Category Archives: Friendship


I don’t want my husband at my high school reunion

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Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, MAY 31, 2006

I’m not ashamed of him, but I think he’ll be bored and make me nervous.

Dear Cary,

Am I a horrible person for hoping my husband doesn’t go with me to my 10-year high school reunion next month?

Since it was first mentioned, he automatically assumed he’s going, and having never been to one of those things, I’m not sure about the protocol. But last night, I was thinking about it and dreading it. I’m not the awkward little girl I was when I started high school, or the insecure young adult I was when I graduated. I was never popular, but I had lots of friends and interests. I earned my degree. I’m in great shape. I write for a newspaper. My husband is wonderfully fun and handsome and interesting. He’s successful, too; he’s a lawyer.

I guess I’m hoping for the satisfying closure you always see in the movies and books about reunions, where classmates finally accept the main character, where she reconciles with the friends she’s wronged and hasn’t spoken to in a decade, where all unrequited loves admit how blind they were never to have seen how amazing she is. I’m living in a fantasy world, I know. But I fear there’s no chance of anything happening with my husband hovering nearby.

Maybe I am still the insecure little girl that I was then, if all that affirmation is so important to me after all these years.

I’m also worried that he’ll be bored while we hang out with my friends the entire weekend in my hometown. Everything will be an inside joke. Or worse, he’ll think we’re lame, or he’ll hear about ex-boyfriends or other unpleasantness in my past that I’d rather avoid. I can’t tell him not to come. No matter what I say, he’ll think I’m ashamed of him, when it’s not that at all.

The reunion is having a strange effect on my entire group of friends. My best friend is refusing to go, and when her husband (another classmate) brings it up, she cries. She has achieved success in the career she always predicted she was going to have. She’s smart and friendly and interesting. She married her high school sweetheart, and she looks great. She had serious issues with weight for a while, but she’s conquered them.

Another friend of mine who moved overseas shortly after college graduation has been planning for two years, before the event was even annoounced, to fly in for it. It’s all she’s been talking about. She was bullied all the way through middle school and she wasn’t well accepted in high school, but she is sure that everyone will be so much more mature and friendly and accepting. I’m afraid that it will be a huge letdown to her. She just went through a divorce. I guess the root of this is: Why are we all making this reunion the end-all, be-all of everything? What can we do to get past all this insanity?

Reuniting and It Feels No Good


Dear Reuniting,

I think you are making the reunion a big deal because high school was a big deal and there are many powerful emotions still cooking after all those years.

What you can do to get past the insanity is recognize ahead of time what it will actually be like and plan for that.

Make some rules for your husband. Tell him you will want to be just with your old friends for some of the time. But also include him in some big dinner or something. And make some plans ahead of time with the people you really want to see.

What happens when you put a society of adolescents together for a few years, bond them intensely and then suddenly loose them on the world? All those relationships go into the freezer. They don’t keep well. You take them out a decade later and they’ve decayed. It’s not that the people have decayed, but the relationships, which are fed by contact and interaction, have decayed. There are no functioning relationships between these people. So naturally at high school reunions many people feel confusion and sometimes disappointment or sharp letdown. It’s a bunch of strangers who used to know each other. You’re not going to feel the way you used to feel, nor are you going to heal the past. You’re going to be you, today’s you, encountering people that you used to know but don’t really know anymore.

So be prepared for unexpected melancholy. It may help beforehand to take stock of yourself honestly, to admit that a part of you is still only 15 but so is everyone else and admit that you are still afraid of the popular girls but so is everyone else and admit you really dread going to this but so does everyone else and admit that even though it’s going to be scary and awkward you have to go anyway just like they do — because you just have to find out. You have to find out what happened to all these people. That’s all. You just have to find out.

And then you’ll know.

Be prepared for people to be weird and nasty and strange and drunk. Be prepared for people you thought were nice to be mean and people you thought were mean to be nice.

Be prepared to find idiots prospering and geniuses failing, the best and the brightest tarnished and fallen, the mediocre shining and thriving, those you thought you loved and admired suddenly shallow and dull, those you never noticed suddenly effervescent and gleaming and irresistible.

Be prepared for some really bad hair. Be prepared for premature sweater vests and unimaginable slacks.

Be prepared for the spectacle of incompleteness, of a swarm halfway there, no longer brimming with potential yet not accomplished either, beginning again only beginning bigger this time, and a bit clumsy as all beginners are.

Be prepared for the deep-voiced pomposity of the formerly shy in full boorish bloom, the new engineering sales manager heading his division, exceeding his targets. Be prepared for the nervous too-wide smile and the wallet full of pictures: wives standing on beaches and wives pushing baby carriages and wives in uniform. Be prepared for bad breath and insensitive questions.

Be prepared to feel an overwhelming desire to run away.

When necessary, detach. Think of work and what needs doing at home, and how much better you like your new life than your old life.

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Letter to a friend, with a poem at the end

Dear …

I thought of you just now. I am sitting in this renovated 13th-century Italian convent between Rome and Florence, a short walk up from the train station, and your face  drifted into view. There were a lot of people here for ten days but they all left on the train today. I suppose suddenly being alone was one reason I thought of you. There had been little time to really think. Now I am alone.

I wanted to tell you some things, just being truthful, not wanting anything specific or immediate from you, but not wanting to offend you either with my bald frankness, which I realize has sometimes seemed uncivilized or cruel. As you may know, I was raised by people who spoke sharply to each other as a rule, and to us kids, with the understanding that sharp words were intellectual love and honesty. We spoke to each other with such words and it was not seen as cruelty or even bad manners. It was a point of pride. We knew what we meant.

But my wife has taught me many things in the 20-odd years we have been married. I have come to see how being too honest too quickly can seem cruel. In the spirit of that honesty, though, I will say up front that I do want something from you. Of course we all want things from each other all the time. But sometimes wanting something can cast doubt on the sincerity of what we are saying: Why are you telling me this now? You must want something from me.

Let me do this in my way. I just want to be honest, more honest than I would be if we were face to face. I want to say that I thought of you and believe it or not I felt gratitude. The word “gratitude” is in trouble these days from reckless overuse. It hardly means anything. There is even a restaurant near where I live called “Cafe Gratitude.” But I do want to say I am grateful, meaning conscious of having received much from you.

It is hot here in Castiglion Fiorentino today, hotter than we expected it to be in June. Another workshop starts in two days. People will begin arriving tomorrow. So I have only a little time. This lack of time may be one reason I got to thinking about all the people, like you, whom I’ve been able to meet and write with over the last eight years. You know, we always say in these workshops, “Let’s reflect back what we remember, what sticks with us.” I remember many things about you but some of those things have blended into a composite picture.

Here is something I wrote in the workshop yesterday, on the last day, which I thought I would send to you, which in a personal way sums up where I’m at, what it’s like to be me today. I share this because I have seen, over the years, what happens when people keep coming to these workshops. We go deeper and we get better at being able to capture a moment, where we’re at.

We’re not all big amazing genius type writers and I don’t give a damn about that, frankly. I feel that writing in this way, in a group, has given my writing something else, a home separate from the world of publication. Writing that is published has one kind of home, a big, public home where many shoppers come and go, and people can pick it up and make judgments about it, or dismiss it or do whatever they want with it. Here, though, in the group, it is like we are writing in someone’s home, and everyone is more attuned to the personal implications of each piece, and how we are affected by what is said and not said.

So I have the world that I write for publicly, and this world, where I write things and share them immediately, like just-baked biscuits. They get consumed fresh and that is that and we move on. That’s what I give a damn about: the feeling of having a home for my creative practice.

There are probably reasons that I am more comfortable sharing in a group than publishing, or at least as comfortable, and maybe we will talk about them at another time. But for now, I wanted to share with you this, a just-written piece, not agonized over, not polished but fresh and perhaps revealing in ways that I am not aware of, but which I don’t mind … while I have a moment, before the next nine-day workshop begins:


Is this a turning point?
Am I at a turning point?
How the hell would I know?
I know my history.

I remember running as a kind of change.
The only way I knew to change was to run.
Every word seems full of other meanings.
Are we in the dark or have we found a fertile garden?
Everything is ripe with more meaning than is wanted.

I know that in the past I turned and ran. Rant.
Plots have turning points. Plots are also graves.
The turning point. Remember that movie? It was
About ballet. Oh well. A plot is a grave and a
Turn is a spin and a point is an infinitesimal idea.

I learned that in geometry. Are we getting off the subject?
Welcome to the stream I dip my toe in.

Wood smoke. Bird cries. This endless thing.
Looking for a turning point, a radius. I wish I
could be witty. Is this a turning point? I have always
run. Now I try to pivot.

So I say to the therapist that I later fired,
I hate my house. He says, you hate your house?
He didn’t say anything about the house as metaphor.

Can I take a different road? Can I live in Italy?
What I came to San Francisco for now is gone.

I’m thinking about a wire transfer. Is that part of the turning?
I love the words that things are made of: wire, and transfer,
The things that money are made of, the keystrokes, the clatter,
the random number generator and who tracks, who sees, the
random numbers generated? This intrigues me as I wonder
If I am turning.

Could I simplify? Wood smoke like visiting Grandma Ann.

Now all these feelings start to come up. Why do we say come up
And not arrive, or fall down? Why do they come up? Are they
Being held down? I guess so. Duh. That’s how we do it, that’s our
Metier, our special Nordic genius for drinking and shutting up.

Shutting up and shutting down the
things that would come up or out; ever
think of that? We shut up but there is an object too that is then imprisoned.

And then I’m sure there is more. But what I wanted to share with you was that. And I said I wanted something and yes, I do. I want these workshops, when we come back to San Francisco, to be big and full of joy. I want you to come. I want you to make time in your life for these workshops, so you will share these things with me. I want them to be big, like celebrations. I want you to feel free to dig deep and be respected. I want the house to be full of your spirit once again.

I work with a guy I don’t understand

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He’s a gay person of color, but he’s against the minimum wage!

Cary’s classic column from  Sunday, THURSDAY, JUL 21, 2005

Dear Cary,

I have been at my current position as an attorney at a law firm for less than a year. Although I work at a rather typical big law firm, I am a committed progressive with a strong background in grass-roots activism. After paying off a portion of my educational debt, I intend to return to the public interest world. Many of the views and values that I hold are diametrically opposed to those of my colleagues at the firm. I try not to talk about politics too much and keep to myself generally. However, despite the fact that I didn’t really try to develop a strong friendship with anyone at work, I have become quite close to a colleague at my law firm. He is a nice guy who seems to struggle with the same type of issues that I struggle with at work in balancing life and work, dealing with the stresses of being a litigator, etc.

But the more I get to know him, the more I realize that he and I disagree about pretty much everything when it comes to politics and social issues. For example, he believes that racism is not a problem and that people should just ignore any racial differences because human beings are ultimately the same. When I try to have a discussion with him about institutional racism or about the civil rights movement, he and I end up getting into an argument. We end these arguments by saying that we agree to disagree. He has also told me that he believes what the “Minutemen” are doing at the U.S. border is good. He believes that people should just move on from the Holocaust. Oh, and my colleague friend also does not go anywhere outside of the mainly white neighborhoods in the metropolitan area that we live in. I should also add that he recently moved from the Midwest and really believes in small-town living and values.

But what makes me not understand him at all is that he is a gay man of color. When it comes to gay rights issues, he becomes quite militant, but when it comes to issues about gender or race or class, he does not see what the big deal is. I have tried to have discussions with him about critical race theory or about issues of gender and class, but he just doesn’t seem to care. The other day, he told me that there should be no such thing as minimum wages or affordable housing.

And the more I get to know him, the more I’m troubled by some of the things that he does. For example, I have noticed that sometimes he can be very superficial. His conversations and interests really seem to lack depth. He likes to play tennis and work out, play video games and watch a lot of TV, and go shopping for clothes and electronics. He is also rather stingy about money and doesn’t seem like a generous person. He has told me that he befriends people oftentimes because they are good-looking. He pretty much always eats on the firm’s dime and does not seem to like to pay for lunch. What also really surprised me about him is that after a good friend of his at the firm left to go to another state, he didn’t really keep in touch with her or follow up with her or go out for a farewell meal (which we were planning), even though he often used to tell me how it made him sad that she was leaving. All of these things make me not want to be friends with him.

At the same time, though, he has told me that he cries a lot and sometimes wakes up at night crying. He has cried at the firm gym and in his office. I wonder why he cries so much, though I’ve only seen him cry once. And he kind of made it a point to show people that he was crying. I feel bad for him, since he is generally a nice guy, though not the most compassionate or open-minded person.

Also, he seems to cling to me, telling me that I am his best friend at work or telling other people how close we are. It makes me a tad uncomfortable when he does this because I am not sure how I feel about our friendship, though, at work, he is my closest friend.

Having these thoughts about him makes me feel awful, especially because he seems to think we are close friends. I am also confused about my friendship with him. Because I have never been close friends with someone who had such different views and values from mine, I am not sure how I’m supposed to continue in this friendship. I may be leaving the firm, in which case I will no longer have gripes about work — which is the glue that holds us together, I think. What’s more, I don’t like becoming friends with someone just out of convenience. If I’m going to be friends with him, I should be open-minded and listen to what he has to say and accept the fact that he is the way he is. Who says that only people with the same political views and values can be friends? Ideally, I’d like to be able to be friends with someone who has views that are diametrically opposed to my own. But is this friendship possible when I feel like he doesn’t share the fundamental values that I hold dear?

I appreciate that he is there to gripe with about work, but is that a sufficient basis for a friendship? If I am a true friend, shouldn’t I try to broaden his perspective? I fear this latter prospect might be patronizing to him.

I would really appreciate hearing your thoughts on this.

Trying to Be Open-Minded


Dear Trying to Be Open-Minded,

You are describing what many of us would call a regular human being. With this human being you have a congenial but contingent relationship. Such relationships arise when people of contrasting ideologies are thrown together at the same workplace. As you have observed, they provide a rich opportunity for learning about other people. But it’s also just about getting through the day.

Here are some things about other people that I think you should know: People sometimes do things for no reason except they just want to. People sometimes think something and then just say it right out loud just like that. Occasionally a person will do what he feels like doing without considering whether it is consistent with his past actions and stated beliefs. For instance, a person will want an ice-cream cone, and next thing you know he’s walking down the street toward the place where they have the big cardboard barrels of many different flavors and the people behind the counter in aprons. If you ask him if he believes in ice cream, he might claim to have no particular passion or belief in ice cream itself. Nonetheless, he wants an ice-cream cone and so off he goes, jingling the change in his pocket. One day in the future, when sufficient computing power exists, we may be able to say with some certainty why a particular person arose from a desk at a particular time of day to go get ice cream. But until then, we just say, “Oh, Hank? He went to get an ice-cream cone.”

Hear me now: People do stuff. People say stuff. They have feelings and thoughts about things, and not all those feelings and thoughts make sense even to them, much less to anyone else.

While you describe the interaction between you and this other person in considerable detail, you still are standing apart from it, as though it weren’t you at all who was having this relationship, but some laboratory representation of yourself. I would suggest that what you are doing is just what it is: You’re hanging out with a person from work.

While his motives and ideas remain a mystery to you, consider how he might feel about one particular thing. It’s possible, this guy being a gay person of color, that he may be a little bit annoyed that people expect him to prominently display the latest up-to-date set of approved gay-person-of-color ideas and values. He may not even subscribe to the approved set of values — or he may have been a subscriber but let the subscription lapse.

People do sometimes hold political views that are contrary to their own interests. But can you imagine what it must be like to have all the “normal” people around you assuming who you are based on your skin color and your sexual preference and then getting all out of joint when you don’t live up to their assumptions? Wouldn’t that be a little annoying? Might you not even find yourself adopting certain beliefs just to confound people? Not that I’m saying he does — but it would be tempting, would it not?

Anyway, here is one helpful suggestion for trying to fit this relationship into your life. Consider what it is about him that you really like. Do you like his smile, for instance, or his cologne? Do you like the tone of his voice or the way his eyes look, or the way he walks, or the way he dresses? Sometimes we just like people. They make us feel good. We like being around them. It’s not always their ideas we like. Sometimes it’s their money or their nose or their books. Sometimes we just like people. Sometimes that’s enough.

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The bride fired her bridesmaid — me!

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, DEC 10, 2009

I guess I’m guilty of conduct unbecoming a bridesmaid — but I thought she chose me for who I am

Dear Cary,

I was asked by a dear friend to be her maid of honor. I was immediately a little worried. I’m not into traditional wedding fanfare. I’m kind of like the stereotypical guy in that respect: Tell me where to go and what to do, and I’ll do it. Plus, the wedding has been on a rushed schedule at a time when I have a lot going on in my life too. Add to that the fact that the bride and I have been drifting ever since she met her fiancé, about a year ago. The two are inseparable and not that social; I’ve just naturally spent more time with other company. Maybe my biggest mistake was not expressing my concerns when I was first asked. But I’ve been a maid of honor before and it’s gone fine, and I imagined this would be the same.

You can see the train wreck coming. Fast-forward to a month before the wedding: I get a scathing e-mail from the groom without the knowledge of my friend (I’m certain she did not know), stating that it’s time to “talk to me about my role as maid of honor” and maligning me for my many failures in the role. The e-mail was snide and contemptuous, questioned my values, and accused me of being “irresponsible,” “unaccountable,” “selfish,” of “not caring” and not being true to my “compassionate progressive values.” He said I misunderstood or underestimated the role, and that he couldn’t understand my lack of involvement or inquiries about the wedding planning. He ended by saying he had no faith that I’d show up for rehearsal and that he didn’t care anyway.

It felt like having the wind knocked out of me. So, I responded immediately, cc’ing my friend, basically saying “WTF?” (probably should have waited until I had a cooler head, admittedly). A few more e-mails ensue, I try to defend myself and point out that the groom’s e-mail was totally inappropriate and graceless, and my albeit defensive response is construed as a statement that I feel like the wedding is a burden, or that it’s all about me, and my friend’s whole family and the rest of the wedding party are royally pissed at me because of my response to the groom’s e-mail. So, my friend boots me from the wedding party because “others” don’t want me in the wedding anymore but says I can still come as a guest. I tried after my initial defensive response to be as apologetic and deferential as possible just to try to salvage things (trying to take the high road), but to no avail.

If the bride and groom’s actions sound irrational and extreme, it’s because that’s exactly how I experienced them.

After all the drama, honestly, my first reaction to being ousted was relief. A couple weeks have gone by, and now I feel totally pissed off. The truth is, I tried. I participated in planning and throwing a shower, and a bachelorette party, I got gifts, tried on dresses, etc., rearranged work responsibilities to make all the events … by no stretch was I the model maid of honor, but frankly I can’t imagine treating anyone close to me the way I’m being treated, especially someone who’d been doing things for me all summer — even if I found those efforts disappointing. And maybe this sounds like a lame excuse, but she never once expressed any hopes or expectations for what I would do. The missive from the groom was the first word ever uttered to me. I feel totally hung out to dry.

I was gracious when she dumped me, and we both tried to spin this as not an indictment of our friendship, but more and more it feels like one. Neither of us have reached out to the other since the “break,” and yesterday I reaffirmed my commitment to go to the wedding in an e-mail to see if I’m still welcome (still trying to take the high road) and received no response. It took her three days to write a tepid response that I can still come.

Our mutual friends agree I’ve been treated badly but think I should suck it up, and for the sake of the friendship put on a smile and go to the wedding. They think she’s stressed and under the influence of an overzealous fiancé and family, and that I’ll earn respect by showing up for her.

I have valued this friend. But the more I reflect on this situation I feel so angry and misunderstood. I feel I am owed an apology. It deeply offends me that my friend hasn’t stuck up for me, hasn’t acknowledged anything I actually did do for her, and doesn’t empathize with my point of view at all. Even though she blames the discord on the feelings of her family, I believe that they take their cues from her, and she could have stuck up for me as her friend.

How do I go to the wedding in these circumstances? But how do I not go, if I want to preserve a chance to salvage the friendship? Is there anything worth salvaging?

Maid of Honor Never Again


Dear Never Again,

I have long labored under the illusion that when a bride chooses a maid of honor she is expressing her esteem and love for that person, declaring her to be part of her intimate circle of friends and family and pledging, symbolically, to include her in the new life that begins with the ceremony and will continue for years afterward.

I did not realize that choosing a maid of honor was equivalent to hiring an unpaid event planner on a probationary period, pending her demonstrated competency and loyalty to the company, lacking which she could be fired like a janitor from Manpower.

I guess I was wrong, and so were you. You thought you were chosen for who you were, for how she holds you in esteem. It turned out that you were hired provisionally on a trial basis and dismissed when your performance was judged subpar.

Knowing that weddings are pageants of power and status rather than declarations of loyalty and love can perhaps dull the blow. You can say to yourself it’s just another bullshit social competition. Also, some of the pain we find in adult friendships and social conflicts can be traced back to childhood. But that does not make the pain go away.

So just exactly what happened here? What was it about this friend that you liked so much? Did she make you feel special in some way? Did you feel when you were with her that you were the most important person in the world to her? Did her loyalty indeed shift suddenly and completely to her husband? Certain people make us feel wonderful when we are the subject of their attention but leave us devastated when, with a guiltless, frictionless, sociopathic cool, their attention shifts to a new object of reflection. Such people do not form deep bonds and cannot empathize; their relations with others are reflections of themselves. When you are giving such a person what she needs, that is, reflecting back to her a suitable image of herself, then you are her favorite and she loves you as she loves herself (ha ha). When you express yourself, however, or deviate from the image of herself she sees in you, then she turns away to find a more suitable reflection of herself.

Perhaps that is what happened. Perhaps you were the victim of a person with narcissistic tendencies. After all, a modern American wedding is a narcissist’s dream. Such a wedding ignores the great fact of all rites of passage: that while something is gained, something is lost. It only celebrates and does not mourn.


Rather than accept the reality that not all of her friends are perfect reflections of herself, and not all of her friends exist solely to support her narrow view of who she is, which would have been an adult approach, your friend retreated from reality. The loss she might have accepted she instead transferred to you. She made you lose, rather than face reality.

It is ironic that the one ritual that is supposed to usher us into adulthood is so festooned with pastel fantasies of preadolescence. It is also an indictment of our culture. Covering ourselves in the rituals and symbols of childhood, we blind ourselves to our coldest and most bloody conquering, muttering silly platitudes about God and country while blithely marauding across the planet, conquering and destroying all that is not Disney.

By acting in such a way, the bride turned away from maturity. You, on the other hand, can use this event to grow stronger and wiser.

Painful as this is personally, I hope you will examine in detail what friendship means to you. What traits do you look for in friends? What do you value? Who among your friends is truly your ally? Who would come to your aid in a crisis? Who values you for your uniqueness and cares about your feelings? And who seems to be hanging around you only for what they can get? Who steps forward and offers help when you are in a jam or feeling bad? And who seems to be around only during the good times? Did any of your friends tell the bride what they thought of this action?

As for your own character: Each of us must know our strengths and weaknesses. Next time someone asks you something like this, you have a chance to say, Sorry, I’m not sure that’s for me. There’s no shame in that.

Lesson: Beware the narcissistic bride. If you displease her, she will inscribe the scarlet F for Fired on your forehead.

Since it’s been a few weeks since you wrote me, I include your addendum here:


UPDATE: Dear Cary — So, I did go to the wedding, sat with our mutual friends, and was basically ignored. This was a few weeks ago, and she and I have had no contact since. I have mulled whether there is anything else I can do, but I think now the ball is in her court, and I fear that this friendship is over.

My friend and her husband are decent, reasonable people. I honestly do not know how they justify between themselves this sustained anger at me. My only suspicion is that the groom is very possessive, and as my friend’s closest girlfriend, I wonder if that was threatening to him (subconsciously, as he would never admit that to himself). He does not like her doing things without him. She accommodates this, realizing it’s an insecurity but also flattered by the depth of his love and need. I feel that he set this whole thing in motion with his explosive e-mail, and that my friend lacks the perspective right now to look objectively at what he did. I believe she sees his letter as an act of loyalty and love.

I have two rival impulses at this point: I still want to express to my friend my point of view, which I never did for fear of “ruining” her wedding. It also makes me sad to lose her as a friend. But I think this is out of my hands. I actually think the person who holds our fate in his hands at this point is the husband. And that pisses me off and makes me want to walk away. I don’t know that anything good would come of trying to talk honestly with my friend. But it feels bad, too, to walk away without an honest conversation.

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9/11: “You weren’t there so you don’t know”

My friend saw the second plane hit. Does that give him a superior view of global politics?

Cary’s classic column  Monday, Sep 20, 2010

Dear Cary,

A good friend of mine, let’s call him Joe, witnessed the second plane hit the building on Sept. 11. He shares his stories about huddling in a building lobby with others as the debris and dust came down around them and shared stories of people crying and praying aloud. Although I consider him a fairly progressive and open-minded person, whenever we discuss terrorism and what I perceive as U.S. international policy that contributes in part to hatred of Americans, he has both an emotional and physical reaction, stiffening up and adamantly claiming that he “understands the issue better than I do because he was there” (although he no longer lives in New York).

He doesn’t want to hear anything about extreme poverty, history of war and religious brainwashing in some countries, he seems to shut down all other perspectives on this matter. He is THE authority.

Once, after what I thought was an interesting, albeit opinionated discussion, he went outside and we heard what can be described as primal screaming. My husband later told me it was Joe letting out his anger of the memory of that day. I felt bad about this for awhile, considering that he might be justified, but I’ll never legitimize my own feelings if I constantly feel one-upped in the “bad stuff that has happened to me” department.

I can never know exactly what Joe experienced that day, but how can I be sympathetic to him and his very real trauma, but also help him understand that we all experienced loss and vulnerability that day? Or am I not justified to think that I have just as much to say and feel than he does? Should I defer to his “superior” judgment and experience? Right now, to keep the peace, I try to avoid the subject. But I can’t help thinking, with the anniversary approaching, there has to be a way to understand each other a little better. After all, isn’t failure to accept other’s beliefs and opinions as perfectly justifiable one of the main reasons we struggle with Mideast relations in the first place?

Justified or Mystified?


Dear Justified or Mystified,

Some of us are still raw and will remain raw from the events of 9/11.

Still feeling crushed, traumatized, frightened, we learn to say, Well, you weren’t there, so you can’t possibly know.

When faced with experiences too large to make peace with, we come to partial accommodation the best way we know how.

Let’s let people say what they have to say and let it be as it is.

There are all these people walking around with burdens they need to share, and it’s hard to find someone to talk to about how you feel if the way you feel doesn’t make any sense to you. You find yourself justifying why you feel the way you feel.

So here is an idea. Try going one day without understanding anything. Just let yourself not understand. Don’t bother to understand what you are feeling, or what others are feeling. Just listen and pay attention.

You may find that if you stop trying to understand, the “what” that comes before the “why” becomes more vivid and alive.

This person experienced some things. He may not be skilled in expressing what he experienced. That’s OK.


What is real is that something big and traumatic happened, and this person still feels it. It isn’t necessary for us to completely understand it, or “reach a balanced view.” It’s not our problem. It’s what happened to him. You don’t need to try to convince him of this, either. Just let him feel it. He doesn’t need to be told he’s wrong or he’s right. He just needs to be heard.

It’s not for us to quantify and rate the authenticity of each other’s experiences. None of us had any control over where we were on 9/11.

In the writing workshops I lead, we keep what is written in first draft confidential. But I can say that since my birthday is on 9/11, and since 9/11 was a Saturday, and since we have workshops on Saturdays, we had a workshop on Saturday, 9/11, my birthday, and we wrote about 9/11, and I embarrassed myself by what I wrote because I felt that what I wrote was ignoble compared to what others wrote.

The thing about having confidentiality and a “safe space” to write in is that you can give voice to your own ignoble voices. Being able to give voice to ignoble voices is important if you write drama, because you must get inside the heads of the unprepossessing and ignoble souls who often function as villains in dramatic writing. So this is useful. Still, one is not immune from personal embarrassment. So without getting into detail, I can say that I let my ignoble self rant on about 9/11 while others wrote with great depth, passion and balance, and afterward, for a moment there, I felt as though I had trampled on something sacred.

This was a real feeling.

I also feel, perhaps sacrilegiously, that it is a good thing to trample on sacred things every now and then, just to stay in practice, and that letting others trample on what I consider sacred reminds me that what I consider sacred is just an idea. It reminds me that symbols are not truths. It reminds me that you do not have to understand my thoughts. They are just my thoughts. That is a good thing to remember.

Having ignoble thoughts does not make an individual ignoble. We all have a multitude of voices and attitudes. Some are noble and some are not.

I cherish the workshops, where we give voice to unapproved emotions without apology. We learn to hear. We learn to sit and hear. We hear others and we hear ourselves.

It takes sophistication to feel intensely but remain detached. We sometimes mistake intensity of feeling for soundness of opinion. They are not the same thing.

We just want people to acknowledge what we feel. We want people to acknowledge the deep, smoking and ruinous hole 9/11 left in our spirits.

It is like a holy experience.

I wonder if I am not now on shaky ground, thinking of it as holy.

I am always on shaky ground. Shaky ground is the only kind of ground there is.

We were affected in ways we do not control or understand.

We look for ways to appear in control. We don’t want to appear weak: You weren’t there so you can’t possibly know.

That’s true. We can’t possibly know. We can’t know what it’s like to be somebody else. We can’t feel what he feels. We can only listen.

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Our new friend is a racist — should we dump him?

My husband and he have so much in common — but his beliefs are pernicious and wrong!

Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, JAN 3, 2008

Dear Cary,

My husband and I live in a small town in the same rural area of northern New England where he grew up. I grew up in a suburban setting in southern New England, but I have lived here my entire adult life — more than three decades now. (I’m 49, my husband is 60, and we’ve been married 18 years.) I always knew this was the only place on earth I wanted to live (I have very strong family/ancestral ties here), and I love everything about living here. I get along well with both “natives” and “transplants,” and I am often mistaken for the former (which, I have to admit, pleases me, as I think it can sometimes be very hard to crack the inner circle in a small town when you’re “from away”).

Politically, I consider myself strongly liberal, particularly on social issues, and my husband, although he was raised in a more conservative family, is also quite liberal. He has a hard time with any sort of label and refuses to register for a particular political party, but years of self-evaluation and introspection — he is a recovering alcoholic, sober for over 25 years now, and went through a good bit of therapy in the early years — have made him very open-minded. So it’s safe to say that our political views make us both liberal-Democrat types.

If there is anything at all that occasionally bothers me about living in our area, it is a tendency toward conservative politics and narrow-mindedness that I’ve observed among some of our neighbors. It saddens me to hear some parents’ racial and ethnic prejudice and homophobia reflected in overheard conversations among our teenage son’s peers at the local high school, but I’m very proud of our son’s ability to think for himself, and I think we’ve done a good job of raising him to be kind, tolerant and open-minded. I’ve had no trouble finding like-minded friends and acquaintances myself, and I’m happy and comfortable with our life here.

My husband and I have a relatively new friend whom we both like a lot. We’ve known him fairly well for about a year now, and he and my husband have really enjoyed spending time together, watching and talking about sports, current events and their past lives. He’s single, about five years older than my husband, and retired here about 10 years ago from Massachusetts. Coincidentally (neither of us knew it when we first met him), he is also a recovering alcoholic (with, I believe, about 20 years of sobriety). Needless to say, this revelation gave him and my husband even more in common, and their friendship has grown until my husband considers him among his closest friends.

Now the problem. My husband and I have both always recognized that this friend is more conservative than we are, but we’ve been able to discuss our differences over politics and social issues with humor, while “agreeing to disagree” — until a few days ago, when we both became suddenly and uncomfortably aware that our friend is, to put it bluntly, a racist. The three of us were having a pleasant conversation about football, when he remarked that he couldn’t stand it when a certain black sports commentator “slipped into jive talk whenever there’s another black guy in the booth.” Successive remarks led us to realize the extent of his prejudice, and finally led me to say, incredulously, “Please don’t tell me you honestly believe that white people are smarter than black people?” I was hoping he was putting us on, and I felt like I had been kicked in the stomach when he said, “Yeah, I do.” He went on to say, “Except for people like Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, but, as a rule, yeah.”

My husband and I were both floored, and we continued the discussion in hopes of getting him to — what? I don’t know, retract his statement or change his mind, I suppose. He gave several examples to illustrate his position — rough gangs of black kids he had gone to high school with, the behavior of some of the black men he had served with in the Navy, black men he had known who abandoned their pregnant girlfriends — while we both tried to get him to see that culture, not genetics, was responsible for what he perceived as innate differences between the races. He ended up by assuring us that he always “treated them nicely” — had some black friends in the service, tipped the black server at the doughnut shop, etc. — unlike his father, who was, apparently, a raving racist who talked about “jigaboos and jungle bunnies” when he was growing up.

I’m sure it was obvious that my husband and I were upset by his remarks, and we made it clear that we disagreed with him vehemently. It felt very different from the half-humorous political differences we’ve expressed in the past, and at one point our friend said, “I hope this doesn’t affect our friendship.” We did change the subject before he left, but things were definitely awkward.

My question is: Where do we go from here? Do we continue the friendship as before, skirting the issue of racial prejudice? Do we tell him we’re sorry, but we no longer feel comfortable being his friends? Do we say nothing, stop inviting him for coffee, and let the friendship lapse? I feel sad to think that my husband may lose a friend with whom he has found so much common ground, but how much of a difference in viewpoint can a friendship sustain? And how much of a stand do we need to take to be true to our own values?

It’s a terrible feeling to be disappointed by someone you care about, and right now my husband and I feel sorely disappointed. We both like this guy a lot, but we both feel strongly that racism has no place in this world. While I know our friend’s prejudice comes, in large part, from the family in which he was raised, I can’t help thinking that if my husband has been able, as an adult, to learn to think for himself and become more open-minded, our friend could have done the same. But if he hasn’t done so by this age, it seems unlikely that anything we say is going to have much of an effect on his views.

Cary, I’d love to hear what you, and other readers, think.



Dear Disappointed,

It is indeed a terrible feeling to be disappointed by someone you care about. People fail you, they do.

This friend of yours appears to have mistaken beliefs. It is difficult for those of us with all the correct beliefs to extend courtesy, love and understanding to those with mistaken beliefs. But it is an affliction of your time to believe your own beliefs — to believe your own beliefs are the only ones that matter and are correct and represent the pinnacle of social progress. If you take an imaginative leap to the 12th century, or the 18th century, or the 1930s, you will notice how radically beliefs change. We who are now alive think we know what is right and correct, as did the Spanish in the Inquisition and the Protestants in the Reformation and the Maoists in the Cultural Revolution; it is the privilege of those on top to think they know what is right and correct. It is a nice privilege indeed. Doubting ourselves is hard.

Even if we are correct in believing that those of us with the correct beliefs represent the pinnacle of social progress, we must also recognize that, as in elementary school where some kids are slower than others to learn multiplication and geography, and some are slower to learn not to eat dirt and push each other down in the mud, some are slow to accept cultural progress and scientific knowledge.

You can call them names if you like. You can call them racists and bigots. You can exclude them from your company even though you really like them as people. You can argue with them like a Protestant arguing with a Catholic or a communist arguing with a capitalist or a criminal arguing with a law-and-order type. You can attempt to show that his life experience runs counter to what all science shows.

I just think the flaws in human nature go deeper than we know, and that while it is right and just to fight and struggle for social justice in law and institutions, we ought to honor at the same time even the reprobates and racists among us, even the assholes, the sexists and the religiously intolerant, the ones who say the bad words and express the bad opinions, who fail to grasp how shocking is their lack of enlightenment, who fail to grasp how uncomfortable it makes the rest of us to hear their unenlightened comments about skin color and nation of origin, the clumsy parallels they draw between income and genetics, between school performance and parenting styles, between neighborhood orderliness and native language, between color preference and speech style, between church affiliation and a great-great-grandmother’s husband’s cousins, between voting preference and educational advancement. We ought not let them rule our nation, of course. But we ought not exclude them from friendship.


I just think lots of us are pretty dumb, and we’re not all that virtuous either, and big deal. I’m not so impressed with our own assumed air of virtue, we liberal coastal elites. I don’t think we’re all that morally superior to the racists and sexists we can so easily pick out of the crowd and condemn. I think in fact that our frequent presumption of moral superiority is a deep character flaw that blinds us both to the vast virtue around us and to our vast capacity for growth. And more than that: Our air of superiority bores me. It bores me how we talk. It bores me how seriously we take the liberal taboos, how easily we are stopped at the borders of good taste.
In fact, I am rather drawn to the bad man, the racist, the reprobate, the criminal, the idiot, the one who doesn’t get how he is supposed to behave. He unwittingly shines a light on the dark side — and even that is condescending, isn’t it, to assume that the only virtue we can find in those of a lower caste is one they are not even aware that they are expressing?

I know the drill. I stand for social progress and equality. I’m a leftist intellectual ex-hippie who lives in San Francisco. But people have junk in their heads. We all have junk in our heads.

Most of us don’t think all that clearly or all that deeply. How can we? We have jobs to do that tire us out and we work with people who have junk in their heads and we were raised by people who had junk in their heads. All our lives people tell us stupid things and put junk in our heads. They put junk in our heads and once it’s there it’s hard to get it out. Me, I get to sit here all day and try to figure out what is the junk and what is the good stuff, and even with all that time to sit here and try to sort it out I’m pretty hopeless. So what about a guy who works hard every day for 45 years with people putting junk in his head and telling him things that are groundless and wrong? How’s he supposed to rearrange his head once he turns 65? How’s he supposed to change his beliefs?

We should all do something about it, of course, all of us, of course we should, of course. Yes, we should. We should be kinder, smarter and more on time. The racists among us, the sexists, the unkind, the selfish, the mean, the crude, the hateful, the spiteful, the bitter, the unenlightened and the just plain average should all get to work right now to try to get better, to be more on time, kinder, less racist, more socially active, calmer and more meditative, and more careful in their choice of words; I myself should try harder to be concise and not to string people along with my own self-involved speculations. I myself should try to not think the uncharitable thoughts I think when I see certain drivers in certain cars making certain kinds of turns, when I speculate about their age and their beliefs, their gender and country of origin and how each correlates with their peculiar driving habits and who in their family might have taught them such peculiar methods; I myself ought to be more orderly in my work habits and I ought to do more service work in the community; I ought to pick a presidential candidate and work for his election, and volunteer at a food bank three times a week. I ought to cleanse my mind of all the dirty, oppressive, angry, unenlightened thoughts that crowd out my virtuous thoughts like crows crowding out the sparrows of springtime — which will not be far off now, by the way, springtime that is, with its annual tease.

Can you love someone who is deeply flawed? Do you have the courage to do that? Can your love be tinged with disapproval and still be love? Can you heatedly dispute on matters of social beliefs and still remain friends? I hope so. I hope you can do that. I also hope you can find persuasive materials to show that the beliefs of your friend are groundless and pernicious, for that is today’s correct belief, and it is the one true belief, and it is the belief that everyone should have.

Meanwhile, in my heart of hearts, I’d like it if even the best of us and the purest could get the hell over ourselves. There is much work to be done every single day. There are sick people to be cared for and children to be taught. I myself have got a book to sell, a column to write and a writing workshop to lead.

While I try to do my best, I’m going to have the worst thoughts you can imagine. I’m going to assume that you will too. We’ll see each other on the street and we’ll nod to each other, each of us having the worst thoughts you can imagine, each of us knowing it’s just our condition.

So I say give your husband’s friend a break. Racism is stupid, and worse than stupid it’s pernicious and cruel and stupid. But he’ll be dead in 30 years and social progress will continue none the worse for his presence on this earth. The groups that were on top will soon be on the bottom and it will serve everybody right.

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It’s a beautiful day and I’m happy to be alive

Dear Reader,

Today is Wednesday. Wednesday is advice-column-writing day. Usually I write a column by answering a letter from someone looking for advice.

Today is a little different.

I have a friend who is dying. He hasn’t asked me for advice and I haven’t offered any. But all I can think about is how this friend of mine is dying.

I could try to answer a letter on another topic. But it’s hard to keep my mind on other things. That’s what happens when a friend is dying.

The sky is blue. Life is beautiful. A friend of mine is dying.

It makes me think: How marvelous it is to be alive, to walk down the street breathing air, to see all the colors around us, to hear music!

It makes me realize something else, too. I have offered advice to people on how to deal with the deaths of others, but no one has ever written to me saying, in effect:

Dear Cary,

I’m dying. What to do?


Dying Too Soon

How could I possibly reply to such a letter? I could suggest that one accept the fact of death, etc., etc. But I try to offer practical solutions, and not pat answers like, Yawn, Death is a natural part of life, etc., etc.

So, not meaning to be flip, I might write back saying something like this:

Dear Dying Too Soon,

If you are dying and are unhappy about that and want to change it, the first thing you need to do is travel back in time. Once you have traveled far enough back in time that your dying does not seem so immediate a problem, just begin living your life as you were before.

If, however, there is no affordable time-travel service in your area, then simply find the disease or diseases that are killing you and cure them. After that, you should be fine.

That does sound flip, doesn’t it? I’m trying to make a point. You get the point, right? I don’t have to spell it out? Because you’re smart and you know what I’m getting at, right?

I know a little bit about dying. When I was diagnosed with cancer a little over five years ago, I got ready to die. Then I didn’t die. But I got ready. I’m still ready.

What I’m not ready to do is undergo treatment again. There were times  undergoing treatment when I wanted to die. I can see how, having been sick a long time, a person might long for death with the same fervor with which he once longed for life.

If it weren’t for the problem of timing, though, nobody would feel like they’re losing out. We wouldn’t be missing you, and you wouldn’t be seeing us out here smiling and playing badminton while you’re slipping into the great unconsciousness.

Anyway, my dear friend, it looks as though you are going before the rest of us. That is not surprising. You were the first to do a lot of things. You were the first with a motorcycle, which you promptly wrecked, and broke your leg. You were the first to build a van so we could all pile in and travel the country barefoot and long-haired. You were the first to go to Europe when we all wanted to go. You were the first to kiss certain people we all wanted to kiss. You ended up with the best motorcycle and the fastest car and the biggest house. You were the tallest and the best looking and we were all proud to call you a friend. You were always a little ahead of the rest of us and we didn’t mind that. It seemed only proper. You’re ahead of us again.


Go in peace, my friend. We’ll be right there behind you.


How to eulogize the dad no one likes?

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Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, JAN 31, 2007

My friend’s father is just one more reason feminism exists — but can we say that?

Dear Cary,

I have been friends with my best friend since we were 15 years old; we united because we both had crazy-ass parents. Hers was an abusive alcoholic dad, mine was an undiagnosed borderline personality disordered mother who wreaked havoc on my life by playing constant mind games.

They’ve both aged. My mom has mellowed, and until recently, so had my friend’s dad. But now he’s had a few mild strokes, seems to be slipping into dementia or possibly Alzheimer’s, and is back to drinking and attempting to be the big, tough guy he always thought he was. He’s driving everyone insane. Conversations between us often turn to talking about his funeral (which I think many in the family are hoping will happen sooner rather than later), and recently we came upon an interesting dilemma: Who will deliver his eulogy? And is there an obligation to be nice?

I’m a writer by trade, so I think there’s hope I’ll come up with something good. A nice compromise, if there’s one to be had. There probably won’t be many people at said funeral, but still, we were brainstorming ideas of what to say and came up with pathetically little:

He always tried to tell a good joke.

He is the reason why his daughters are such strong feminists today.

He didn’t ruin any of his daughters’ weddings.

He liked to be involved in the community.

We got some good black humor belly laughs out of the conversation, but now I think we could really use some advice. Should the eulogy be avoided? If someone in the family insists on one, should it say only nice things? I know it would be totally inappropriate to say, “Good riddance,” but that’s about the only thing I can think to say.

Blocked Writer

TuscanAd_Jan2015Dear Blocked Writer,

The dead, however monstrous in life, are finally defenseless in death. This seems to inspire a certain mild scruple in the rest of us.
It is safe to say that not all his survivors despised the deceased. So however much you may wish to take a last backhanded swipe at the man, or deliver a devastating closing argument, I would not advise it, not in the eulogy at least.

In a eulogy for a man whose life you did not admire and can only weakly celebrate, a recitation of the facts and accomplishments would suffice. He was employed. He supported his family financially. He graduated from some kind of school. He did things for the community. He liked to tell a joke. He was a father. That’s enough. Or at least it’s something.

I have recently had occasion to observe that when someone dies, events are set in motion that are unexpected in certain ways and beyond our control. We really do not know all that we will feel and do. So things come up that you did not expect. And people step in. Someone other than his daughter or you may rise to say a few good and surprising words. Everyone may learn some things about him they did not know.

It is a time to remember the good in a life.

That does not mean that in private you cannot exorcise your demons. Death, in fact, does offer an occasion for the living to settle accounts — in private. So if you must — and it sounds like your razor wit is being sharpened on his withering torso even as we speak — go ahead and deliver those few choice words you’ve been saving up for him. But do it while alone with the corpse.

Being alone with the dead levels the playing field. It is easy to heap scorn, like clods of dirt, while we all stand around together, powerful and united in our vitality. But get alone with the dead and see what happens.

Even in death those who were tyrants in life hold surprising power over us. And they sometimes manage to best us even from the grave: They leave odious instructions we feel honor-bound to follow. Oh, the dead are clever beyond measure!

Preferable to all this ghoulishness, of course, is a settling of accounts with the living. You know better than I how things stand. It may not be possible to talk to him openly. But if it is, if you see a chance, if there is something you need to say to him while he can still hear you, I hope you will say it.


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A fellow attorney thinks I’m crazy

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Cary’s classic column from Sunday, Jun 5, 2011

Sure, I’m crazy — for him! But I botched my approach! Now how do I wriggle out?

Dear Cary:

I have been following your column for years. I hope you can help me — I need concrete advice, almost like a to-do list on what to do next. I have ruined a wonderful friendship, and I want to repair it.

I am an attorney. My workspace, and all others who are similarly situated, is a cubicle, so there is no privacy. I really like one of my co-workers. He is close friends with our boss and is one of the most respected attorneys here. I wanted to have a physical relationship with him. He said that he found me attractive but did not want a physical relationship for a number of reasons. He repeatedly said that women are crazy. He has absolutely no patience for “out of control.” We managed to develop a fairly close friendship. I started to get too deep. Yesterday I left him a voicemail message saying that I needed to dial back, that he would meet the woman he has been looking for, maybe even this weekend, and that I didn’t want to be in a position of missing my friend when he started spending all his time with that woman, so I was dialing back. He got upset. He said that we were never dating, that the message was the type of message one would get from a girlfriend. I thought I was being honest and self-protective. But instead I revealed myself as being in too deep and like another one of the crazy women in his life (his term, crazy women). I called him on the telephone as we drove to our homes. He said that it was a crazy message. My voice rose. I asked how it was crazy. He said, “Well, you’re the one who left it.” I truly value our friendship. I feel as though I have lost all dignity and revealed my worst (to him), most emotional side. I need concrete and specific advice on what to do. How do I repair the friendship?

Please do not reveal my name.

Emotional Attorney


Dear Emotional Attorney,

Here is some clear, practical advice. Stick your head in his cubicle at your very next opportunity and say, “About that phone message. Just wanted to say. Sorry. I was a little wound up.”

Then he will probably say, “No problem. Don’t give it a second thought.” Or, “That’s OK.”

After he says that, be very careful. You are on your way out now. You are already done. Do not open up another line of argument.

He might say one or two more things. But you are already done. You’ve delivered the message. No matter what else he says, just say something like “Thanks. Just wanted you to know.” Or, “No problem,” and get out of there.

The next thing is the exit. Make your exit swift but not sudden. Make it even. Don’t rush out, but don’t linger. Try to get a rhythm into it, like, in terms of beats, it’s: One, pop your head in; Two, deliver your message; Three, acknowledge whatever he says; Four, turn lightly, in rhythm with your shrug, or your acknowledgment, and walk away with a light, relaxed step.Then settle into your cubicle and start reading a brief. Visualize a soundproof plexiglass wall between you, reaching up to the ceiling. He is not there. You are alone in your cubicle.

This should reassure him. The matter will promptly leave his mind.
Of course, the fact that it will promptly leave his mind is part of the problem. There is a huge issue remaining. It is an issue that, if you talk about it with him, will not settle things but make them more complicated. It would probably be a losing argument. At the same time, it would be intellectually dishonest not to mention it. Feminist advances in pay and freedom were won in hard-fought battles house by house, bed by bed and cubicle by cubicle. So while you may want to keep this huge issue out of the air for professional workplace reasons, let’s just state it for the record: He thinks women who express their emotions are crazy. He’s friends with the boss. So your long-term prospects for professional advancement may well be in the hands of men who think women who express their emotions are crazy.

Maybe you can change their minds. Or maybe you can find another law firm. There are lots of  law firms.

‘Nuff said, OK?

As far as maintaining your friendship with him over the coming months, do indeed “dial it back.” But telling him you’re dialing it back does not dial it back. It ramps it up. That’s what happened with that phone call. It’s one of those paradoxes. The way you actually dial it back is by changing the way you act around him. Visualize detachment. Look at him as though he were far away and tiny, like at the wrong end of a telescope. Speak with him in a controlled and deliberate way. Don’t share your feelings. Don’t ask about his romantic life. Keep your friendship professional.

And one more thing: Don’t call him on the phone from your car. If you find yourself having erotic thoughts about him, transfer them to someone else outside the office — a waiter, or a judge, or an attorney on the other coast you met at a conference.


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My friend is asking for too big a favor

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Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, AUG 5, 2005

To stay in the country, he needs someone to sponsor him.

Dear Cary,

A friend of mine is in the U.S. on a work visa, and has recently married an American citizen. They married for all the right reasons — undying devotion, etc. — but an added bonus is that they thought he would automatically become a U.S. citizen. Unfortunately, they didn’t thoroughly investigate this before marrying.

Now, I don’t understand all the intricacies of immigration law, but as he tells it to me, someone still has to sponsor him before he can become a citizen. The intent of this sponsorship is so that he doesn’t become a public burden. If he applies for any sort of public aid, the government will look to the sponsor to support him. This responsibility continues until the sponsee has 40 Social Security credits.

Now, the wife would be the logical sponsor, except that she doesn’t meet the financial requirements set forth. She’s actually on the dole herself, for reasons I haven’t bothered to understand. So, in desperation, he’s asking me to be his sponsor.

This man has been a very good friend to me. He’s directly responsible for my relationship with my fiancé, and has helped me through a multitude of rough times. If I called him at 3 a.m. to come kill a spider, he’d do it. (I want to point out here that we have never been romantically or sexually involved. There’s never been any interest in either direction.)

But, I have to say no. My fiancé is soon-to-be-unemployed, and I will be supporting him as he searches for a new job. We’re moving in together. I’m starting grad school. In the next few years, we’ll likely have kids. Aside from all that, the friend in question has an unstable financial history, and now he has the new wife and her two children to support, in addition to an elderly mother. I think that needing public assistance is a very real risk.

My friend believes that friendship involves unquestioning loyalty, and he will be very upset when I say no. I may well lose his friendship over this, but I honestly feel it’s too much to ask. I understand I’m his best friend, and he feels he has nowhere else to turn. I feel horrible that he may have to leave the country and his new family due to this. What should I do?



Dear Divided,

What you should do is promise your friend that short of becoming his sponsor you will help him in every possible way to obtain whatever papers he needs to stay in the country. Tell him you will help him find a lawyer. Tell him you will go with him to the state agencies and to the lawyer’s office and anywhere else he needs to go to settle this matter. Tell him you will help him find a sponsor. If that means drafting letters, you will draft letters. If that means doing research, you will do research. If that means making phone calls, you will make phone calls. Tell him you will do everything under the sun to help him. Tell him you will stay by his side until he finds a sponsor and settles this matter. Tell him you won’t abandon him. Tell him that you will be his loyal friend but that he has to trust you to be his loyal friend in your own way.

Who could refuse a speech like that? Especially if it is delivered, say, on the banks of a river as you watch tugs and barges crawl toward the sea, maybe as the sun is setting and a little chill is coming up and with it the prospect of a warm drink in a crowded pub.

Then begin work immediately. At first, I thought it would simply be a matter of finding a sponsor other than yourself. But the more I looked at the regulations, the less I understood. I now see how your friends made their relatively simple error about the effect of their marriage on his immigration status. The laws have changed. There were major changes to immigration laws in the 1990s, and there have been larger changes in the post-9/11 era. The beloved INS is now, alas, the USCIS, under the USDHS. So welcome, dear suspicious-looking person from somewhere other than here, to the Office of Citizenship!

This is what you’re up against: When bureaucracies change, things don’t work so well at first. What do bureaucrats do when things aren’t working so well? They find ways to decrease their work load. One way to do that is to decline as many applications as possible. In an atmosphere of fear, the incentive to refuse applications also increases. So you have to be really smart and really prepared to make things come out the way you want them to in a period of rapid bureaucratic change and systemic fear. (On the other hand, maybe you’ll find an official who’s so freaked out he’s handing out citizenship like lollipops. Who knows?)

So do lots of homework. Look into aid societies for immigrants from his country. Read everything you can get your hands on. Make contact with immigrant groups in your area. Identify any red flags in your friend’s record. Contact the embassy of the country your friend is from and see how they can help. Commit to understanding all the subtleties and details of the immigration law that pertains to his situation. Go over it all with him and his wife together. Discuss what resources they have available to them. Add up all the fees and decide where the money will come from. Make a list of all the questions you want answered. If you can get them answered for free, get them answered for free.

TuscanAd_Jan2015I cannot stress this enough: Be thorough. Do not skimp on any detail. Every paper you are required to have, gather it. Every requirement, understand it. Every deadline: Meet it. Your friend and his wife were not as thorough as they should have been the first time. That’s understandable. The law is complicated and it is changing. Nevertheless, it’s not a mistake you want to make twice. So leave nothing to chance.

When you finally understand the situation as well as you can on your own, then choose an attorney and make an appointment. When you meet with the attorney, dress up. Dress to impress. You will be putting on a show, after all. You want the attorney to see your friend as a credible and likable petitioner. You want the attorney to sense that you will do everything you can to win. You want him or her to feel good about taking your case, should that be necessary. Ask all the questions on your list, and then ask some more.

You might not need the lawyer to actually represent you. You might only need to know that you’ve overlooked nothing. But you will at least have a relationship with a lawyer if your initial petition is denied.

Ask the lawyer if you’ve overlooked anything. Ask if there’s any part of the application that could be done better. Then, and only then, make your application. If all goes well, in a few months you’ll be able to celebrate.

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