating high school and it was awesome. It was new, I was independent, and I found some new friends. I finally felt like there was a place I could … maybe … possibly call home. Even though I only stayed for one year (visa regulations) I knew I’d go back eventually. After working my ass off and being put down constantly in an ungrateful job for a few years back home, I finally tore down all the bridges, I sold everything I owned, got rid of my apartment and moved back to the U.S. I moved in with a guy I had met online and figured I could go from there. I won’t even describe the disaster that this turned out to be. Can you tell I sometimes make irrational decisions? Well, it sure shocked the hell out of my family.

Anyway, I am a little better now in the sense that I cleaned up my life a little. I got rid of the guy and went back to school here in the U.S. My relationship with my family is fine. I graduated college at the top of my class, and I am now in a graduate program at an Ivy League university. Needless to say, I have no money whatsoever. Everything I make goes straight into my education. Everybody around me is in the midst of living life. All my friends have spouses, houses, children, jobs, and they deal with their little issues. At the end of the day they go back home and they sit down for dinner. They plan vacations and they decorate their homes. They bring their car to the mechanic and they drive to the grocery store to buy some bread.

And at age 32 I have nothing. I have no house, no apartment, no car, no husband, no nothing. I am alone. I rent a room. I scrape by from day to day. I can’t legally work as much as I would like to and I am losing my patience. Nobody wants to hire me full-time because then they’d have to sponsor a work visa for me. I will be graduating next spring with a master’s degree and a lot of knowledge about research and I don’t even know what to do then. Nobody even responds to my applications for summer jobs! What’s going to happen when I attempt to get a real job? The uncertainty is killing me. What did I do all this work for?

And here is the real bummer. Even though people tell me that I am attractive, smart and funny, I can’t seem to find a guy who wants to be with me. Seriously, I think I am like chopped liver to men. They stare at me on the street but they never talk to me. They ask other women out and bring them flowers, but they never do that for me. I have dates but we never seem to click (I do, but they don’t). They marry cute little women, but apparently not somebody who is freakishly tall like me. In short, nobody ever truly wants to be with me.

Honestly, Cary, I am back to zero here. I just want to cry all the time. I feel like everywhere I turn I get roadblocks. I am the ugly and dumb kid in high school again. I watch while other people date and get A’s. I even went to see a therapist a year ago, but if anything, she was predictable and forgetful and I’m not going back there again. She, like many other people in my past, made me feel unimportant and uninteresting.

So what the hell is wrong with me? What am I supposed to do to crawl out of this hole? I am worried that I will always be alone. I’ll never find somebody who loves me for me and enjoys my company. I want to get married and have children. I want to have somebody I can rely on. At night I want to go to bed with someone I trust. Why is this such an impossible thing for me to find? Other people do!

Thanks for listening.

Unlucky at Cards and Unlucky in Love

Dear Unlucky,

As I mentioned the other day, I have been reading some stories by Richard Ford. They were mostly stories, though one was a selection from his novel “Independence Day” and one, the one I read this morning, was “My Mother, in Memory,” a memoir.

So the thing I like about Richard Ford’s writing, and I hope I do not lapse into imitation of him as I say so, is that he struggles, as writers are supposed to struggle, to sum up, or crystallize these vague and insubstantial notions we have from time to time about what a life is or should be. He gropes to find a shape for life. And one thing that emerges from that seems to me to be an abiding sadness. But it is a serious sadness, a sadness that is responsible and clear, that does not arise from unconsidered expectations but inheres in what we can observe and experience. Thus there is some nobility and promise in the sadness. There is the promise that we will come to know life as it is, on its own terms, and when we do that, we can stop grinding our teeth and tearing our hair out and just live out our days with some abiding simplicity and peace.

To you I would say, under the spell of Richard Ford, as he says of the wordless understanding that passed between him and his mother regarding the mystery of what life gives us and does not give us, “Yes. This is what it is.” Your life as it has come so far is the life you have been given, and it is not inferior to the lives of others. In some ways it is magnificent; it involves significant overcoming, significant courage; it involves your recognizing that there was some stuff you just would not take, that you did not have to take; you realized that you could do something about it, that you didn’t have to have things as they were. You needed things that weren’t available to you in your family or your town; you didn’t belong in that kind of life so you set out to find a life you did belong in. And you found it. You found the kind of life you belong in.

You haven’t gotten everything. And perhaps you are aware that expecting to get everything is an error, an indulgent error that you have allowed yourself. Well, you’ve suffered enough, why shouldn’t you get everything, the boyfriend, the money, all of it? But in allowing yourself this indulgent expectation you are only torturing yourself. There’s no guarantee that you’ll get the boyfriend and the money and the apartment. Nonetheless, you have done something to carry you forward. You have done something wonderful and admirable. You have saved yourself. You have escaped the major, soul-killing awfulness that drowns so many others. You have carried yourself out of hell and found a place for yourself that is mostly OK.

Those of us like you and me who were not OK where we were and had to wander, we don’t completely belong anywhere. We suspect that we’ve blown it somehow. So it helps to remember that we did what we did — leaving family, leaving our birthplace, our origins — to save our lives. It was not an amusement. It came from a deep place. We knew we did not belong where we were so we set off to find someplace where we would feel more at home. I came to San Francisco. It was my kinda town. But I’m not completely at home. I have done well in certain ways. But there is always a nagging suspicion. I can let it nag or I can try to dig deeper to honor the larger story: that I was in a place I did not belong, that I felt if I did not leave I would be missing out on some life that was waiting for me to live it, like a suit of clothes hanging in a cabin across the mountain, waiting for me, and me alone, to mount the steps of the cabin and step inside and put on the clothes and find that they fit perfectly, and then to step out on the porch of the cabin and join a life. Something like that was the notion I had, that a life was waiting for me. So I went west and sort of found it, only it was not really what I had imagined. Instead of becoming a novelist and short story writer, I found myself writing these letters to people; instead of becoming a professor and conveying the words of others to people, I found whatever I can convey about the world comes from my own hard-won experience. I do not so much teach as commune with others in mutual learning. Still, that is what I did. So far I have done what I had to do, and life has turned out as it did. That is all I know.

What you need to get through this period is courage and self-regard. You need to know that you have already rescued yourself. You have done what you needed to do and you can be proud of that. One of the hardest things to do is take at face value — or value highly enough, or honor, I should say — the ways in which we rescue our own souls. It sounds so kooky to say that! It sounds kooky to say you rescued your own soul. There are other ways to say it but that is what I most want to say, because that is what I really feel about such actions: Something in us needs to leave where we are, so we pack up and go. And then later maybe we pooh-pooh what we have done, saying it turned out badly. We forget how desperately important it was to do what we did; we forget how much it seemed an act based on a high truth; we forget how right and noble it felt. And I think it right true and noble because it was. We confuse taking such true and noble action with how it all works out in the end. How it works out in the end is not our problem so much. Our problem is to follow our deepest instincts and intuitions and do what we have to do, because in that way we are taking care of our souls.

That’s how I see it anyway. I know the language is a bit corny but it will have to do.

So what you need now in your life is some peace, and some self-kindness, and I hope you can go through your days with the inner knowledge that what you have done already is enough for now, that you have gotten yourself out of a terrible land, and you have rescued yourself, and the rest will come in its own time. The best thing you can do now is find some peace, and be patient, and know that so far you have done the right thing. Wait for the next right action to occur. If you are in the habit of praying, ask for the next right action. Or just wait for it. Just know that the next right action will come to you if you wait. It will come to you. Trust it when it comes. You might not recognize it. It might surprise you. That is OK. Often the next right action comes as a surprise to us, and we do not trust it at first. We don’t see where it is leading. But trust it. You’ve been OK so far. Trust it in this time of difficulty, and wait.

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My father was murdered by my former next-door neighbor — and I’m supposed to just get over it?

 I’m having a rough time; I’d like some justice and some peace.

Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, OCT 2, 2008

Dear Cary,

I am not sure where to start or even if I should be writing to you. I have been struggling with something, and at times I think that I have it beaten enough and that asking for help is just useless whining for attention. At other times, it rears up, and I think that it may overtake me.

Two years ago, my father was murdered. Someone wanted money for drugs, and he was beaten and left to die. A second person was involved. She helped plan the robbery, waited nearby and did nothing, though she knew my father was seriously hurt. She sent someone back in the house to rob him again, then covered up the murder from police. She and the murderer are in jail. I grew up next door to the murderer. I saw him beaten, heard him begging his father to stop, saw the delinquent he grew into and how he used people up, even before he was on drugs. My father helped him learn to read, and he took my father’s life. I did not know the girl who was involved. She is up for parole next year, when she will have served only a year in jail. She lied as she pleaded guilty this past spring, diminishing her role. The attorneys for our side acted as if I was lucky that they had worked out a deal and gotten her any time at all.

What I am trying to tell you is that I am very angry and in a lot of pain. I know this hurt other people, but I seem to have taken it the worst. I had a breakdown after my father died. In about two months, I slept about 30 hours. Sometimes I still don’t think that I will make it. Others seem more able to go on. They often say things about how he is in heaven. They tried to pretend that Jesus took him up right away and that he didn’t suffer, no matter that the coroner told me it took him hours to die. I know this is their defense mechanism, but sometimes it comes across as smugness.

I was the only one to speak at the hearing of the girl involved. No one else wanted to, and my brother, who was estranged from my father, had to be begged to even show up. One aunt said something like, “This is the world. They’re not Christians. They don’t care what I have to say,” but I wanted help. I spoke, but could barely get through it. There is something in me that almost obsessively focuses on painful things, where others seem to just as obsessively ignore them. I was diagnosed bipolar, but medicine seemed to rob me of any creativity or humor, so I went off it over a year ago. (Long-term use has also had bad side effects for two relatives.) I feel as if I can’t let the girl, who is up for parole next year, get out. I feel as if it is all up to me. I feel as if my father will be forgotten, unless I remember. I know people are tired of me crying, so I hide it when I can. I know I should do something constructive and keep busy. I know there is much worse suffering in the world. I just don’t understand how this was allowed to happen. I cannot make peace. Sometimes I am not sure if I can keep going on without him. I feel as if I am serving a life sentence.

I just thought you would give me an outside opinion. These last two years are a long story that I have been struggling with.

Thank you for your time.

Anonymous

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Dear Anonymous,

I think I can suggest some things you can do that will help you. But I do not want to launch into that right away. A person who has been through what you have been through, you tell someone what you have been through and right off they launch into a set of prescriptions for you, and you know you’re not supposed to be angry, they’re only trying to help, but you feel shorted somehow. You were just telling your story. And they launch right into all this stuff you’re supposed to do to make you better … and by the way, why aren’t you better already, why are you taking this so hard? And you know you’re not supposed to want to punch the person because they’re just trying to help. But a prescription for action was not what you were asking for, not right away, anyway. You were asking, first of all, just to be heard.

So we sit a little and let it sink in. We sit before it and regard it and we begin to feel the gravity of it. And it makes us humble. We realize that whatever we say, it will just be one small part of a long process for you. We realize that you are in pain and we can’t make that pain go away. So we sit and sense the pain you are in, too. We just sit with it for a minute and it takes hold of us, too, and we begin to react to it with deep sadness and we realize that won’t do, either; you don’t need for us to collapse into tears over your situation. That’s not what you came here for, either.

So we just respond to you as a person, not overreaching or overreacting, not smugly knowing or overly optimistic. We take in your suffering, acknowledge it, be humble before it, admit that it is real.

We live with the past. We cannot change it. We just take it in. We take it in and mourn and grieve the tragedy. We take it in; we expand to contain it. In expanding to contain it, we grow stronger.

It doesn’t feel that way right away. It feels like it’s going to destroy us.

The grief alone will not destroy you. But you need a practice, a method, a tool kit. In this kit are certain things you know will work. For instance, a place you know you can always go to: a lakeside, a burrito joint, a street corner that uplifts you when the world is sitting heavily on your shoulders, a person you know who will always be supportive when you need it. You make a list of these persons and places and tack it up somewhere, and when things get bad, you look at your list and go to one of them. You take shelter.

There are many kinds of shelter.

What happened can’t be undone. But you can do things that get you through the worst parts. You can have a set of tools to get you through.

I have been lately writing about grief a lot and I have gotten some helpful letters from people. One letter yesterday mentioned tonglen, the Buddhist practice of breathing in suffering and breathing out compassion and relief. There is a very good chapter about this in the book “When Things Fall Apart,” by Tibetan Buddhist Pema Chödrön. It was in this book that I first read about tonglen. The poet Allen Ginsberg taught a similar thing; he suggested that we breathe in the world’s ills and breathe out light and forgiveness and peace.

Someone also recently wrote to me about her mother, a Catholic mystic who saw Jesus everywhere, and used to travel to seek out his image, and after her mother died, she found that she was crying for everyone and everything, and this frightened her. She looked into her Catholic background and there found a name for this grief for the world: “tears of the faithful,” it is called, those tears we shed for the world’s suffering. (“The sorrows of the faithless are storms, which ravage everything, but the tears of the faithful are a quiet, gracious rain which helps the beautiful flowers of virtue to grow and bloom in the soul.”)

These practices do not cure history. But they help us acknowledge suffering and connect us to humanity. They help us get through the worst of it, and slowly we improve.

There are many other things one can do. There is no technique or practice that is not worth trying. If you had a whole list, you might find only one was useful and palatable. But that one might save your life. So I do suggest that you seek out methods that work for you, that you read in the literature of grief, that you turn nothing away, that you keep an open heart and an open mind. For instance, I myself have never done “grief work” in a formal sense, but I have a feeling it could be very powerful and very healing. You might consider it. I would investigate.

It has been a crazy week. I sometimes don’t know how I am going to get to the next sentence. Then something happens.

A mockingbird has begun to sing. I can smell the sea from here. I wait for these things.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

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My alcoholic dad: How can I reach out to him?

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I know he’s screwed up, but as a little girl I idolized him

Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, AUG 25, 2009

Dear Cary,

This is an epically long letter — sorry. To some extent, I just needed to put it all down on paper so I could get a grip on it: see the patterns and find some coherence in the whole thing. What I’m writing about is such a large part of me that I can’t find a way to edit it down. I suspect you understand.

I need some advice about dealing with an alcoholic, specifically my father. I’m 21 and my dad has been drinking since I was about 4 years old. I guess he’s what you might call “high functioning” — he has a stable job as a department manager, doesn’t get violent or abusive in any way, doesn’t drink hard alcohol as far as I know, just beer. Because of this, I didn’t know he had a problem until I was a teenager. Looking back, I realize that almost every memory I have of him until I was about 12 includes a beer can: doing work around the house, working at his desk, watching TV, on camping trips. I think he’s not really meant to have a family and a high-pressure job. My impression today is that he began to feel trapped and depressed, and started dealing with it by drinking. But of course, I thought it was normal and everything was great.

I adored my father, like many little girls do. I was born 10 weeks premature, which resulted in my mother and I being not at all close, so my dad was often the one who was there for me. He was the more patient parent, introverted like me, and the polar opposite of my mom, personality-wise. She came from a highly dysfunctional family full of alcoholics, failed marriages and absent parents. In spite of it all, she came out shockingly sane, but chronically depressed and not at all familiar with “normal” child development or child-parent relationships. My brother and I were expected to be emotionally competent far beyond our years — many confrontations between us revolved around my inability to be adequately “grateful for all that she sacrificed” to raise us as a stay-at-home mom. So, naturally, my father’s alcoholism really messed with her and the more he drank, the more she leaned on her kids for support.

Finally, when I was maybe 12 or 13, she sat us down for a talk with my father present, and informed us that he was an alcoholic. I really didn’t understand the ramifications of it, but I took on her anger and betrayal and joined her in a messy confrontation with him. Looking back, it must have been absolutely shaming and a really ineffective way to handle the problem. He agreed to go to counseling, but quit after a couple of sessions. Over the next few years, things were tense, to put it mildly. My parents were miserable — my mother furious and my father beginning to withdraw — but neither was willing to divorce, which was my greatest wish. I wanted the whole thing to be over with, for everyone’s sake.

For a little while after the “intervention,” I continued to be closer to my dad, but it was obvious that I was expected to choose a parent’s side, and as he began to withdraw emotionally, I switched to my mom. A year or two later, he and I had an enormous fight (I think he must have been drunk) which culminated in him bitterly observing “I used to be your hero,” to which I shot back, “Well, I found out you’re not so perfect.” After that, we were done. I felt angry and betrayed and he refused to reach out to me again, so we just quit having a relationship.

Actually, he quit having a relationship with anyone. He lived in the house, but worked and slept in a basement room, spent a lot of nights out (presumably at work, though we never asked and he never said), and quit eating meals with us. I refused to have anything more than a curt conversation with him. He continued to drink, though he kept it as hidden as possible. Over time he became more and more irrational and moody. My mom continued to bend over backward to keep him happy, but I decided I didn’t want to play the game and just went through daily life in the house like he didn’t exist unless I absolutely needed something from him.

Finally, two years ago I moved out to go to college on the other side of the country. My little brother left last year. I’ve been home for some vacations, but I’m staying away this summer for my own sanity. On top of all this, I took my mother to see a family therapist this winter, at the suggestion of my own therapist who had been helping me work through the mess of all this. My mom felt instantly betrayed by the mere suggestion that she had been a less-than-perfect mother and the idea that I might want to be my own person instead of her support system. I managed to set up a rule that I was no longer going to be dragged into her passive-aggressive conflicts with my father, which has been helpful for me. However, she has now withdrawn from me, rarely initiates contact, and doesn’t really have much to say to me anymore. I have no contact with my father outside of short discussions about financial aid or the family health insurance, which require his input. Once every few months he tries to start a conversation with me over e-mail, but they never go anywhere. When I’m at home, we ignore each other’s existence.

So, I’m sitting here, on the verge of being a grown-up, feeling kind of disjointed and parentless. Now that I’ve broken out of the messed-up dynamics of my childhood and set some boundaries for myself, I’ve started to revisit this history with my father, and it turns out that, angry as I’ve been with him, I really miss having him in my life. He was the parent my mother couldn’t be for me when I was little. And I have a hard time letting him go because I see so much of myself in him. But at the same time, he’s chosen alcohol over functional relationships in his life. He controls my mother’s life because he controls the household finances and she’s co-dependent with no real income of her own. My brother still talks to him; I guess that’s the side he chose when it reached that point. My dad spends a lot of money on him instead of time and genuine effort. I expect any day to get a call saying Dad has been injured or killed driving drunk.

I know I can’t make him change. I know he’s pretty dysfunctional and to blame for a lot of things. But I also know he must be as miserable as the rest of us, and I’m starting to wonder (here’s the point to all this): Am I being unfair to him? Does he deserve, simply as a human being, to have a daughter who will talk to him? What can I expect from him, if it’s even possible to have some sort of relationship with an alcoholic? I’m worried that I’m being immature and immoral by shutting him down so completely. But I never, ever want to stoop to his level like my mother has, and I don’t ever want to be used emotionally by him. Is it time to just give up or is it time to reach out?

Thanks so much,

J

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Dear J,

It’s true that your letter is long, but I agree that each part of it is important, and the task is to find the pattern in it. I am glad you wrote it all down. Each time someone tells their story, people who also have grown up with alcoholic dads are helped.

I have two main responses. One concerns how you as an individual will navigate between two poles of being. The other concerns your father’s alcoholism, and how he might get some help.

On the first point, let’s just say that one pole of being is the you as a completely unique individual. The other pole is the you who exists in knowledge of and opposition to your parents – the you who has made a pact with herself never to repeat the mistakes of your parents.

Neither of these poles represents an absolute state; rather, you are a unique individual trying not to repeat your parents’ mistakes. You are trying to have a relationship with them as you are, not as the circumstances of your upbringing might dictate that you be. We are a synthesis of utter uniqueness and the shaping forces of experience. We live in the tension between uniqueness and repetition.

As we question and challenge our parents’ negative examples, we also must question our own iron-clad determination not to repeat those negative examples.

Determined not to repeat “my father’s mistakes,” I am in the process of repeating them even as we speak. I am so afraid of abandoning plans, and thus repeating my father’s pattern, that at times I have been rigid, and so have not become conscious of what is the next thing, and so have missed opportunities, and in that way have replicated my father’s pattern! In being so determined to make a marriage that works I have at times failed to live authentically in the life of the marriage, have administered the marriage instead of living in it, like some remote bureaucrat in a desert highrise, grading the marriage’s adherence to program. In resolving not to let my inherent wildness destroy me, I have destroyed some of my inherent wildness and with it some of my life force and love and beauty and desire and music. I have been so fearful of repeating my father’s impulsive changes that I have in my own life become a little rigid and conventional, although at heart I am naturally intuitive and thus blessed with the ability to act with wise impulse.

The focus on not repeating negative examples seems to bring them to life!

The “not” part does not seem to be as strong as the “what” part.

In playing tennis, we avoid saying to ourselves, “I must not hit the ball out.” Our brain does not seem to get the “not” part. We must instead visualize the ball going in. Likewise, in life, we visualize what we are trying to bring into being, instead of focusing on what to avoid.

So to the extent that you can survive it, I think you must have a relationship with your father. This relationship with your father can be your laboratory for growth. There are probably areas of life in which you did not grow because of your truncated relationship with your father. Coming back into his life can be a way for you to build, piece by piece, your way of relating.

So I suggest you forge a framework for relating to your dad. Identify safe, relatively neutral areas in your home town where you can go with your dad, where he feels comfortable and where you feel comfortable.

If he drinks steadily throughout the day, you may want to identify a time when he is not too hung over but not too drunk — perhaps mid-afternoon. Or perhaps lunchtime at work is a time you can visit him, if his workplace is governed by corporate norms.

If being with him is too difficult, too upsetting, too dangerous, then you will need to back off. But I think that measured, regular contact with your dad is better than cutting off contact altogether. There is something there, even if it is buried and distorted by the alcoholism. There can be at least a continuum of contact. If nothing else, by staying in touch, you will have up-to-date contact info.

As you occupy this difficult space, notice yourself in opposition to your parents. Then notice yourself in the absence of your parents. Each is an abstraction, a false pure essence: the you that is only you, and the you formed by your parents. Neither is real. Find the middle. Live in the tension between these two. Notice how it feels to move from one to the other. Notice how narrow is the space where you only oppose your father or your mother. Notice how narrow is the space of your own uniqueness. Notice the power in these poles of attraction and repulsion.

To be more concrete: You love your father. Your father has a disease. The disease distorts his personality and his thinking and causes him to act in ways that are harmful to himself and harmful to others. But there is a man in there who is your father and he has been the most important man in the world to you. You love him. Because you love him it is painful beyond words to see him distorted and destroyed. Your task is to handle it with boundaries.

I know how difficult this father thing is.

I know how difficult it is to accept that in spite of the many, many ways he can be helped, you cannot help him until he is ready. In spite of what I know, I find myself thinking, Couldn’t you cook up some sort of real intervention? — not the shaming and self-serving drama that your mom concocted (wow, what a scene that must have been!) but a professional intervention, with a treatment option. Why not try that? I mean, it sounds like he hasn’t really tried …  and I have just fallen again into the same old trap everyone falls into, haven’t I? I know that we are powerless over the alcoholism of others and yet, and yet … I cannot let this go! (Why not? Because I’m no different from anybody else!)

Has he ever said he wants to quit? Has he ever admitted he has a problem? What was this family conference about? If he went to a counselor for a couple of sessions, perhaps he at least had an inkling of his problem. And then maybe the shame and trauma of the family conference just shut him down completely, and now he is all alone and full of self-pity and whatnot.

But maybe he is ready. You could at least try to find out. (See how tenaciously I cling to the belief that he can be helped, that he can be changed?!)

You might at least have someone who is a recovering alcoholic come and visit him and see if maybe he can relate, and maybe give recovery a try. There are people who would make the visit, I’ll bet, if it’s even remotely possible that he might be interested in some kind of help.

So that’s the alcoholism side of it: He might be ready. Who knows. It’s possible.

You and I know you cannot change him. Yet let’s hope you can forge some kind of relationship in which you take strong precautions not to be burned, but are still close enough to feel his warmth.

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I lost my inheritance on a “technicality”

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Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, MAY 1, 2009

Due to an “error,” the stepdaughter gets everything.


Dear Cary,

It really is not about the money. My dad worked two and three jobs his whole life and ended up with a relatively small estate to distribute among his eight kids and his stepdaughter. He died first. Then his wife died. My brother took her into his home and his beautiful, loving family helped her die a better death than tied screaming to a hospital bed, which is where she was.

Now the estate is being settled and due to a technicality, an error in his wife’s will, all of the proceeds are being given to the stepdaughter, even though my dad and his wife’s wills stated that all proceeds will be shared among all of the children. We are all asked to sign a paper that we relinquish all claims to the estate and accept a token amount from the stepdaughter.

I can’t bring myself to sign it. Mostly I feel like it is a disrespect of my dad and his whole life and an unethical act. I feel like if I sign this paper and accept this insulting amount of money, I am going against his wishes and it’s just plain wrong. Please believe me that the amount of money is so small as to be negligible, even if we got the full amount that the will instructed. So it really is not about the money. I know people often say that and it really IS about the money. But the money feels more symbolic to me than anything.

I don’t know what to do. Is it Buddhism that says when you don’t know what to do, do nothing? I try to live an ethical life with my actions in line with my beliefs. (Although I don’t have the guts to be a tax resistor.)

This resistance to relinquishing the claim feels like it comes from a very deep place inside, a big no to being reasonable. I have no interest at all in suing or going to court or hiring a lawyer. I just do not want to sign a paper that feels wrong to me. I don’t even know if it will hold up the distribution process or what. I don’t care. I guess I should care because some of my sisters are in extremely bad financial positions and the small amount would be a big amount to them.

This whole thing feels like a mocking twist of fate — the Cinderella story gone south. The selfish stepsister gets the prince and fortune. The good sisters and brothers get sent out in a blizzard with no bread crumbs to lead them home. The bad guys win. I have mixed up many folkloric themes but you get my drift.

I love your column and appreciate any thoughts you can share with me, Cary. Thank you very much for your work.

Sister Left Out in the Cold

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Dear Sister Left Out in the Cold,

When an “error in the will” or a “technicality” causes one heir to benefit to the exclusion of all the others, doesn’t it make you wonder what actually happened? Do you feel satisfied with the explanation that it was just a “technicality,” an “error in the will”? I don’t think I would feel satisfied with such an explanation. So I do think you should see a lawyer — not to fight this necessarily, just to get a clear understanding of what happened.

Did someone fail to file something by a deadline? Was some language the wrong language? Was something mistyped? Was something misfiled? What exactly was this “technicality”?

In my book, there’s another word for “technicalities.” That word is “law.” “Technicalities” are what the law is made of: specific, detailed, exacting requirements. Lawyers are supposed to take care of all these “technicalities” so that the wishes of the dead are honored.

When these requirements are not carried out, and that failure creates an unfair advantage for one party to the detriment of the others, that doesn’t really sound like a “technicality” to me. It sounds more like a “screwing.”

Isn’t that really what’s going on here? A screwing?

Isn’t that really why you’re upset? There was a shared understanding and a clear intent, as spelled out in two people’s wills, about what should happen. Then an entirely different thing happened. It wasn’t supposed to happen. But it benefits one party to the detriment of all the others.

And you’re being very polite about this.

As heirs, I guess we’re supposed to honor the dead with our piety and humility and acceptance. That’s what’s underneath this, at least in part, emotionally speaking, isn’t it?

But do we really honor the dead by letting a “technicality” corrupt what they wished for?

If everyone agrees that this “technicality” is unfair, that the estate was supposed to be distributed equally, then perhaps you draw up a document stating that the stepdaughter promises, upon the settling of the estate, to distribute the proceeds to all the children, as is the intent as understood by all of you. If she’s willing to do this, then maybe you know that it’s mainly fate that seems bent on screwing you. Whereas if she clings to the notion that this “error,” this “technicality,” is what rules, then perhaps you come to understand that it was not a technicality at all.

At the very least, you deserve to know what happened.

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It may be something truly random and innocent, the fault of no one. But then what we’re talking about is incompetence. You’re being screwed by fate and incompetence. OK, at least you know. So what’s worse, to be screwed by somebody who knows he’s screwing you, or to be screwed by incompetence itself, by somebody who doesn’t even know he’s screwing you — by somebody who, in turn, is no doubt being royally screwed by somebody else and hasn’t even felt it yet?

I can’t decide. It’s so hard to pick. Maybe it depends on how good-looking he is.

Damn. I’m getting worked up now, too.

I’m getting worked up because words like “technicality” and “error in the will” are the costumery of scoundrels. I’m getting worked up because the law can be a beautiful instrument for justice and should not be used for obfuscation or to justify the unjustifiable. I’m getting worked up because we ought always, as citizens, be alert to the manifold and dazzling ways that people will use the law to blind us, to confuse us, to frighten us into submission, to remind us of our subservience before the masters of the law, to remind us that we are not really free citizens in the face of the law but servants from whom only obedience is expected, and that as children of parents we ought to be only meek and grateful for whatever passes to us, and never question the law or the lawyers and their “technicalities” and “errors.”

I’m getting worked up because use of the law to hide the truth reminds us that torture, in one universe, is what those who want to carry it out say it is, and that legality, for those who want to break the law, is whatever they say it is, and that what’s right, despite the manifestly stated wishes of all involved, is what the lawyers say is right, because they are in command of all the “technicalities.”

It stinks. You’re getting screwed and it stinks and you deserve to see the face of whoever or whatever is screwing you. Whether that face be the face of fateful incompetence, of greed, of selfishness, of covertly hostile maneuvering, of brilliant cunning, or of accident, of bureaucratic bungling, of unconscious wishes surfacing as error, whatever: You deserve to see the face of whatever is screwing you.

So find a good lawyer, one who is on your side, show the lawyer the facts, and don’t leave the office until you yourself understand what happened.

Then at least you know. Knowledge is power, and knowledge is healing. At least, by knowing the facts, we reconcile ourselves to the world of scoundrels and bungling and simple, blasted fate.

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

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

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

Dear Cary,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Practically Fatherless

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Dear Practically Fatherless,

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

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

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

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

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

All this becomes moot once he buys the rifle.

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

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

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

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

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

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


Dear Cary,

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

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

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

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

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

My Parents Have Reverted to Teenagers

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Dear Son of Teenagers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My dad’s become a crazed right-winger

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

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

Dear Cary,

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

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

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

Worried

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Dear Worried,

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

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

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

Frankly, I suggest you take the long view.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One last thing, if you please.

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

For this, too, shall pass.

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

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


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

 

Dear Cary,

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

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

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

And that’s not even the problem.

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

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

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

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

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

Franken-mom

LastChanceTuscany

Dear Franken-mom,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What happened to all my dad’s money?

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Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, MAY 19, 2008

He remarried, he moved, and now all his savings are gone!


Dear Cary,

I recently returned from a trip to Las Vegas where my father gave me news that made me furious. I’m not really prone to anger, which makes this even more surprising.

My mother died in 1999, and my father soon moved to California and remarried a short time after. I had reservations about his wife, but I kept my mouth shut out of diplomacy. I was just glad to see him happy.

He told me this past year his marriage had been difficult, and he had moved out of their house. During my trip to see him last week, he explained that their house was now up for sale. With some prodding, I also found out his life savings is now gone, and that his wife and her family took advantage of my father’s kindness over the course of seven years. Some of this financial help was in money lent to his wife’s son (which was paid back to his wife, not my father), down payments on their house, and the purchase of a car (which has been given to his wife outright). On top of this, when my father needed other forms of support from her family, they didn’t offer the least bit of help. Now, their house is up for sale, and I doubt his wife will give my father his share without a fight. The trouble is, my father is not a fighter, and though he says he is concerned about all of this, his demeanor says otherwise.

First of all, I feel betrayed by my father. I will admit my own selfish reasons — money he threw freely at his new family could have helped me. I wouldn’t have asked him for money unless it was an absolute emergency, but the fact that he didn’t even think of me in this matter hurts. Second, I am furious at his wife and her family. I can’t understand how so many people could take money from one man and then be so unconcerned when he leaves their life. Thirdly, I am angry at myself for not catching this sooner. Would it have helped had I told my father that I had a bad feeling about his wife? We’d talk on the phone about once a month, but he never brought any of this stuff up. My father is 70, and the fact that his life savings is now gone due to his naiveté and a family of parasites doesn’t really seem to bother him. This makes the situation even more difficult for me.

I’m not sure what my question is — I found out about all of this a few days ago and maybe just needed to vent. I mean, I can call a lawyer on my father’s behalf, but the money he gave his wife and her family is gone. I think the best he could hope for is to get half of the money from the sale of the house. Also, I want to call his wife and tell her off and let her know I’ll be fighting to get what’s owed to him, but I realize this may complicate things legally. I want nothing to do with her or her family aside from this financial issue.

If you’ve read this far, thanks. Maybe my question is the universal one: What do I do and how do I go on?

Where’s the Money?

LastChanceTuscany

Dear Where’s the Money?

Remember this: Your father used his money to get his needs met.

Remember this also: He will never tell you that.

In the swirl of emotion and drama, when it appears that your father has been robbed, that he is a helpless and passive victim of his second wife and her children, when you are tearing your hair out because he will not lift a finger in his own defense, remember this: Your father used his money to get his needs met.

His needs were expensive, as it turns out. But he got them met. And now he is broke. It’s unfortunate but there it is.

Some needs we do not like to admit we have. After a long marriage, a man may not know how to fix himself a sandwich or wash a shirt. He may not know how to sit with himself alone in a room crowded with thoughts and feelings. He may not know how to make new friends, or cry, or walk through crushing grief with a high head. He may not know how to tell anybody how frightened and alone he feels without his wife. He may not know how to ask for help.

But he knows how to give away his money.

Your dad used his money to meet his needs. And now it is gone. It was a real need he had, and he met it the only way he knew how.

We do not always spell out our needs, especially the ones that are deep. Our needs may be perverse or trivial yet they are real. We may have a need, for instance, to appear powerful and nonchalant, untroubled and above it all. We may have a need to feel the indebtedness of others. We may need to be secretive and not tell anyone what we are feeling. That is a need, but it is a need that is a surface need, covering a deeper need. There are other surface needs masking deeper needs. If the gas gauge on your truck is on E, maybe you don’t like the feeling that gives you. Your surface need is to deal with that needle. Maybe you break the glass and push the needle up until it says F. That might make you feel better. But it won’t solve the problem. You need gas. We often get our needs met without solving the problem. Rather than meeting some needs, we need to interpret those needs, or transform them, by digging to the roots — fear of abandonment, fear of being ridiculed, fear of feeling weak and out of control. And then we deal with those deeper needs by building better foundations — a stable financial situation and stable relationships.

One tragic way we deal with fear of losing our money is, paradoxically, to keep spending. Rather than admit we are afraid of running out of money, we keep spending. Rather than admit we are afraid of being taken advantage of, we keep giving our money away. In this way, fear of the money running out makes the money run out.

We are accustomed to thinking of money as something we use to meet our needs. One way to deal with that is to turn that around and place ourselves at the service of our money. We can say, OK, as of today, now I meet the needs of my money. What does my money need? It needs to be taken care of! It needs to multiply. It wants to multiply! It wants to earn interest! It wants to be put to productive use!

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That’s a good thing to do with things that need nourishing and care. We place ourselves at the service of those things. Creativity, for instance. When we place ourselves at the service of our creativity, it blooms. When we keep asking it to provide for us, it dries up.

There is another angle. Yes, we use our money to get our needs met. And our needs often mask other needs. But the other angle is: People come into our lives and use our money to get their needs met. They have needs and we have needs and there is an exchange of money and need, emotion and need.

It is a common tale: The wife dies, the husband remarries, the new wife takes his money. This happens over and over and over.

And then, when all the money is gone and the second wife is gone, you begin to meet some of your dad’s needs. Your dad is lonely, weak, confused, sad, in need of a sandwich and a fresh shirt perhaps. You begin to meet his needs. The relationship changes. It is painful.

So now we come to the concrete section where you take action. I suggest that you do indeed contact a lawyer and take whatever other concrete steps you can take to get the facts and ensure that your father gets any and all money that is due him. Do not delay. What you need, first and foremost, is a complete accounting of your father’s financial condition and legal status. As to his legal status: Is he married but living apart? Is he planning to get a divorce? What is his status? As to his financial condition: What are his sources of income? What are his assets? Go through all his papers and figure out what his situation is.

This will not be easy.

If it were as simple as saying to your father, “Dad, I want to go through all your financial activities over the past few years so I can understand where your money went, and help you control your money in the future,” and if he would say, “Ah, that sounds like a splendid idea, here are the keys to my file cabinets, and here are all my tax returns, and here are my letters, and the deeds, and mortgage statements, and here is a record of the private arrangements I have made with various of my wife’s family members, and here is my checking account, and, by the way, why don’t you become a signatory to my checking account so you can monitor all the checks I write?” well, that would be nice, no?

But how likely is that? More likely, I would think, your efforts to become involved in your father’s financial dealings will be met with obstacles that range from suspicion, covert resistance and apparent lack of interest to outright hostility and stonewalling. It is a tremendous emotional change for a father to admit that he has maybe made some mistakes or been taken advantage of. It is a tremendous change for him to admit that he now has to let his children look into his affairs, and possibly criticize or question his judgment.

You have to look in private places. You have to get permission. You have to ask for things you have never asked for. Or you have to snoop. You have to ask other relatives for information. You have to ask people your father has dealt with for information about those dealings. You have to talk about and understand financial arrangements and real estate transactions that you have no expertise in. It is hard.

And this is all stuff that some families never, ever talk about, or talk about guardedly, or in code, or in such a way as they don’t ever really say anything. In order to do all this, you, too, are going to have to change. And you are going to have to face that you, too, have some needs that have been perhaps unacknowledged.

But now it’s time for a change. For you to change means you may have to face your own needs — your need for your father to place you first, for instance. He didn’t do that. He met his own needs. He forgot about your needs. And he met the needs of this other woman, not your mother, not your mother who is dead. Not the mother you grieved. He let this other woman come in and replace her. Another need you may have right now is the need to not be so angry at your father that you could strangle him with your bare hands. That need is not being met right now. So you have to face what is behind that anger. What is behind that anger is sadness and fear. Your father has shown his weakness. He has shown his needs. The man you depended on for so long is now the weak one who needs your help. You are seeing the beginning of his decline. A new era is begun. You must be strong and responsible as he slips into being dependent and needy.

You have reached one of life’s turning points, and you are not alone. My advice to you is to begin now, because you could be at this for the next 20 years.

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Can we flee my husband’s family?

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, SEP 3, 2009

They’ll drive us crazy if we stay. We want to move to Colorado!


Dear Cary,

This is hardly a new topic, but here goes.

My husband and I have been married about a year and a half. We met, instantly fell in love and got married a short time later. We are in our mid-30s and know ourselves well, so there was no reason to wait. And we are crazy happy with each other. Unfortunately, this whirlwind courtship and wedding situation didn’t give me as much time in retrospect as I could have used with his family. Not that I would have ditched my honey, but I probably wouldn’t be living where we are now, which is the crux of the problem. Here’s the cast:

His mother: where fun goes to die. Literally. My husband’s father, whom he dearly loved, killed himself about 15 years ago rather than continue being married to her, although only my husband knows this and she wouldn’t believe it anyway. She is the typical old Catholic, martyr, misery-loves-company type. Refuses to say anything positive to my husband. Couldn’t congratulate him on our wedding day, much less contribute a dime toward it and she is very, very comfortable financially. I am polite to her, but I don’t see us getting particularly chummy when every time I see her, she unloads about something my husband did 20 years ago. She’s 70 years old and no, she’s not mentally ill — she’s just a bitch. When I lost my job about a year ago and our fridge died in the summer, we asked for help. Her answer? “Well, you’ll just have to wait for a sale and get it yourself!”

His brother: AKA Golden Boy. Which I find ironic since he has done nothing of note in his entire life except get married in the Catholic Church and pop out a couple of kids, so he gets the lifetime free pass for whatever bullshit he wants to pull. He’s lazy, uneducated, a freeloader, thief, cheats on his wife, and everything out of his mouth is a lie. His best skill is probably getting his mother to pay for whatever he wants by pointing at the kids and saying, “I really need ____, but it’s so expensive with the kids …” Total con man and he plays his mother like a fiddle. He just stole my husband’s golf clubs out of our garage and I can’t wait for how his mother justifies it so it’s my husband’s fault.

His maiden aunt: She owns the house we rent. She’s pretty nice although she believes family comes before all else, meaning we should dismiss every stupid thing the brother does because “That’s just the way he is!” She’s 75.

So we all live about two blocks apart. We moved into this house because it was sort of a wedding present from the aunt, the rent was affordable, and we were planning on having kids. Not a good idea in the 450-square-foot apartment we were already sharing with two cats in the city. Now, after a year and a half, we are ready to bolt. Except that we can’t just yet — any apartment we can find is even more per month. So we are saving our money and plan to move to Colorado in a couple of years. Great, right?

Except that MIL and aunt are expecting us to hang around and take care of them in their old age like they did with their mother. MIL can kiss my ass and we have no problem leaving her to Golden Boy — he more than owes it to her. But the aunt … she’s kinda nice and we don’t know how to handle that. She HAS given us a place to live and all. Should we be preparing her for this ahead of time (which will undoubtedly lead to endlessly complaining about how we don’t appreciate family and more of the MIL’s bitching) or just keep it all quiet and tell them after we’ve bought the house and the moving truck is packed? The grandmother died at 95 and there’s no way in hell I’m staying here 20 years in this situation. And I know this sounds really petty, but let’s be honest — the aunt and MIL make it very clear that my husband and I just don’t “count” as much as Golden Boy because he has kids, so you know where the inheritance is going.

So do we prep them or gleefully skip out?

Desert Gal

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Dear Desert Gal,

I hear something in your voice. I hear a self-assured quality that seems at odds with what you are actually asking, or saying. You are saying that you have married into a family that you find intolerable. It is not something you can gleefully skip out on, even if you go to the moon. Nor can these characters be neatly labeled and placed in boxes. You can divorce your husband if you want out of the situation. But otherwise, you’re in. This is the family you married into.

So here is what I first suggest. Take the long view. And try the high road.

Your mother-in-law may be a truly impossible individual. But try the high road. Go to her and say that you love her son very much, that you recognize that you may not live up to her ideal of a daughter-in-law, that you would like to be accepted as a part of the family, but that your dreams for such a life are taking you to Colorado. Tell her that you recognize that she and the aunt (her sister?) will need some help in the years to come, and ask her if there is a plan in place, and what her hopes and expectations are for your role in that plan. Tell her that if she hasn’t thought it through yet, that you hope she will. Offer to help her come up with a plan if she does not have one.

Give it a shot. Like many people, she and her sister might prefer not to think about the future and plan for it but just wait until it happens and then hope their families take care of them, and make life holy hell for everyone just on general principle. But you have a chance, now, to put everything on the table and see what happens. You have a chance, now, to start the conversation. You can offer to help by creating a plan. And you can make it nonnegotiable that you and your husband are moving to Colorado.

I also hear something else that I think is significant: Your husband’s father killed himself when your husband was a teenager or young man. It is understandable that because of the enormity of this event one might wish to reduce it to ironic dimensions: that he killed himself, literally, to get away from his wife. But suicide reverberates through a family in many ways no matter what explanation we give it. Each person in this family was without a doubt affected by his suicide in ways that they may not understand and probably cannot or will not communicate. It is there, that suicide, in your husband’s psyche and in the dynamics of the family.

You say you and he know yourselves well, so there was no reason to wait to get married. But if you truly knew yourselves well, you would have known that, perhaps because of the pain and chaos of your early lives, you tend to make impulsive decisions. Knowing that you tend to make impulsive decisions, you might have waited. But you plunged yourselves into a situation from which you now wish to escape. So you want to escape to Colorado. That may be yet another impulsive move. So if you truly want to know yourselves well, you should know this: that you tend to make big decisions on impulse.

It sounds like I am scolding you, doesn’t it? I apologize. I have no place to scold. I have no right. Let me try to get at what truly bothers me. My guess is that your husband was deeply affected by his father’s suicide, and that it is present in your relationship today in ways you are not aware of. And I sense that this unresolved pain is pushing you to vacate the premises. But it will go with you. Unless you and he examine how his father’s suicide has affected him, and how his current family relationships are affecting both of you, my guess is that no matter what you do, eventually you will experience emotional upheavals that seem to come out of the blue, and you will not know how to deal with them.

I feel this in your tone: You want a quick solution. And yet your actual situation calls for exactly the opposite.

I’m not saying don’t move to Colorado. By all means move to Colorado. Get out of there. But no matter where you go, you will be blindsided by events in the evolving family drama unless you begin working now to understand how that dynamic operates.

How about this: You have the conversation with your mother-in-law, the two of you move to Colorado as planned, but then you promise me to embark on a course of self-exploration so you can bring to consciousness the ways that his father’s suicide is operating today in your relationship.

Here is a very quick gloss on that. You say that your husband shared a secret with you, which is that his father killed himself to get away from his wife. If your husband is relying on such a story to cover over the enormous feelings he must even to this day be experiencing as a result of that suicide, then he has some work to do. It will be painful but liberating work. It will involve facing the loss of his father. It will involve facing his own guilt about the ways he might have prevented that suicide if only he were a better son, if only he had loved his father more, etc.

If he clings to this story that his mother is to blame for his father’s suicide, then in the years to come when his mother truly needs his help, it will be hard for him to play the role of loving caregiver and son, of protector and provider. Unless he takes some action to reconcile, he may also feel constant guilt for having, in a sense, abandoned his mother after his father’s suicide.

This sounds fine on paper. It is easy to say but hard to get. You have to get it.

For instance, a few months back I was driving the truck along Lincoln Boulevard by Golden Gate Park in the fog, bellyaching to myself as usual, when something “became real” for me. I felt in my chest something that I had perhaps known intellectually for some time: That my frail, demented 85-year-old father was never going to get up out of his bed and give me the warm, encouraging pat on the shoulder or the wise, clear, practical advice that I for so many years resented him for not giving me. Holy shit. What have I been thinking? There was no more father out there to blame. The only father I had was within me. The only father I needed, also, was within me. Whatever fatherly support or strength or advice I felt I needed, I would have to create for myself, or find somewhere within me. I had to embody that strength.

It was a visceral thing. With agonizing slowness, the heart learns.

That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about. You can know the facts of this suicide, but certain things must be felt. So I suggest you find someone to help you and your husband work through his father’s suicide now, so it doesn’t creep up on you two for the next few years until you feel like you are losing your mind because lately you’ve been breaking down in tears at unexpected moments and some depression has overtaken your husband and he’s angry and resentful and drinking too much and getting violent and suicidal and you cannot find him in the gloom and you are wondering, where the hell did this come from?

Don’t wait for that. Confront this now. Go ahead and move to Colorado and find somebody to work with about this. You can have a good life and make all this work out. But you cannot ignore it. It will not work itself out on its own.

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