Category Archives: Friendship

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My terrific online friend is terrible in person!

 

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Cary’s classic column from Wednesday, Oct 12, 2005

How can someone so special on the Internet be such a drag in real life?


Dear Cary,

I have this friend. Let’s call her Susan. Susan and I became friends online several years ago, through mutual (in person) friends. For several years, we had a deep and magical friendship, what I might call a “life of the mind” friendship. We wrote letters and e-mails and had long phone calls. We supported each other through difficult times. Occasionally we met in one city or another for the weekend, but mostly her day-to-day life was something I heard about but didn’t participate in.

Now Susan is getting married, and I am involved in the wedding. Steadily I am being drawn into her “real life,” meeting her friends and family, and hearing endless wedding details.

At first I was happy to be part of the reality of her world. After all, she is my friend, right? But I’ve been discovering that my “life of the mind” friend is a very different person in, well, person. At a distance, she is thoughtful and philosophical. In person, she needs constant attention and tending. My husband and I have discovered that we really don’t like her husband-to-be, and we’re not looking forward to spending more time with him.

I’m worried that my disenchantment with her wedding is becoming more apparent, and that I will sadden her day by not being the happy spaniel she expects me to be.

But here’s the nub of my problem: I miss my friend. Can I go back to being a “life of the mind” friend? Should I try to explain all the things she does that drive me batty, and try to grow the in-person friendship into being more like the virtual one? Or should I just give it up for a bad job and fade out of her life after the wedding?

Disillusioned Friend

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Dear Disillusioned,

One of the wonderful things about the Internet is that it acts as a space into which we can project an imaginary or secondary self, one more congruent with our own values, more thoughtful, more articulate, more honest.

There are many reasons for this — the relative newness of the medium (we have not been conditioned since birth to cloak our identities there, to adopt a narrow mode of discourse suited to the demands of the classroom and the corporation); the privacy it affords us (we sit alone at a keyboard; our faces are hidden); and the positive feedback loop it engenders (the personas we project are greeted as actual beings). For many of us, conduct on the Internet retains an element of idealistic play; we are not there strictly for profit, but in order to be who we are, or who we would be if we could be who we dream ourselves to be — the Internet acts as a vast stage upon which we strut like eager children, free of the constant gravity of circumstance, free to be, for a short time, the people we feel we were meant to be.

Of course, offline we remain the same shoddy, unkempt, short-tempered, disorganized persons we always were, living in close, overheated rooms that smell of cat litter and rancid butter, shuffling about looking for the toenail clippers, muttering about Karl Rove and steroids in baseball.

In meeting her family and friends, it’s almost as if you have seen something you weren’t supposed to see — look in that window there, that’s your friend, isn’t it, sitting at that cluttered kitchen table, picking at a zit, eating mayonnaise straight out of the jar?

We are so cruel. Our first thought is not, Is it not ever thus? but … You are such a disappointment in real life! We take it almost as a betrayal, forgetting that quite the opposite is true: Here is a person who has made something finer of herself than what her crude circle requires; she has gone as far beyond it as she can go — in her mind, with her wits, with her soul. We might admire what a Herculean task it was in the first place to rise above all that dull and heavy circumstance of town and family and school.

This goes deeper. Inwardly we are so much richer and better, we are capable of so much more; we are princesses abandoned at birth; we are supermen concealing our powers behind mild-mannered anonymity. It might be said that what some people project onto the Internet is not only a heightened, idealized self but in fact a kind of divine self. I do not think anyone ever lives up to such ideals; most people never even reveal them. It is in fact a tribute to the Internet that it allows so many people to reveal so much.

So my advice to you is to make the best of the situation with the wedding; do not attempt to reconcile the contradictions you are seeing. Do your best to be a cheerful and helpful member of the wedding party. If you need an outlet, a way to process the strange feeling of disconnect between your online friend and your embodied friend, I suggest you keep a journal of this experience. It is, after all, a fascinating thing. But I don’t mean an online journal. I mean a personal journal.

For certain relationships — chiefly ones destined to become romantic — the Internet acts simply as a gateway; the “real” relationship only matures after two people begin meeting in person. But other relationships, friendships, the “life of the mind,” are perhaps better if they live out their entire lives in the Internet space. Your friendship may be one of those.

So once the wedding is over, I suggest you resume your online relationship as if nothing had ever happened.

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My best friend is down on his luck. How can I help?

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Cary’s classic column from SUNDAY, OCT 17, 2010 05:01 PM PDT

We grew up differently. I got great guidance from parents and friends. He kind of drifted. Now he’s in a tough spot


Dear Cary,

I have something of a quandary with a friend of mine. He’s my oldest friend, we’ve known each other since we were about 4 years old. At that time we went to nursery school and kindergarten together; we were both children of decidedly middle-class families, growing up in the same suburb. Even though we didn’t go to school together we always spent our summers together, and made a real effort to keep in touch over the years. At some point though, during that time my parents moved along in their careers and my family sort of left the middle class to that ill-defined region between the wealthy and the doing-OK. However, his father left his mother and took off, leaving her to fend for her son by herself and somewhat bitter about the way things turned out, and his life was more difficult for it. But none of that ever affected our relationship, the two of us got along great all through high school, even though I had gone on to the local private school while he stayed at the local public school.

After high school I went off to college and he kind of bummed around working as a ski lift operator so he could snowboard at his favorite resorts. My parents were the demanding types who wanted to make sure that I had a focus in my life that would lead to a career — his father was basically absent and his mother had become shrill to the point where it was a guarantee if she told my friend to do anything he would do the opposite. At this point our lives started to really diverge.

Fast forward a few years — we’re both now in our early 30s. My life isn’t perfect, and there are things about it that I would change if I could. But overall I can’t complain — I’ve worked hard and (finally) find myself in a position where I’m easily self-sufficient. I have no debts, I live modestly, and every month I manage to save a nice sum of money that I plan to put towards a down payment on a house. I have a solid junior-executive position at a good company where I’m on an upward trajectory. I also have no illusions about how I got here. I know that I’ve worked hard but I’ve also had parents and friends who have looked out for me and tried to help me out when they could, and I’ve gotten lucky with some opportunities that I’ve taken advantage of when they made themselves clear. My friend, on the other hand, is in a very different place. After a few years of bouncing around resort towns so he could snowboard and surf during on-seasons, he’s come back to the area where we grew up with virtually nothing to show for it. He had a job doing house remodeling but was laid off because of the recession. Recently when I talked to him he told me he had a part-time job that was barely helping him to pay his rent and bills with almost nothing left over to live on, and was looking for work but hadn’t found anything.

We both come from the kinds of upbringings where guys typically downplay how bad things are because you don’t try to garner sympathy for yourself — you just don’t. So when I hear him say this I know that it’s for real, that’s he’s barely hanging on with what he’s got. I know that he hasn’t been as lucky as I have, he didn’t have parents looking out for him, and he just hasn’t had the kind of luck that I’ve had in getting himself on two feet. I don’t know if he’s worked hard or not, I really can’t say, but from what I know of him I imagine he has. I do know that he’s a good person, he’s easy to get along with, he’s the kind of guy everybody likes.

I want to help out my friend if I can. I offered to have a look at his résumé and pass it around to the people I still know where we grew up, and I’m trying to do that. But I’m also realistic about the kind of economy that we’re in right now, and I know it’s a long shot that he’ll find a job that way. I would like to tell him that if things get really difficult he can come to me for money if he needs it, but I just don’t know how. The last thing I want to do is condescend to my friend and make him feel like he’s a charity case for me, because he’s not. I know that if our situations were reversed he wouldn’t think twice about helping me out. I just want to figure out a way to help him and keep his dignity intact. Can you offer any advice for how I can do that?

Thanks,

Looking to Help a Friend in Tough Times

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Dear Looking to Help a Friend,

The best thing you can do is stay close to your friend. Be honest with him. Help him if he needs help. Go snowboarding with him. See the houses he has remodeled.

Beware of your desire to fix his situation. Know that his situation is not an accident but has meaning; it is like a signature; it is who he is and it is in a sense holy. The way to avoid condescending to him is to be honest in your regard for him. If it hurts you to see him having a hard time, be honest about that. But recognize that it’s his hard time to have. It’s his hard time, not yours. He is learning something he has to learn. He is encountering life on its own terms. He has to do this. He has to knock about until he’s had enough. The time for setting an orderly route was earlier, and it was a job for parents and family, and that job was not done. So he is finding out what life is like at a later stage than some. He is taking things in a different order. Maybe he is spending longer in this phase than one would hope. But that’s his path. Be his friend and respect his choices.

If you do this, time will pass and when he has a change of heart and sees that he needs an orderly direction he may confide in you. He may ask your advice. He may decide he needs to go to college. He may see a business opportunity in the world of resorts. If he comes to you with a business proposition, scrutinize it. Don’t lie to him. Don’t encourage him in something that won’t work. But if he has a workable idea and you have contacts who might help him, be generous. Only do this if you really believe it’s workable. It’s easy to kid ourselves about our friends.

Meanwhile, let’s look on the bright side. He may be having a hard time financially, but he is pursuing what he loves. He is not an office guy. He is an outdoors guy. He knows what makes him happy and he is seeking happiness in his way. His life is harder than yours. It’s harder to make a living that way. But he’s being true to himself.
So if he is your friend, the best thing you can do is be a good friend. If you are a good friend to him, then he will know he can ask for help. And you can give it, too. If you ever see that there is something you can do for him, you don’t have to ask. If it feels right to give him some money, or lend him some money to help him get over a difficulty, then go ahead and do it.

He can always refuse.

What you do not want to do is try to fix his life. What this says to him is that there is something wrong with his life. Remember: His life is fine. It may be difficult and more uncertain economically, but it is the life he has chosen. He chose it out of love. He loves to snowboard. He loves the outdoors. He loves building things. So the equation he has followed is simple: We do what we love and we deal with what happens. After a while, we learn to fine-tune. We know we love to snowboard but we see what happens when we snowboard all the time. We make no money. We have no place to live and no food. So we snowboard but we also do something to make money. Sometimes it is hard to make money. Money is scarce sometimes. That’s the way it is for those of us who just do what we love. We learn to adapt. We learn how far we can take it. We make compromises when we have to.

But the beautiful thing about it is, he knows what he loves. He knows what he values. And he is being true to himself. I wouldn’t change that. It’s hard doing what you love. It can wear you down and put lines in your face. You end up with a leathery neck and tattered jeans and scarred workbooks and callused hands. You end up weather-beaten. That is, you end up with the face that you deserve. Your face becomes the record of a life lived according to what you love.

There’s something to be said for that. So stick close to this friend of yours. There’s much there to cherish. Don’t pity him. He’s doing what he has to do. If he wants your help he’ll ask for it. And likewise, there may come a time when you could use his help. Don’t be afraid to ask for it. There’s dignity in asking for help and giving help, and not offering until asked.

Value this friend. You’re a lucky man. So is he.

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Music at the Medieval Festival

On being invited very late to events that have been planned for months

That headline will lead some readers to expect a mild rant on the order of “don’t you hate it when people don’t have the courtesy to invite you to their events with sufficient lead time?” when actually it is a bald, guilt-free confession of precisely that transgression. And a more or less bald recitation of the reasons why. And an attempted refutation thereof. In toto. Ahem.

Norma says people need a few weeks’ notice. But the actual decision about whether to go to a party can be done in, like, one second. Wanna go? Yes or no.

What we are actually doing when we schedule parties weeks or months in advance is not so much what you think it is —  allowing people sufficient time to decide, or  to put it on their calendars, etc., so that it does not become superseded by something else.

I refuse to believe that people are that booked up, and if they are booked up, God help them for being so booked up, it must be an awful condition and if I am ever that booked up I hope I shoot myself because I will be monstrously unhappy having so little time to myself to sit and watch TV or read or just lie around plucking the guitar!

What is really going on with the absurdly long lead time for a party, IMHO, is we are selling it to our friends.It is a form of advertising and persuasion. In advertising it is said that people need to hear something at least three times before it becomes real to them. And I think to myself, does something that is purportedly a fun thing you would go to anyway actually need to be sold?

Yes! Absolutely! It certainly does. Who actually wants to go anywhere? Not me. I have many strong and vigilant defenses against leaving the house for any reason, and they need to be overcome by a long and persistent campaign or I will not go out.

The first time I hear of a party I think, Oh, no, another thing to go to. What is it this time? Oh, our friends? The ones we actually like? Oh, that is the worst. If it were friends we don’t even like we could say, well, I think we have something else planned for that night, geez, let me check, oh, the relatives, we must visit the relatives, you know how that is, and they go oh yes, we know about visiting the relatives, how necessary  that is, how unavoidable, when the truth is that we don’t really want to see each other at all because they don’t like us any more than we like them but we must go through this ritual of persuading each other.  And so it makes it harder to claim you have a prior engagement when it is six months out. So it claims a place on your calendar, and thereby wears down your resistance. You go, well, it is on our calendar, so I guess we will not be able to make any excuses. Now, if only they would invite us like two days before we could claim we already have plans, which of course we don’t because we never do but they don’t need to know that, because apparently everybody pretends to have these “plans” so we can pretend to have them as well.

So I’m just saying to hell with all that. I have known about this party since some time back in June but I prefer not to tell anyone about it until about 48 hours until it happens. 48 hours! That’s plenty of time!

And so some people will say, damn you, Cary, we would love to come, but you give us so little notice! And I will say yes, I am a wretch, I keep doing this, and thus keep not seeing my friends, yes, it is awful. Unconsciously I’m sure I’m just making things difficult for everybody and calling attention to myself. I haven’t changed since I was 8. And yet, I am letting you off the hook, too! I could put these things out months in advance and then you would feel you have no way out. And then you would have to wait until the last minute and then think of some excuse. This is much easier. Now it is absurdly easy to say, What? An invitation with only 48 hours notice? We couldn’t possibly …

And I think: What about the Army? They’re always ready to go. Ten minutes, off to Pakistan. Let’s go. But we’re not in the army, are we? Plus we live in the Outer Sunset, which is farther away than Pakistan if you’re coming from the Mission.

At any rate, we will be here as usual, playing music and hanging out, and maybe somebody will get up and read some poetry or a rant, and we will talk about current events, and soon we will get tired and start thinking, gee, soon, we can go to bed! What an exciting party!

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My best friend is now my mom’s best friend

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Cary’s classic column from

What is she doing at my parents’ house when I’m not there?


Dear Cary,

I’ve known my best friend for 22 years, since we were 10. We grew up right across the street from each other. It has been one of those great friendships that weather the seasons in people’s lives when you can’t keep in touch very well: We can always hook right back up as if no time has gone by. She has always been considered a member of the family, and my parents often refer to her as their adopted daughter.

This sounds pretty good, yes? Well, I’ve slowly come to discover that having your best friend unofficially adopted by your parents is a drag.

I think the first incident that ruffled my feathers was when we were in college. We were both going to go on a camping trip with my folks, but her finals were over before mine, so she decided to go ahead and meet up with my folks where they were picking up their new R.V. There are all of these pictures of her “in my place” with my parents and their new R.V. I didn’t say anything about this, though, because I thought it was petty to be a little hurt, and what good would speaking up do anyway?

The next incident revolved around my wedding. As often happens around big events such as weddings, many of our family members lost their minds, so we moved the wedding offshore and the only guests were my best friend and four supportive family members. Not surprisingly, when we returned home I was not on speaking terms with my folks (as they were not among the four). However, my BF continued a relationship with them, stating that she wasn’t the one who was mad at them and that they were also her friends.

I have long since made up with all familial relations and have had a more or less good relationship with the BF I was frustrated that her version of making time for me was to swing by my house for 15 minutes on her way home from work, but on the other hand she was there when my sister “came out” when she was a teenager and all hell broke loose and she came to live with us. And my BF was there the whole 12 hours I was in labor with my second son.

Before I get to the weird BF/mom triangle, I need to add one more angle to the back story: My BF is more like my folks than I will ever be. She is financially conservative and a saver. I buy $50 shoes for no good reason. She finished her undergrad degree in three years and then got a master’s. I took five years to get my B.S. and don’t have a job remotely related to my degree. Her house is always spotless. My house looks like you would expect if two adults, two toddlers, three cats and a dog all lived in 1,400 square feet. She always writes thank-you notes. I haven’t written one for anything received by either of my kids. In other words, she is just like my totally “perfect” parents, and I’m so not.

So, to the Mom + BF = BFF part: My BF was married a year ago July. My mom really stepped up and into the MOTB role on the wedding day because my BF’s mom was too busy getting sloshed. This seemed to create a bond between them. When my BF moved across the state (to be closer to her folks, ironically) she and my mom kept in touch. They e-mail back and forth every couple of weeks, and my BF and her hubby (whom my mom adores, natch) occasionally stay a day or two with my folks when they are on their way out of state — without even calling me to let me know they will be in town. When something significant happens with my BF (like a new job or something bad like an illness) she calls or e-mails my mom. I hear about it secondhand.

I approached my mom about this, and she said that I was being silly and that it is my own fault for not “keeping the conversation going” with my BF like she does. Did I mention that in addition to two toddlers I have two jobs and my husband is in school? Just taking the time to write you is a major luxury.

I can’t seem to get any advice on this because it is the weirdest thing any of my other friends or family have ever heard of. I can’t make the two stop being friends, and at this point I’m uncontrollably jealous at how my folks seem to respect her so much and how they seem to wish that I were more like her. It isn’t her fault that my folks dump this baggage on me, but does she have to condone it by being BFF with my mom? Honestly, I feel like “breaking up” with her. Then again, you can’t just find another 20-year friend on Craigslist.

Third Wheel

Cary Tennis Writing Retreat in France

Dear Third Wheel,

This is about patterns. It’s about the patterns of what you want. It’s about the pattern formed by what you have always wanted and what you will never get and what you will always crave and strive for until you recognize what you are doing. It is about how you will never get what you have always wanted but other people will. Other people will get what you have always wanted, and they hardly even want it at all; they don’t even notice when they’re getting it; they don’t see how desperately you want it and need it. But you do. Or do you? Do you know how desperately you need your parents’ exclusive love? Do you know how desperately you needed them to be there for you when you were a little kid? Do you know how angry you still are at them for not giving you what you needed? Do you know how angry you have to be to exclude your parents from your own wedding, to move it offshore to exclude them? Do you know that you cannot patch this up just on the surface? You have to admit to yourself how hurt you are. This maddening jealousy is about how hurt you are, still, about your friend’s sitting in your seat in the R.V.

It’s about your best friend taking your place. And yet it’s not about that at all. That is, it’s not about who fills the void, it’s about the void itself. There is a void there where you are supposed to be in your parents’ esteem and affection and love and support. There’s an empty seat in the R.V. It’s about the empty seat itself. It’s not about who finally comes along to sit in it. Anyone could sit in it and you would feel the same. You would feel, “That’s my seat!”

This is not about the friendship between your friend and your mom, although that is a subject that could be taken up on its own. If your friend wrote to me about this, I would ask her about her own mother’s alcoholism. There is a story there too. But that is not your story. Your story is about your own unhappiness. If you were not unhappy, what would it matter that your best friend is also close to your parents? That would be a lovely thing, would it not? Would it not, in the most perfect of worlds, be just a warm and loving extension of human friendship to family, a beautiful melding of the familial and the personal? But no, you want something from her that you did not get from your parents, and now instead of giving it to you she’s giving it to them, so it is deeply painful to witness their closeness. You are in competition. You are competing with her for your parents’ love and moreover now you are competing with your parents for her love! You are the odd one out in the triangle. It shouldn’t be that way. If you’d gotten the love you needed originally it wouldn’t be that way.

But you never got what you needed, so it will always be this way. It’s always going to be this way for you until you face this awful, wrenching childhood thing: You are a little empty and will always be a little empty.

It’s not your fault. You didn’t get what you needed when you needed it. So face it and cry it out and scream about it and beat your fists against the wall and then toughen up and be who you are. You are messy and unorganized and impulsive. So fucking what? Who cares? You have the right to be who you are. You don’t have to be like your mom. And being like your mom would never get you what you wanted anyway. Because it’s too late now. You’re not going to get it. That chance is gone. Your chance to get that wonderful, enveloping, loving feeling of being completely the center of some strong, loving mother’s attention, to be the stable center of your parents’ stable lives, to live in the center of their undivided attention just long enough to be given the inner confidence and peace and stability that you see all around you but are not able to attain — that chance is gone. You’re not going to get that. You are who you are now. You have hurts. You have hungers. You need attention and warmth. This need you have is like the need for food. You need it every day.

I’m guessing that this crops up in other areas — in your marriage, with your kids. So here is what you can do. You can recognize that this gnawing hunger is the work of generations. Families send not just their genes but their hungers through the generations. This happens sometimes because of economic and social conditions, illness and poverty, overwork, racism, alcoholism, wars, scarlet fever, malaria, exodus and displacement, survival responses that are appropriate under dire circumstances but otherwise neurotic; it happens because of trauma and abuse, too many children to feed, violence, fear, infant mortality, crippling depression, the myriad devils of the human. And it gets transmitted silently through looks and blows for centuries, through tales and attitudes, through habit and practice, through sheer ineluctable personality.

So when you contemplate this hunger you must see that this hunger is the hunger of generation after generation. You may also recognize that this hunger is in part a spiritual hunger. That is, though it may be rooted in material circumstances, it will not be cured by material circumstances. You just have a need that can’t be filled. You are suffering, that’s all.

So here is what you do: You take your revenge by giving your children what your mother did not give you. You get some therapy and you strengthen yourself. You say to yourself, I am going to get stronger within myself. I am going to identify those hungers that I live with day to day and find ways to fill them day to day. You parent yourself. You give yourself the things you need that others did not and will not give you. You say to yourself, I recognize that every day I wake up and I need more. I will never get enough. I need to be fed every day. That’s just the way it is.

And you recognize that if you do not find a way to take care of yourself in this way, you cannot be of use to others. You do not do this for selfish reasons. You do this for your children.

It is possible that this is not true about you. If it is not true about you, that’s OK. It will be true about someone. That is the way this works. I am speaking from my heart. It is true about me. And it is true about many people I know. So if this is not true about you, it is true about somebody, somebody who is overhearing this and thinking, yes, he is like me, I recognize this hunger.

And if this is not true about you, then surely something like this is true about you. There is something true about your suffering and you must find what it is. You must find the pattern that is true about you, the pattern of your being, the things that you crave and cannot get. That is the pattern that will drive you to keep doing things that make you unhappy. That pattern is what you need to confront. It is your strength if you face it. It is your weakness if you run from it. It is your footprint, your mark, your signature. It is what you are and cannot escape. It is the only thing that matters.

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I was betrayed by people I trusted

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Cary’s classic column from

I thought they were my friends, but they’ve been laughing at me all this time!


Dear Cary,

About a year ago I found out that five of the people on my campus, including my freshman roommate and a bunch of people I thought were my friends, had been laughing at me behind my back on Facebook — which I’d never used — for months. I found this out when I broke up with my first boyfriend. (He told me under pressure.) Shortly thereafter, I realized that everyone else I’d been friends with at school were his friends, and they stayed his friends. I graduated early, thank God, but it did nothing for me in the end. Some latent psychological issues surfaced right then, and I became every bit that awkward, narrow-minded, ugly and damaged beast they had all seen from the beginning.

Now I am in graduate school. I work a day job so menial that it’s difficult to talk to some people in the academic community. I’m a recently outed gay woman with social skills in the negatives and a face that I can’t make excuses for. To top it all off, I’m 21 and still every bit a sheltered and naive country girl. Everything that was true when it was on Facebook is still true now.

I understand that this is the way things are. I would have experienced a lot of this eventually, bullies or no bullies. I see a therapist, took medicine for a while. But I still feel compelled to isolate myself. I just couldn’t take another incident like this.

But what I really want to know is why, one year later, I’m still thinking about it. Nobody has been able to explain why this one thing haunts me so badly. The best explanation I can think of is that what those friends and acquaintances posted was really close to the truth that I knew and didn’t want to see. But I’ve accepted the truth and I’ve made changes where I could. Is this not enough? What more can I do? Even a jerk ought to be able to shrug off a few Facebook comments after 12 months. Right?

Baker Street

Cary Tennis Writing Retreat in France

Dear Baker Street,

While I’m not a social scientist, I do think about stuff like this, and it seems to me there is a good reason why an experience of betrayal by the group would continue to appear painfully in your thoughts long after its occurrence. I think it is about banishment and exile, about being shunned. It’s not so much about the hurtful words that were said. Nor, I suspect, is it about the truth of what was said. Rather, it is the recognition of banishment. Psychologically, emotionally and indeed organically we depend on the group for survival.

When you leave your family for the first time to live on a college campus, you transfer your dependence and your allegiance from family to social group. So it would seem reasonable to assume that the social group would then be as vital to you, psychologically, as the family was. Your animal nature would perceive the group as the source of shelter and food and protection, just as your family played that role.

So when you find that they have betrayed you, it sets off alarm bells deep in your primitive, survival-oriented self. It’s not that you’ll have nothing to eat, necessarily (although in the dining hall you may find yourself eating alone, guarding your tray like a prisoner does). It is that you have been kicked out, forced to wander. Imagine what it would be like to be literally shunned by all communities, if you had to wander from village to village. Imagine that you had been branded an outcast, and every village you came to, hungry, thirsty and lonely, the villagers would see this ugly brand and turn you away.

Now here is the thing about cosmopolitan society and the modern world. We don’t live in no fucking village. We are free to wander. You can go to California and call yourself Dolly or Nikita. You can be the stranger about whom all one knows is what you tell them. You can go somewhere where nobody sees the mark, or if they see it they do not realize that it is a brand of banishment. They don’t know what it is. It’s just a mark. You can say it’s a birthmark.

That is what we do, those of us who are different. That is what is so merciful about modern technological and postindustrial society: We are free to come and go and define who we are.

Except — and this is the weird thing: Social networking on the Internet seems to be taking us back to the primitive village where everybody knows our business and everybody can see the mark.

So you may have to disappear from the Internet, just as, in former times, you might have found it necessary to disappear from a village in which you had found yourself unjustly shunned and betrayed.

(Isn’t that interesting: While modern cities have long offered the iconoclast a geographic anonymity, the collapse of physical distance brought about by the Internet has put us all in a tiny village with no curtains — a village, incidentally, full of nosy parkers and busybodies! It’s a very annoying place at times, now that our faces are on it!)

That’s the interesting thing to me, anyway: that the technology of social networking seems to be dragging us away from the anonymous cosmopolitan and toward the tribal. I’m not sure I’m so crazy about that. I sort of like the unlimited opportunities of the modern urban situation, where you can come into town and reinvent yourself, as so many of us did in the pre-Internet San Francisco and pre-Internet New York.

So my advice to you: Get off the Net and travel, physically, to an urban setting that loves gay people and is hospitable to outsiders, where you can reinvent yourself on your own terms. And accept the fact that this was a deep and shattering betrayal and it will probably come up in your thoughts from time to time. That’s just the way we work.

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My Scandinavian bridesmaid’s roommate is a creep

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Cary’s classic column from

He screwed my 17-year-old sister on my wedding night, and threatened to have my kneecaps broken!


Dear Cary,

I live in a Scandinavian country. I moved here a little over a year ago to be with my love and recently got married. Despite the difficulties of being from a different culture we have made some close friends. I have particularly become close to one young woman, and we spend a lot of time together, have a lot in common, and have become such good friends that I asked her to be a bridesmaid in my wedding.

My family and many of my close friends from the U.S. came over to be in the wedding, including my little sister who is 17 years old. On the night of the wedding my sister met my new and dear Scandinavian friend’s best friend of many years. He is a very good-looking and smooth-talking guy and sleeps with a different woman every night; at the time he met my sister he had a girlfriend (whom he had already cheated on and would cheat on again). He and my sister made out (running off to corners, etc.) all night long. At the end of the night as we were all leaving, my sister came to tell me that she was going home with him and with my friend (they are roommates).

I knew what was going to happen, and at that moment it made me feel sick. The wedding had been so beautiful. My family and my husband’s family had bonded, and all of the love between our families, ourselves and our friends and guests felt overwhelming. At the end of this kind of night the fact that my underage (but hardly virginal) little sister was going home with a man I knew (and she knew as well) to be a complete shark just felt like a very bad thing. I went to this man and told him, “Don’t sleep with my sister!” I did it in a very firm way, maybe even aggressive, but I did not swear at him and I did not shout. (Nor was I drunk; I had felt so stressed and had so little sleep leading up to the wedding that I made a conscious decision to drink very little.) He told me that I was being dirty, so dirty that if his father ever saw me he would have to break my kneecaps. (Yes, he said that, and not in a joking voice trying to diffuse the situation, but in a very angry voice!) When he said this it felt a bit like I had been slapped. I was standing there in my long white gown, in my veil, and had been told that, and I just felt it was very much over the line. I walked away from him and did not talk to him again that evening.

The real problem, and the reason that I am writing to you, is that my new friend will not accept that I do not really like or want to be around her sharklike best friend. She is very close to both of us and feels that it is unacceptable that I do not like him. We have had several fights about this. I do not badmouth him to her, I do not try to convince her not to be friends with him. In fact when she wants to talk about him (which she does very, very often) I in no way show my basic dislike for his (what I consider) lacking character. And I have helped her analyze him and his very strange and privileged background.

She has been trying very hard to get us to become friends again. She has started bringing him over (twice during this last weekend) trying to get us to hang out together. When we do so, I am very friendly and frankly quite fake, and I really don’t want to hang out with him. In fact I would rather that my friend would not come over at all if she wants to hang out with him. His affectations, which didn’t do much for me before the falling out, are just ridiculous to me now. My husband doesn’t like him either.

However, I do feel very, very close to this friend. She has made life here so much easier for me, making me a part of her life in a way that few Scandinavians are willing to do (besides, of course, my husband). She and I love to sit and talk for hours about life and literature and politics. I really hate the fact that this could have an impact on a new and important relationship in my life. I also hate that she is trying to force me to be friends with this person. She has asked me several times, “But you like him again, right?” I have answered yes, because when I told her several weeks ago that I didn’t want to be friends with him and didn’t like him she became very angry with me. However, to me this issue is not going away as fast as she would like it to.

I can not figure out if this is my problem or her problem. I don’t want to lose someone whom I like so much, but I’m not sure how much longer I can hold my tongue.

Confused and Abroad

Cary Tennis Writing Retreat in France

Dear Confused and Abroad,

I think he did a terrible thing and you are quite right to despise him. What a despicable act! Not only to defy a bride’s wishes on her wedding day, to sleep with her sister against her clear entreaties, but to threaten her? To suggest that he’ll have her kneecaps broken? That is beyond the pale. I don’t see how you could expect to get over such treatment and come to be pals with this guy. You need to be true to yourself. I would not let him in the house again. If it means losing this friend, that is the price you have to pay for being true to yourself.

But perhaps it doesn’t mean losing this friend. If they are roommates, they will probably not be roommates forever. Your social circle in this Scandinavian country, I’m guessing, is fairly fluid; your friends are young and subject to changes in their living arrangements and their loyalties. So if you end up having a longtime friendship with this woman, she too may come to see that her friend is a jerk. In the meantime, you have been pretending; you have not been true to yourself, and that, I think, is destructive to you. I’m sure there are reasons — you are in a foreign country and you are grateful for the society of the natives, you don’t know if your standards are right or not. But the reasons do not seem sufficient. What this man did, it seems to me, showed great disrespect to you. I think you should stay away from him, and make it clear to your friend that, however much you like seeing her, you do not want to see him.

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Can I skip my friend’s wedding?

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Cary’s classic column from

I can’t afford to go plus I dread seeing my mean, stupid ex and his shiny new whatever


 

Hi Cary,

My question is simple, but the back story is complicated. A very good, old friend of mine is getting married this fall. She and her fiancé have communicated that they want me there. In fact, it’s been implied that our friendship will be compromised if I don’t attend.

There are two reasons I am very hesitant to go. The first is the money. I have to fly across the country and pay for a few days at a hotel in the middle of nowhere. Money is tight, and this will set me back hundreds of dollars. I live paycheck-to-paycheck right now.

The second reason is, my ex is going to be there. I was in a long-term relationship with a man. We had a long engagement (too long, in hindsight). We moved across the country together. Right after we moved, he suddenly broke up with me. Turns out, he met someone else immediately after we moved. A month after he dumped me, he married this other woman.

I’m still picking up the pieces of my life after the breakup. It devastated me emotionally and financially. I basically lost everything. If I go to my friend’s wedding, my ex and his new wife will be there. I haven’t seen this woman face-to-face. And I am almost certain I will cry.

I don’t want to make a scene at this wedding. I want to go — it’s important to me to be there. But I don’t know how I could spend hundreds of dollars I don’t have, only to be hurt and humiliated in public.

I’ve tried to talk to my friend about it, but she just keeps telling me how much she wants me there. I don’t want my friendship to be compromised. But I also don’t want credit card debt.

Should I Go?

Cary Tennis Writing Retreat in France

Dear Should I Go,

Sometimes you get to do things for your own dignity. Sometimes you get to comfort your own soul, and tell your own soul, You know what, I’ve put you through a lot, and made you insecure and uncomfortable, and I know you are still hurting and you are going to be dreading going, so I am not going to force you into it; I’m going to wait for you to say OK.

So you talk to your soul like your soul was a kid you are taking care of. And you don’t drag her by the arm into the department store; you don’t shove her into the pool or into the classroom; you wait until she, of her own volition, indicates that she is ready and can prepare, on her own time, to walk in there on her own, and when she does she will show surprising strength because she has had time to heal. And you don’t assume that she will be ready when it’s convenient for you. You wait for her. You wait.

I have a feeling she’s not ready yet and that is fine.

You are still wounded. The wound is still fresh and might be reopened by an encounter with the same knife that caused it. You don’t have to risk that. You can give this wound time to heal.

You don’t have to go.

I mean, nobody’s stopping you. But you don’t have to. And it might be a good opportunity to get real with your friend. Has your friend asked you how you feel about the prospect of seeing your ex? Has she expressed any concern for your feelings? Or is she thinking only of her beautiful wedding and how special she’s going to feel having all her friends there?

This may be a good time to write your friend a letter and tell her how you want to remain friends but right now you have to take care of yourself.

You don’t have to be there for every Kodak moment. Some Kodak moments are best left to the photographers.

Don’t worry about regretting your decision. Instead, ask yourself what you want to take with you into the future. Do you want to take with you the debt you incurred because you could not say no, and the humiliation and anger you felt seeing your ex with his new wife? Or do you want to take with you the confidence that you can say no, and the money you saved, and the relief you feel knowing you did not have to see your ex?

What would you like to remember? Would you like to remember how you sort of knuckled under at the last minute and put yourself in debt and showed up just because? Or would you like to remember the courage you showed in making a hard decision that was best for you, and how this time you showed up not for somebody else in a distant town but for yourself, here, where you live?

You can fill your future with every imaginable item, or you can bring into the future only the things you want to bring into it, building your future like a house, furnishing it with sacred objects and memories.

I mean, it’s your choice. But you can see where I’m leaning. And I’m kind of angry at your friend, actually, for not making it more clear that she knows how hard it would be for you. Maybe she doesn’t know how hurt you still are. Or maybe she is thinking of no one but herself and her beautiful wedding.

 

 

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My new boyfriend’s mom has cancer

 

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Hi Cary,

I am seeing a great guy, but things have recently become very ambiguous between us and I’m not sure the best course of action for me.

We were dating for a little over two months, it was a slowly deepening fantastic and mature relationship, and I care for him, he clearly cares for me, we were falling in love. But as it happened, on our second date he found out his mom has a widespread and fast moving cancer with unknown prospects for treatment.

He didn’t seem much affected by it at first, and he consistently deflected my offers of support and my concern. But over the weeks I felt like he was holding back, being emotionally distant, reluctant to fall for me, and eventually started contacting me less and being less available to see me.

I asked him about it, and he came back and said that due to his mother’s illness something fell apart in him and he can’t manage to be in a relationship right now, that things were great with me and it isn’t me, but he can’t tolerate the contrasting pleasure and pain, he can’t be there for me, he can’t uphold his end of a relationship, and he doesn’t want to hurt me or let me down, that he has to do this alone, that it’s simpler and a relationship would complicate things. He didn’t say the words break-up or just-be-friends, but he made it clear we are no longer in a relationship. Since three weeks we are still in almost daily contact and see each other around once a week, we have joint projects and plans to do things together, he’s still affectionate. Last time I saw him we were overwhelmed by our mutual attraction and made love all night, but in the morning he was distant and bothered by my presence. His behavior is quite clear that it’s no longer a relationship, but something else and rather ambiguous.

We have both handled this situation quite delicately, thoughtfully, and I want to be there for him as much as he will accept me, as much as he needs, but I feel tortured and confused about what that means for us. We have feelings for each other, we are attracted to each other, we enjoy each other’s company, we have joint projects together… but he isn’t available for a relationship.

How can I find a way for me to continue to be there for him without torturing myself always pining for more, how can I find a peaceful sustainable existence in this ambiguity? How can I ride this out with him, deepening our connection, our intimacy, and be there in the months or years when he is ready for a serious relationship? How can I give my support and love, but not expect him to reciprocate ? Should I invest myself in my single non-romantic life? Should I move on and date other people ?

Thanks for your help :)

G

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Dear G,

Just tell him, clearly and often, that you are there for him during this time and that he does not need to right the balance sheet. There is no balance sheet. There is just you. You are there for him and that’s the end of it. That’s what he needs and it’s what you can give him.

You say you feel tortured and confused about what this means for you. It’s not surprising that you’re confused. One set of rituals has collided with another.

But there is no mystery about what is required. What is required is that you behave like a good, caring human being. If you make love you make love. If you don’t talk for a while you don’t talk for a while. The rules of romance are suspended. If you have needs for companionship or sex that he cannot meet, do not feel bad about meeting them in other ways. Being there for him doesn’t mean you put your life on hold. Just be there for him when you can be. Contact him regularly and don’t require him to call you back. Just remind him regularly that you are there.

Relationships deepen when one partner suffers a loss. In unguarded moments your friend will reveal hidden strengths and weaknesses. His core beliefs will come to the fore. You will see who he is.

It’s possible that you will be surprised by what you see. It’s possible, likewise, that he may not be able to be intimate with you in any meaningful way while he is facing the possible loss of his mother.

What I meant when I said that two sets of rituals had collided is that the ritual of dating has collided with the ritual of friendship. The confusion that results shows just how artificial the expectations of the dating relationship are. It seems to presume that no unforeseen human events will occur. When they do occur, the dating ritual participants are thrown into indecision.

This illustrates how dating rituals distort our natural instincts toward compassion and caring. It’s very interesting: If he were a friend, even a friend you’ve only just met, you would not be confused about how to respond to this event in his life. You would express your concern and make yourself available to him. But because you are following a dating ritual, each of you feels strangely compelled to apologize for the disruption.  It is as though people date in a vacuum, excluding all real-life events.

So the important thing is to act in the human sphere, to act in friendship. Put “the relationship” on hold.

Let go of your hopes and expectations for a relationship and just be there. Be a good human being and a good friend. You know how to do that.

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Inherited money turned my friends into idiots

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Cary’s classic column from

Since they got suddenly rich, all they talk about is how hard it is to get good help


Hi, Cary –

In a nutshell, the problem is that my three best friends have all inherited substantial money in the past two years. My husband and I have no hope of ever again being their financial equals.

And I’m jealous as hell. So jealous, I don’t really want to talk to them. Their conversations seem to be all about their new houses, their trips, their toys, and things I can never hope to have.

These three are all my best friends — friends of over 30 years whom I went to school with. We danced at each other’s weddings and laughed through college and adulthood together. They have been dear friends and a source of comfort and joy. But I just can’t relate to their new problems (how hard it is to find a good cleaning lady, the price of a designer handbag, yada yada).

We’re not “working poor” — we’re probably in the middle of the middle class — but suddenly they’ve leapt up several notches in net worth, and it depresses me to know I’ll never be there.

I can’t really afford to lose three good friends, but I hate the jealousy I feel every time we visit any of them or they visit us. What’s my solution? Is there one? They are not rubbing my nose in it — I am.

Jealous of the Newly Rich

Cary Tennis' Finishing School

Dear Jealous,

If we’re just fine, if we’re just as good as the next person, then why should we care if someone has something we don’t have?

And if we’re not fine, what’s wrong? What do we need to be content in our own lives?

You probably can’t force the heavens to rain money on you. But you can use this opportunity to look at your own life and ask what you can do to make your own life so satisfying that you don’t care about other people and their inherited wealth.

So what do you need? What is missing in your own life? Really. I mean, sure, maybe it’s the Audi sports car that you think is missing. But what is that about? Is it about excitement and fun? Is it about the feeling of being admired? Do you crave the sensual feel of luxury upholstery?

Once you can identify the actual cravings, you can find those things in experience. You don’t need to own an expensive luxury sports car to enjoy some of its qualities. If your friends have acquired expensive luxury sports cars, you can ask them to drive you around. They probably would be happy to do that. Then you can feel the expensively sure and quiet click of the glove compartment and know that you are in the presence of the world’s finest engineering — unless the glove compartment is locked, perhaps because it contains diamonds, or a gun, or both. Then you can enjoy the thought of what is hidden in the glove compartment of the expensive luxury sports car belonging to your old friend who has just inherited quite a bit of money.

Or maybe what is missing is a sense of security. Maybe it grinds you down to have to work so hard, not knowing where the next rent check will come from, wondering how you will maintain your own comfortable existence into old age.

These are real concerns. They are what our lives are made of. They are worth thinking about.

In this way you can allow your friends’ good fortune to enrich your own life, without having to pay the insurance premiums or the inheritance taxes.

Your desires are real and legitimate. You would be wise to pursue their satisfaction. But your jealousy is a perversion of those desires, based in a belief that you can’t have what you want, and that the world is unfair, and you are unloved.

Jealousy is different from desire. Desires can be satisfied. Jealousy involves a painful, grinding feeling of unworthiness. When I’m jealous and it leads to depression, that’s because I feel things are hopeless: I’ll never have what they have, hence I’ll never be happy or loved.

In jealousy we sense injustice: Why should that jerk have a boat? He doesn’t deserve it! If a person worked hard all his life and finally bought a boat, would we be jealous? Probably not. But if his rich mother bought him a boat and he appeared on deck in his captain’s hat and blazer, knowing nothing about maintenance or navigation, we might feel a murderous twinge.

We have no control over who inherits what. But we do have some control over our own lives, and how we treat our own psyches.

The cure is to know that we are loved, and to forgive ourselves for our shortcomings. Not having wealth is not a shortcoming. But obsessing over it is. So we forgive ourselves, and we remind ourselves of our own worth.

If I told you to write, “I’m Good Enough, I’m Smart Enough, and Doggone It, People Like Me!” on your bathroom mirror like that “Saturday Night Live” character Stuart Smalley, it might send you into a real suicidal depression. We have to maintain some dignity! But if you are honest about the things you enjoy, and if you pursue them, and if you give yourself the pleasures you deserve, and if you allow yourself to plot secretly to acquire the pleasures that only you know you want, then you can live a fairly happy life without inheriting millions of dollars.

Self-esteem does not mean self-satisfaction. It isn’t egotism. It is love. And it must come with humility. That means loving ourselves as we are, with our shortcomings.

So my wish for you would be that you change your attitude to one of grateful amazement that your friends could have such good fortune.

Well, maybe that’s a tall order.

OK, how about this:

My wish for you would be that you can continue to love your friends and forgive them for their newfound and boring interest in the challenges of maintaining mundane comforts, and that you would get to the point where can say to them, “Enough talk about the perils and misfortunes of inherited wealth; now let’s grill some ribs.”

Preserve the friendship by being open but lighthearted about this. It’s a touchy subject, and it may happen that at times your true feelings show a little. But that’s OK. As long as you don’t belabor it. Like, don’t get into a long self-justifying drunken spiel about how your friends have become insufferable since they got a little dough. Just rib them about it and maintain your own dignity.

In other words, stop rubbing your own nose in it.

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Nothing is a Ruse, Judith Lindbloom 1992 (portion)

El Farolito

Judith, abstract expressionist, El Farolito on 24th Street in the Mission for lunch after the meeting, talking about William James,  the God thing, William James says, Look, we are scientific men, Christian men, honest men, and we cannot deny what we see: People are having experiences; they have these experiences of another world and then they change. What are we to call this? How can we, as scientific men, pretend that this is not real? So something is going on, basically, is what Judith and William James and I agree about in the Farolito on 24th near Florida Street.

How did she get 33 years sober, hanging out with de Kooning in New York, marrying Steve Lacy because he needed a wife even though she preferred women, and living in that apartment at 23rd and Potrero since 1979, watching the giant construction cranes across Potrero at SF General Hospital, and my plate of al pastor, and the uncanny feeling of holy rescue one feels sitting across from somebody who rampaged through 1950s New York art scene fucking everything that had a can of cadmium yellow and a canvas stretcher, everything that had a gallery show even a group gallery show and a collection of Chet Baker records not too many because he didn’t make too many because he died young and pretty and messed up, toothless and beat up and strung out in the Fillmore … thinking how does that familiar miracle happen to this woman who is nothing but trouble for years just fucking up everything until finally one day she gets it and stops the bullshit and just keeps painting every day for the last 33 years in her studio at Hunter’s Point until the abstracts are piled up to the ceiling and still she keeps going because it’s the only way to God for her, it’s the only way to know herself, her raspy, Winston-ravaged throat, her New York by way of Chicago combination of exasperation and exultations, half the time having no idea what she’s really saying but agreeing, as we agree about William James and what he was seeing in 1890, that the old religions are crumbling yet people are having these experiences of something beyond, something other, something anti-rational that says everything you believed up till now was wrong, relax, surrender.
Let the impossible happen.

Let what you don’t know guide you.

Me and Judith in El Farolito. She talks incessantly about dying. How she’s ready. How it’s a pain in the ass. How people are taking care of her. People are taking Judith where Judith needs to go. People are buying Judith lunch. People are driving Judith to meetings. This is community.

This is how community works, a loving community around a single person without any blood relatives nearby, this is how we close ranks around someone who tore through New York in the 1950s and is still painting abstract expressionist and still listening to jazz LPs on her turntable in her Hunters Point studio and still wearing those khaki painters’ pants the hipsters wore in New York: that faded black-and-white photo of her on the door of her Hunters Point studio: Who is that woman she’s with, her lover? A friend of de Kooning’s? Who is that woman? How did she get there? And how did we get to this table at El Farolito?

We moved into her building in 1990 and she said, “I’m the one with the great flat. You’re the ones who got the not-so-great flat.” We became friends. We went to demonstrations together.

I am giving her rides. We are taking care of her. We are closing ranks around her as she threatens to slip away from us.

Nothing is a Ruse, Judith Lindbloom 1992 (portion)
Nothing is a Ruse, Judith Lindbloom 1992 (portion)