Category Archives: Money

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I should have gone to my aunt’s funeral

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I could have gone, I should have gone, but I thought about the money and my other plans!

Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, APR 25, 2008

Dear Cary,

I just got done listening to this beautiful essay on NPR. Someone wrote in to say, “Always Go to the Funeral.” I’m writing you because I didn’t go, and I feel terrible about it. My aunt Miriam just passed away. She wasn’t really my aunt. I never knew how she was related to me. I used to call her “Grandma Miriam,” and later it was “Auntie Miriam.” She always gave me good Christmas presents.

I wanted to go to the funeral. Part of me did, at least, but part of me thought of all the obligations and plans I had already made (training course, baseball game, weekend at my boyfriend’s) and I didn’t want to cancel all these things. And then there was the money. I live in New York and most of my family is in New Mexico. I tried the bereavement rates and the discount carriers, and the cheapest flight I could get was $470.

I told myself, “Put it on your credit card. Think of all the useless crap you waste your money on every day, you can afford this.” But I didn’t want to spend the money. And then I thought of the dozens of times I had promised myself, “Always put friends and family before money.” And I asked my boyfriend for advice, and he said, “That’s a lot of money. It’s OK not to spend it.” And I asked my sister, “Is it OK if I don’t go? It’s just so expensive.” And she said it was OK. So now here I am. It is the morning of the funeral and I feel awful. I should have gone.

I could have afforded it. I’m loaded with credit card debt, but I waste my money on so many unnecessary things. This would have been a lot at once, but it wouldn’t be outrageous. Hell, I’m planning a summer vacation in New Mexico where I plan to stay at a fancy multi-star resort. I could have afforded it. And yet I didn’t go. And now it’s too late to change my mind.

I feel so much regret. And this regret makes me turn inward. I look at my life, and I wonder what I’m doing here. I love New York, but things like this make me wonder how I can survive so far away from my family. I miss them all the time. I don’t know what I’m doing in this city, in this job, so far away from everything. I earn money, and I spend it on rent and food. And the food is terrific, but what am I doing here? Why didn’t I go to the funeral? I want someone to say, “It’s OK.” But then I would know that they were just lying to soothe me.

Coulda Been a Mourner

Dear Coulda Been a Mourner,

When we are stung with regret about an action we have taken or failed to take, often our first thought is, Why?! Why did I do that? Why did I not do that?! Why?!

Why is not always the best question to ask. It is often better to first ask, What? For Why? presumes we already know the What? but we often don’t. Not really. Not fully. Not in the deep and lasting way fitting to an occasion we will remember the rest of our lives. Much of the Why? can be answered if we fully explore the What?.

So let’s ask, What? What happened? First, your aunt died. Your aunt died and news reached you — a relative called you and told you, or you received an e-mail. And then what happened? What did you do next? Did you sit down and feel sad? Where were you? Did you feel fearful or conflicted? Did you call someone close to you to talk about it? What feelings came up?

Write about that moment when you got the news. Put aside some time to do this. If it is hard to find the time, then consider the hours or days you would have put aside to go to the funeral, and put aside just a fraction of that time to write down your recollection of events. Put aside, say, just two hours when you can be alone and recollect it. Begin writing and do not be concerned about the quality or accuracy of what you write. Just keep the pen moving, or the fingers typing. Try to move forward in time through the events. Write about how you got the news, and what you thought about, and who you talked to, and what you remembered of your aunt. If things from the past occur to you as you write, put them in, but keep moving forward. Write about the activities you had planned for the period of time your aunt’s funeral would have been — the baseball game, the training course, the weekend at your boyfriend’s. Do not shame yourself for wanting to do these things. They are good, human activities. Write about those activities and how much you like them and how much you were looking forward to them. Also write about the $470 ticket to New Mexico, and your experience talking to airline reservation agents about bereavement fares.

It may help to write this in the form of a letter to a friend or relative. Or you may want to address it to your aunt. If you find you have specific things you want to say to your aunt, you can address her in the course of writing the letter even if the letter does not begin, Dear Auntie Miriam. Just say, by the way, Auntie Miriam, I wanted to tell you this. That way you can say things to her in the letter that you might have wanted to say, and if you want to ask forgiveness for not attending the funeral you can ask her forgiveness. She would probably understand. The dead are wise. But they don’t know everything. She might have been wondering where you were. So just tell her what happened.

Don’t worry about being correct. Just be complete. Put it all down: when you got the news, in what manner the news came to you, what you were doing when you got the news and where you were, who told you, what you felt and what you did. Try to remember the feelings you had and what went through your mind.

When you have written all this, then find a time to read it aloud to a close friend or family member, someone who will not judge you but will thank you and support you. Or, if you prefer, read it aloud alone, perhaps addressing our aunt as you read.

The simple truth is that you are experiencing deep regret and deep loss and you are trying to handle it. Funerals are one way to handle this but not the only way. It isn’t that you made the right decision or the wrong decision. You can’t change the fact that your aunt died and that you did not attend the funeral. This is what regret is like: Something has happened that really, truly, utterly cannot be changed. It is done. It is over. And we played a part in it. We chose a path and that choice cannot be changed either.

You are experiencing the loss of your aunt. But consider this: Losing someone is more like missing their funeral than attending their funeral. So what you are feeling is closer to the raw, irrevocable realization of death than what you would be feeling if you had gone to the funeral. In making this little mistake you have gained something irreplaceable that will serve you the rest of your life. Now you see why we have funerals. They help us get over it. They replace the dead with a convocation of the living. They help us avoid the true irrevocable silence and absence that is death. So it is good to go to the funeral not because we offend the dead with our absence. Funerals are very boring to the dead (they laugh about it later, at the after-party, and they make fun of our clothes). Instead it is good to go to the funeral because then we do not have to face the terror of our ultimate nonexistence alone in our apartments.

So next time someone close to you dies, you will know: Take the easy way out. Charge the bereavement fare to your credit card. Go to the funeral and be among the living. But please know that you are not a coarse, unfeeling person, that you have not offended her, that you are not lacking in human decency. You have done nothing wrong in missing this funeral. In fact, by writing out what happened, you can memorialize this event and honor your aunt in a way that is unique and that adds to her memory.

So think of it this way: Rather than attend the palliative event like the rest of the family, you unwittingly stuck your head out the window of the car and took in a full face of death at 70 miles an hour. Now you know what that’s like. It’s better to go to the funeral. But the funeral is not for the dead. The dead don’t need funerals. We the living do.

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What happened to all my dad’s money?

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

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


Dear Cary,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where’s the Money?

LastChanceTuscany

Dear Where’s the Money?

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

Remember this also: He will never tell you that.

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

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

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

But he knows how to give away his money.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This will not be easy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Homeless, with diamonds

 

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Cary’s classic column from Friday, Feb 6, 2004

I’m married to a wonderful man, but he doesn’t seem to share my fear of financial humiliation.


Dear Cary,

I have been spoiled with a very happy life. I am 26, married to a wonderful 34-year-old man whom I love more than anyone in the world. He is strong, supportive, smart, funny and affectionate. We are happy together. We are healthy. We live in a nice apartment in a beautiful neighborhood of an exciting city. We are overeducated. We are both from well-off families who funded our very expensive educations so we didn’t have to go into debt. We want to have lots of babies and live happily ever after.

That hasn’t been easy for us, so we are seeing lots of doctors who hopefully will be able to help us make that dream come true. Even our brush with infertility, while upsetting, has been something we are working through together.

I am writing because I am afraid, terrified, petrified really, that we are falling, diving, into a cycle of failure and debt. I am unemployed. Two years ago, we moved back to my husband’s hometown. I still don’t speak the language here very well, although I am taking classes and improving rapidly. While I am generally happy here — I’ve managed to make friends, find activities to keep busy — I have not found a job. I am a clinical social worker, so language is obviously important and jobs are very scarce here. My husband started his own business when we moved. I feel guilty even writing this, but it is a total failure. His income doesn’t come close to covering our rent, and forget our lifestyle. Our savings are gone. The project my husband spent the last six months working day and night on just went to another firm. For the last year, my husband has been looking for a job at the same time as running his ailing business but nothing has come through.

The worst thing is that my husband doesn’t seem to recognize the reality of any of this. Although he is very discouraged by his business venture, he is in total denial about the fact that we won’t be able to pay our rent next month. He just bought me a diamond anniversary band. He wants to keep trying to make the business work. Maybe he isn’t worried because in his heart, he believes his family will give us money. Maybe they will. In fact, they probably will, and so my fears of being thrown on the street are probably unfounded. I see being bailed out by his family as totally humiliating. I don’t know if he would mind.

I’m not sure what to do, or what I really expect my husband to do. Part of me blames him for his failing business, even though I know how hard he is working. Part of me is asking what is wrong with him, that he just can’t make it happen. The other part of me hates myself because I know that he wants his business to work even more than I do and, in reality, I am just as much of a failure in my work life as he is.

Should I encourage him to keep working at his business, to make his dream come true, and just suck it up and consider myself lucky if the in-laws are willing to pay the bills? Should I tell him to find a job, any job, and by the same standard, forget my own failed career goals and take whatever job is out there (McDonald’s if need be)?

Should I just be happy with what we have and not worry if we drift through our lives never reaching some mythical point of career fulfillment?

Spoiled Girl Looking for Direction

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Dear Spoiled,

I suggest that you turn to your family for help. Don’t ask for money. Ask for expertise. You need an outside opinion. If your family is successful and well-off, there must be people in it who are knowledgeable about business, no? Or are you royalty? Don’t tell me your family is the kind that just spends money and doesn’t earn it.

You need a sober assessment of your husband’s business plan, so you can form a clear picture of his chances for success. Only then can you decide if the struggle makes sense. Even if your family is royalty, they must have somebody on retainer to balance the books. You need a person like that.

If you went directly to your husband and said you wanted to have an expert look over his business plan, he might feel that you don’t have much faith in his business ability and that you are trying to meddle. Which would be true. So you can try to arrange an assessment on the up-and-up. But you might have to arrange for someone to approach your husband as a potential investor. He could assess the cash flow potential, the competition (who was it who ate his lunch on that last big deal?), and so forth. If he becomes satisfied that your husband has a good business model, he might go ahead and invest. If not, you might want to start looking for a job.

Look, I too have been on the brink of financial disaster, and I know how humiliating it is, and how fear of the future can weigh on you, how you just want to lash out at anyone, find a victim, find a cause, find something you can pinpoint as the source of your anxiety. So I know what that’s like. I also know it doesn’t last. Usually — especially if, as you say, you have resources and an education — you find a way out of it. It might mean taking a stupid job for a while. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, the humble regularity of a stupid job can be strangely liberating.

The subterfuge of having your husband’s business analyzed by an outsider may bother you. For all I know, it may be ethically wrong. But I don’t think so. I think you are at a disadvantage because you have no facts; you are vulnerable; there is a lot at stake here, and you need to take steps to protect yourself. If you’re able to figure out what the problem is with the business, you will be protecting your husband as well. He truly may not know what he’s doing. If he’s not a good businessman, the sooner he learns that, the sooner he can get out of business.

The truth is, you’ll probably be fine. One way or another, you’ll get through this. You’ll find a job in your field, your families may help you over the hump, things will work out. But business is not about dreams. It’s about columns of numbers. The sooner your husband realizes that, the better.

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My father’s widow is stingy

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, JUN 9, 2005

I know he would have wanted to give me more money, but his will left everything to her.


Dear Cary,

I’m 34. My father passed away a year and half ago. He remarried when I was 15 but started dating my stepmom (SM) when I was 9.

Dad and SM kept their finances separate. My father was known to help his kids out when she wasn’t looking. For all I know, she was doing the same with her kids. My sister, the black sheep, was barely welcome in their house, but my dad still helped her out. Which is why his will surprised me. My dad left all the money in a trust that SM administers. She gets his pension too, which leaves her taken care of for life.

I hate that this bothers me, but she’s been reluctantly generous since my dad died. She spent the first year crying poor. She grudgingly sent me my father’s desk, making it clear to me how much the shipping cost. She won’t ship any other furniture of his to me unless I pay. Meanwhile, she gave her oldest son her Volvo, the second one she’s given him. She’s now moving her youngest son and his girlfriend into her condo at an extremely subsidized rate. Everything I’ve gotten from her since my father died, I’ve had to ask for.

I’m now pregnant with my first child. I spoke to her before I was pregnant about possibly helping us out financially the first year we have a child. I explained that it would make a big difference because I wouldn’t feel pressure to rush back to work. Since I announced the pregnancy, she has offered to buy me a car seat and some maternity clothes but made no mention of our previous discussion. My in-laws, who are very generous, immediately told us how they could help us financially. They constantly surprise us with their gifts. The abundance has been especially comforting since my dad’s death.

I think I feel abandoned by my dad. I think every day that she is not generous with me I feel extra slighted. I honestly think his will was the will of a man who thought he was going to die at 90. He always assumed he would, even after his cancer diagnosis. How do I move on? Do I bring up the finances with her again? It’s making it hard for me to talk to her and then of course I feel money-grubbing.

Just writing this letter is making me sad.

Wanting More

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Dear Wanting More,

You say you feel abandoned by your father. Your father may have abandoned you many times in the past, physically, financially and emotionally. But this time he did not abandon you. He died. That is different. That is not abandonment. It is an excused absence.

Perhaps he led you to believe that he would never die and he would always take care of you, so his death does seem like a betrayal or abandonment. But who had the largest loss of all? He is the one who lost his life. His loss was the greatest of all.

It is our job, as the living, to make peace with the dead.

What do we owe the dead? We owe the dead the opportunity to truly be gone. That is one great consolation of death — that, as television ads for the advance purchase of burial plots put it, in death we do indeed settle our “final expenses.” Isn’t that a lovely thought, that there finally is, indeed, a permanent caesura to our endless invoices? Perhaps in this painful weighing of gifts is a refusal to let go of your father completely.

It is hard to make peace with the dead when we are still entangled in their affairs. So I think you need to change the way you think about the money and property your father left. To do that, you may need to face with renewed clarity the fact of his death, its utter finality. He is completely gone. Everything that was once his is no longer his. It is no longer your father’s money. It is his widow’s money. The decisions she makes about how to use her money will be based on her values and the relationship that you and she have, not on your idea of what your father would have wanted.

A person’s will leaves certain instructions about the disposition of his estate, and through that legal instrument the dead may continue to exert an influence over the living. But it is a mistake, I think, to reach beyond his legal instructions and presume “he would have wanted this” or “he would have wanted that.” Indeed, he may have told you many things about what he wanted. But unless they are written down, those utterances lose all force as the last breath leaves his body. The living are left to sort it out with the only tools they have.

Those tools are, it seems to me, our values, our human decency, our feelings for each other and our regard for our own security. Among your father’s strongly held values, I take it, was the belief that parents ought to help their children financially when they can, well into adulthood. Now, the values a person lives by are admirable in two ways. One, they have an inherent validity — it’s clear that society benefits from honest dealings, concern for children, etc. Two, they are seen as admirable because of the esteem in which we hold the person. We look up to our parents and emulate their values. That admiration based on our esteem for the person is, I think, the basis on which we say, My father would have wanted this. In saying so, we are honoring not only his values but our memory of him as a person. We are carrying on a relationship with him even though he is no longer here. We do this out of love for him. That relationship, that continuing love for his memory, is vital and should not be denigrated.

But unfortunately it is not a basis for settling property disputes. Many people loved your father and had an idea about what he would have wanted. Many people held him in esteem and shared his values. But the money now belongs to his widow. It is she who must make the decisions about how to use it. If you can persuade her that the values your father lived by are good in and of themselves, and that she ought therefore to give you more money, more power to you. Perhaps you can construct an argument in which you distill and renew the values he lived by and present that to her. But the argument must, I think, be based in present reality.

As a way of working through this you might ask yourself: What is the importance of those values he held and bequeathed to you? Why is it still vital that parents help their children well into adulthood? How did he balance the needs of children and widow, and how ought that be managed now? What concerns for her own well-being might she have that she has not spelled out? Why, on their merits, are her actions miserly or unfair? In short, what is the right thing to do?

As you think it through, you may find it difficult to pinpoint exactly what is wrong with her actions themselves. Indeed, you may find that there isn’t anything wrong with what she is doing, judging by contemporary standards. If so, you may then be left with only your sadness over your father’s passing. That is a great sadness indeed. In fact, once you think it through, the money may seem the least of your loss, compared to who this man was and what he meant to you.

It is best in life to turn from matters over which we have little control and little responsibility to those matters over which we have great control and great responsibility. Those matters are chiefly the conduct of our own lives and how we care for our own loved ones, whose hopes, like ours, are that we be generous and prosper as long as we can.

Walking on a hillside meadow perhaps one day soon you will feel the wind and it won’t have his breath in it; sitting at his desk one day it won’t be his desk anymore, but your desk. I’m not saying it will happen today or tomorrow, but it is something to look forward to, a state of understanding and acceptance that will make your present anguish over Volvos and car seats seem strangely disconnected from life’s grave and joyous milestones.

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Can I help the handyman who sleeps on a cot?

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, AUG 20, 2009

This guy in our neighborhood has it rough, but I need to maintain clear boundaries


Dear Cary,

A neighbor of mine needs help. He is effectively homeless, although I think he might have a cot of some sort in another neighbor’s garage. He works as a handyman around the neighborhood, including doing yard work for my family when we need it.

He also sometimes needs money immediately. In the past he has offered to sell us something of little value (which we refused), although recently he asked for $20 and insisted he could pay us back the next day (which he did). A few days ago he and I discussed his coming by to clean out our gutters and we agreed on a price. Last night he stopped by to ask if he could have a $10 advance, which I turned down because I did not have any cash on me.

He is also sometimes late or a no-show (like today) for the appointed time to work. He doesn’t have a phone so I can’t contact him when this happens. I am not a hard-ass when it comes to schedules but I can’t let the dog out when I expect him. I have tried in the past to leave a note for him if he was late and I needed to leave for some reason, but I believe he might be illiterate.

I really want to help him, and that feeling scares me. I believe he has some history of substance abuse and that he might not be in recovery now, in part because until about seven years ago most of my relationships were codependent ones with substance abusers. I recognize the feelings of being pulled in that direction with him.
I try really hard to make my exchanges with him about business. I have established boundaries for our transactions and I try to treat him as I would any contractor, although I sometimes pay him more than his services are worth. But I feel pulled to continue lending him money when he needs it, which I would never do with a contractor. I also would probably terminate a relationship with a contractor who is so often a no-show and so hard to communicate with.

I sometimes think about doing something substantial to get him on the right footing, like giving him a no-interest loan to buy a new lawn mower or even just giving him a small stipend to water our lawn twice a week. I think about looking for an organization that is designed to help him. I also consider the possibility of explaining to him how to manage his money and time better myself. I don’t do any of this because I fear that I’ll end up being an enabler again.

My question is: How do I know the right thing to do? How do I know when it is OK to help someone like him in a way that won’t pull me into the kind of fucked-up involvements I had in the past? Is there anything I can do to help this person beyond just paying him for the jobs he shows up to do?

Thanks,

A Former Enabler

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Dear Former Enabler,

I pay attention to coincidence. The first two letters I received this morning concerned the chaotic lives of others and our perceived obligations to them, how we can help and yet avoid entanglement. So I am going to trust that there is some sense in following this.

Here’s how I see it. There’s this guy in your neighborhood. He’s kind of a handyman. He kind of lives somewhere but not always. He’s not all that dependable but he’s around. He can clean out your gutters and mow your lawn and sometimes he asks for money and sometimes pays it back. He can’t really put a long-term plan together and carry it out. But he’s around. Sometimes you think, wow, ought to do something about that guy. Ought to fix him.

That’s where you get into trouble, right? You think, Oh, if I do this for him, then …
Forget the then part. Just do things and let it go. Transactions with him may be “wavy.” They’re not clean and straight and to the penny. His deal is a wavy thing. Times are approximate. Stuff gets done sort of and sometimes it doesn’t get done or it’s confusing or surprising and sometimes you have to redo it but sometimes he’ll hit his stride and outdo himself and it’s amazing. Maybe it’s something you didn’t even want done but it’s still amazing! Something will come over a guy like that in the course of building a gate and it’ll turn out to be the best gate on the block … except maybe it has this one hinge that’s crooked where his mind wandered. He was thinking — as he does from time to time — about why his life didn’t turn out just a little more together, with some money in the bank, a dependable car, something to look forward to and something to fall back on. He’s still scuffling for a dollar. He’ll get by. But he doesn’t have that comfort thing. He’s got a cot in somebody’s garage … and as he is thinking of these things he mismeasures for the hinge and it goes on crooked because it’s getting late in the day and he’s tired and he doesn’t want to start over.

To what extent are we responsible for others? This guy is not a social experiment, he is a member of your community. Do you give this guy respect, do you regard him not as a problem to be solved but as a member of your community, do you respect the stubbornly incommensurate facts of his existence?

A guy with a cot in somebody’s garage may be sad to some. Maybe somebody will get him a room in a house. Then for a while he’ll be a guy with a room in a house. Then maybe he won’t have the room in a house anymore. Some people will say, “Things didn’t work out,” or “Things changed.” They’ll say he’s a guy with a cot in a garage and he had a room in a house for a while but now he’s just got that cot in the garage but he’ll mow your lawn or do some painting, just be careful he doesn’t let the dogs out because he’s not always paying attention, and if you lend him money he’ll usually pay you back but maybe not always but it’s never that much money … but last week he showed up at the house kind of late at night and maybe he’d been drinking but we couldn’t smell anything but he wanted $10 but I didn’t have $10 so I sent him away and I probably should have, like, told him that he shouldn’t be just dropping in on us at almost 10 o’clock at night asking for money but I felt sorry for him and maybe he was hungry but we didn’t want to ask him in, we were getting ready for bed.

People will say he does “inappropriate things.” How bad is “inappropriate”? He’s a guy with a cot in somebody’s garage.

You are on the right track. You know the territory. You have the tools and the understanding to avoid being sucked into this guy’s life. Just do what you’re doing. Set boundaries and be clear about what you’re willing to lose. Don’t wait around for him longer than you want to. If he shows up late and you’ve left already, well, that’s the way it goes. Consider anything you lend to him a gift. Be ready to let it go, whatever your intentions are for it. If he should lose what you give him or sell it for cash, consider it a gift to him.

Give him things but do not give him things with strings attached. It’s the strings that are the problem. If you are giving with strings attached, then you are letting yourself in for disappointment. Give because you want to give, and are willing to give, and have the money to give.

The man with a cot in somebody’s garage stirs many things in us. You wonder: Does he know he stirs all this stuff up in us? Does he know? Is he manipulating us? To what extent?

I have seen firsthand down South how the privileged and the dispossessed who have lived shoulder to shoulder for so many generations manipulate each other and jockey for position to the very limits of their assigned roles. I have observed firsthand the veiled and coded power struggles between still-privileged semi-rural ex-plantation-owner upper-class whites and still-somewhat-indentured blacks living marginal lives of casually enforced servitude. I have seen this. It is of course gravely rooted in political wrongs not just in the past but in the present, but each case is also a personal story of human beings working out what is acceptable and what can they get away with and what can they bear within the confines of their fate. It is people playing the hand they have been dealt. Each thinks about outsmarting the other. They spend decades outsmarting each other. I have seen this with my own eyes and know that it is not simple. It may look simple from outside but it is not simple if you live there. If you go there and think, I am going to fix this situation by giving this man a no-interest loan to buy a lawn mower and start a stable lawn-care business … woe betide you.

You seem to know this. I sense I am just reinforcing what you already know. So use your instincts, and use what you know, and you will be fine.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

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I’m in love with a mama’s boy

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Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, DEC 10, 2002

She not only lives with us but also comes in and lies on our bed and watches TV with us.


Dear Cary,

I’m in a great relationship with a good man. We have been together for a year now and he is good to me, he treats me with so much respect, and he’s kind to everyone he meets and knows. I’ve never had a better relationship than now. He is a hard worker and has a great job. Never been married or has any children. So that eliminates a lot of drama in our lives. We have the greatest sex life ever! But … he’s a mama’s boy!

It’s just the two of them. The brother died a few years ago and the father has been out of the picture for many years. These two act like they are in love with each other. It’s not your typical mother-son relationship. She is absolutely possessed with him. She’s made the comment to me that whatever is hers, is his. And whatever is his, is hers. And that has included this relationship.

When I met him I lived alone with my two children in a rented house. He began to spend the night, then it turned out to be every night, until he eventually moved in. Things were perfect and life was just great, until about six months ago, when the homeowners sold the house that I was renting. I had to move and it was a great opportunity to move into a place together and split the bills and rent with him.

The weekend of moving into our new house, his mother decides she isn’t happy with her relationship with her boyfriend whom she has been living with for the past two years. So of course the loving man I have invites her to come and stay with us. He lets me know his mother will be staying with us. And I was fine with it, thinking it would only be for a few weeks. Well, those few weeks have turned into the past six months of hell!!

At first she was very helpful. She was out of work because she became sick and was too weak to work. That was the main reason I was OK with her staying with us. She would clean the house every day and have dinner ready when we came home from work and school. We never asked her for any money for rent or bills. She was receiving Social Security at the time and we told her to just save her money and get into her own place.

Now, six months later, she is back to work and has absolutely no intention of moving out. The house cleaning and dinner came to an end. She has even loaned all of her furniture to friends so that she won’t have to pay storage fees each month. She sleeps on my couches and stores her clothing in boxes in a closet. And she has not contributed one dime to the rent, bills, or food for our home. She has never bought a roll of toilet paper, a bottle of shampoo, or a box of laundry detergent. But she does manage to wipe her ass, wash her hair and body, and wash her clothes.

She’s even become so comfortable that she wants to spend more time with us in the bedroom. She comes in and lies on our bed and watches TV with us and smokes her cigs in my room. When I tell him how much it takes my privacy from me, he thinks I’m just bitching and having a bad day and want to take it out on her.

Anytime I bring the subject up to him he gets his feelings hurt, defends his mother, and tells me not to talk about his mama like that. I ask him how can she not have any shame. And it causes problems between us.

I’m not a cold person, but people like her don’t even want to help themselves, so why should I? I won’t kick her out before Christmas, but how do I make her leave without hurting his feelings and keep the flame between us going?

I realize she will always be in our lives. I’m not asking him to choose between me and his mommy. I’m just asking to live in my own home without her always being right there taking care of him. What it has come down to is that she can’t have him all to herself, so she sure the hell isn’t going to let me have him to myself.

How do I get rid of the in-law without being an outlaw?

In love with a mama’s boy

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Dear Reluctant Daughter-in-law,

I think you have to throw them both out. But let’s explore the option of just getting her to leave. First, you would have to speak to her directly. You could not ask your boyfriend to do it. You would have to sit her down and evict her. And no explanation could possibly make it seem just in her eyes. Any explanation you give her would only give her a basis for a counter-argument. If you say it’s for financial reasons, she’ll offer to contribute money. If you say it’s because she doesn’t do housework, she’ll promise to do housework. If you say she’s interfering with your relationship with her son, she’ll promise not to interfere. And then where are you? Then the burden is on you to prove the truth of your accusations. So I don’t think reasoning with her or giving her a long explanation is the way to go. I think you just have to throw her out.

But if you just throw her out, you place your boyfriend in an untenable position. He’s already demonstrated that he has an emotional blind spot when it comes to his mother. He can’t hear criticism of her. He has no judgment in this matter. So if you throw her out, he will see you as the villain who threw his mother out. I think it will destroy any happiness you might have in living with him.

So, strange as it sounds, I think to save your relationship with him, and his relationship with his mother, you have to throw them both out. If he lives separately from you, he can still be your boyfriend and salvage some pride in telling himself he’s simply being mistreated by his woman. He can tell himself that you’re a hard, hard woman, but since he’s taking the hit, he needn’t feel like he’s being a bad son; in fact, it gives him the opportunity to do what he not so secretly wishes to do anyway: to live with his mother and take care of her.

I have a feeling, however, that evicting them might put you in a tough spot financially. Your house probably had lower rent; it would have been reasonable to trade up when you knew your boyfriend would be helping out. So now you may not be able to afford the rent on your new place all by yourself. That is a sticking point. But if you relied on your boyfriend’s income in renting your new place, and he has now broken your tacit rental agreement by inviting his mother in, I don’t think it would be out of line to expect him, who has a great job, to at least help you financially, with first and last months’ rent, or a little monthly assistance for a few months, so you can find a place you can afford by yourself.

It’s much easier for a man to live with the burden of supporting two women than it is for him to live with the guilt of having abandoned his mother. It’s not like the choices are pretty, but I think you have a better chance of keeping him as a boyfriend if you throw the two of them out.

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My wife is mean to me

Hi Cary,

When I married my wife, I started my own business (Web development). And since our wedding day, that business was modest and grew slowly, but surely. But never beyond being a modest business.

And we were happy.

The key, however, was that I worked from home and spent a lot of time with my wife I otherwise would not, and I knew when we had kids, that meant spending time with them too.

We are now married for 11 years, and sure enough, I spend every moment with my children (except while they’re in school) and I love that about my life, i.e. it went exactly as planned.

What’s different is that along the way, besides my company, my wife and I decided to invest our saved money in real estate, and while that too has gone wonderfully, it was frustrating (for my wife especially), to work with Realtors. So, my wife decided to become a Realtor herself. And she loved it!

And I loved that she found something she loved!

In fact, she’s so bright when it comes to business (she started her own business as a teenager!), she ate up as much knowledge as possible, and within three years, became a real estate broker. And it didn’t stop there. She added on association management, and now if you look at her business card, without exaggeration she has at least 20 designations. She is even a notary for practical reasons. She has married about five couples. If you were to read her Zillow reviews, what people say about her is nothing short of spectacular.

It’s gone so well that her business long ago out-earned mine, and as a result, she suggested I too get my real estate license.

I did.

And slowly but surely, I put my business on pause to help with hers. We became your typical husband and wife Realtor team.

And even though this meant me becoming No. 2 and literally dumping all praise and focus on her (I’m just not as good a Realtor as she is), I was more than happy to do so!

Combined, her business makes a lot more than mine, and our family has never been so financially stable.

To take things a step further, I started to become a kind of Mr. Mom, too. Because since she is the “star” of the real estate operation, it’s important she court clients, etc., and her presentation is perfect. I especially love the part about how passionate she is about her work, and how much she loves what she does. And I love that part because I love to hear that she’s happy.

Even if it means being the one who takes the kids to jiu jitsu classes, guitar lessons, school, etc.

I honestly don’t care that I’ve swapped my web development day-to-day for a Mr. Mom day-to-day, with real estate as a backup for when she needs me. I’m taking one for the team and I am only too happy to do so.

But then, all of a sudden, especially when I show how happy I am, she starts with things like “I hate being the bread winner,” or “I hate having the pressure of earning all our money.”

And sometimes it gets nasty as in, “Why don’t you do something productive with your life?” or “Why don’t you be a man instead of jerking off all the time?” (metaphorically speaking of course).

This has built up over the past three years. And honestly, I am less than happy now. I am starting to get extremely upset about it.

I thought sacrificing my career for the greater good was being a man. I thought it was being provider. I thought I was doing a really good thing.

But because there’s no salary on the other end, I get no applause. And applause isn’t even what I want. All I want is this nagging to stop.

Appreciation would be nice, but just for the cheap shots to stop would be enough for me.

So, now I look at my life and I ask myself what do I want? I want that autonomy back.

I obviously don’t want to be a Realtor anymore. When I work in real estate or try to, she, as my “boss,” insults me. And often times in front of other employees, which is extremely humiliating.

The worst part is she never apologizes even when she admits to others she was wrong to behave that way. It’s as if she doesn’t want to give me that satisfaction to see that she was wrong.

Is there anything I can do to get her to stop? If I talk to her she has the knack for twisting my words and making everything about her and my fault, and I just can’t compete with her in that department.

We tried therapy, which was working. The therapist sided with me on a lot of things. But then it was getting expensive (according to her — she’s a little frugal, too), so we stopped and now she doesn’t want to go back.

So I am all alone. No one to speak to, no one to help me. I am trying to get out of this rut, but can’t.

Completely Confused: Thought I Did the Right Thing

Dear Completely Confused,

You have lost your mojo. You need to get it back. You can’t get it from your wife. She doesn’t have it.

Where could it be? You have to go look for it. Is it in your pants? Is it in the forest? Maybe it is in your hair. I don’t know where it is. But you have to find it.

Do you know what mojo is? It is the life force. It is the thing you have when you’re getting born and fighting for a breath. It is the survival instinct thing, the love of life thing, the thing that feels pure beauty, that loves water and sky and rain, that dances, that cusses and sings, that says no to bullshit.

There are ways to look for it. Sometimes people go out in the desert. There’s mojo out there. I don’t know why. There is also mojo in garages and in car engines. And in guitars. When mojo departs, it tends to go to places like that. But it depends on what kind of mojo you have. So you need to remember who you are and why you love your wife. You love her for some reason other than the money. The money is bullshit. Forget the money. You could live on sandwiches if you love your wife. You could feed your kids on nuts and berries. They’d get the hang of it. If they saw that their daddy had his mojo back they wouldn’t care about the berries.

What I mean is you need to get down to fundamentals. That’s where your mojo is.

Your wife doesn’t have your mojo. She can’t give it back to you.  She didn’t take it from you. She just noticed that it was gone and became irritable and unpleasant. She’s not behaving well but if you play into that you’re in a losing game. She has to sort herself out. Steer clear of trying to fix her. That’s what got you into this mess, thinking too much about her.

One guy I read about leaves the house for an hour if his wife spews venom. You might try that. While you’re out, have a hamburger. Having a hamburger will tell your mojo that you’re ready for it to return.

Mojo does not like to be treated poorly. That’s why it left you in the first place. If you let yourself be treated poorly, your mojo goes out to the desert or into the engine of a car until you find it again and coax it back.

You might have to go all the way back to being born. Or maybe you only have to go back to when you got married. It depends.

I could say a million things about therapy and family systems theory and cultural models and sexism and our peculiar cultural moment but I have a feeling all that is just thinking and you can’t afford any more thinking. Thinking and trying to do the right thing is what got you into this mess. The only thing that will get you out is to find your mojo.

One more thing. When you find that mojo, keep it close to you at all times. And don’t put it in a jar. That will make it moldy.

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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.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

 

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I grew up poor but my boyfriend has money

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Cary’s classic column from

If we were to marry, could we make it work?


Dear Cary,

I’ve been dating a good man for the last seven months. We have loads of fun together; we’re both creative types who pursue our passions in our own time while working at jobs related to our respective creative fields. It’s a good match. People kind of hate us because we’re such a good couple. I love this man and appreciate how well he treats me. He’s patient, kind, mature, respectful, supportive — all of the things that most of the lads I’ve dated in the past have not been. It’s a pretty healthy relationship, I think.

And yet.

I worry that we will be incompatible in the long run. His family has money — not millions, but enough to afford monthly mini-vacations and second homes and German cars. My boyfriend has traveled all across the world, touring four continents. He owns a lovely house in a pretty swanky neighborhood. His family paid for his private-school education and college. His friends and contemporaries are the types to buy $10 cocktails and $400 shoes (he thinks $200 jeans are “reasonable”). In short, money is not a large worry for my boyfriend, and if bills pop up, he always has a family that can help out.

My family, on the other hand, lives off my father’s Social Security checks and my mother’s $7/hour part-time job. I think they made $18,000 last year. We were never destitute, but we were poor — the kind of poor that doesn’t really register until you’re an adult and you can look back to figure out that the reason Mom gave most of the food to me wasn’t that she “wasn’t hungry” but that we couldn’t afford enough for her, too. These days I’m making an OK salary, I’m paying off student loans and I stick to a budget, I rent in a kind of sketchy neighborhood, I have traveled but not extensively so, and a surprise $1,000 expense can really throw my finances for a loop.

The problem is that Boyfriend wants to do things that I simply cannot afford to do. “Let’s go to Japan!” he’ll suggest. Well, I’d love to go to Japan, but I don’t have the means. I politely tell him that I can’t afford to go to Japan (or, hell, Seattle) right now, and he comes back with a cheery, “Oh, there’s always a way!”

His unwavering optimism drives me nuts, because he seems to think that everybody has had the same opportunities that he has. He’s not a snobby rich kid by any means, but for him, my scrimping and fretting over money (“I should put money aside for a just-in-case fund,” “Let’s make dinner instead of going out,” etc.) is unnecessary. But to me, it’s not. Being poor isn’t just an abstract thought for me; it’s an unpleasant memory, and I don’t want to go back to those days.

I worry that my inner class warrior (and yeah, it’s there) may not be able to handle dating someone who can’t empathize with my situation. It frustrates me that he keeps suggesting expensive trips and overpriced adventures that I can’t afford — when he should know that I can’t afford them. In all fairness, he does sometimes foot the bill for birthday/anniversary trips and whatnot, but I don’t expect him to do that all of the time. Over time, I am beginning to feel poor again, embarrassed that I can’t keep up — in short, I am beginning to feel as excluded as I did when I was growing up.

That’s not what I want to feel around someone whom I care for and who cares for me. To him, it’s not a big deal — he thinks that if we get married, the issue will dissolve, because then it’ll be “my house” too, etc. But to me, it is a big deal, because class is a personal/political issue for me. He has the luxury of not having to think about it while it’s something that really affects me. So my questions are, How do we cross this class divide? How can I help him understand my situation without making him feel like I resent his privileges? How do I explain to him that I don’t really want to live a money-bleeding lifestyle of $25 entrees? Am I nuts to think that $200 is a lot to spend on jeans, or am I just a recovering poor girl who doesn’t know what’s “normal”?

Feeling Like Lula Mae Barnes,

Cary Tennis Connecticut Writing Retreat

Dear Lula,

You sound like you are compatible as people. It’s the money that stands between you.

It’s not a personality conflict but a material conflict. Ideally, your personal compatibility would serve as a foundation for resolving the material conflict. That is, you would like each other enough, and know each other’s weaknesses well enough, and have enough respect, and want to stay together badly enough, that you could work through this to the satisfaction of each party.

But it won’t be easy and it won’t be quick. There may be surprises afoot. You may find that his easy affability crumbles when he confronts the notion of actually giving up some control over his money. He is going to have to cede some control of his money to you if you marry. You will have to be an equal partner financially or you won’t feel secure.

He won’t be the only one to be hit hard emotionally by the issue. You yourself may find yourself conflicted and confused in ways that you cannot yet envision. This is an issue that touches us at the core of our existence — not only as individuals, but as political actors as well.

There is of course a class division in America. It is a fact of searing emotional significance to those who can’t afford to ignore it. And it is a trifling matter to those who can — which of course infuriates the rest of us all the more.

Right now, if things get too rough, he can always go to Japan. Money is nice that way.

How would he deal with losing that cushion, that safety valve? Would it tarnish his air of blithe disregard, that low-key air of well-being grounded in the accustomed knowledge that there is always a way out? Relax, he says, things will work out. Well, yes, things will always work out — for him. And presumably things will work out for you if you hitch your wagon to his. But unless you reach a binding agreement about control of the money, he will always be able to unhitch his wagon and gallop off without you when things get uncomfortable. I think that is the issue that you need to resolve.

He may want you to just trust him. I think you will need more than that.

The upside of this is that I’ll bet you would be a very good manager of money. He sounds like he throws it around. I take it there’s not an inexhaustible supply, just a good-size pile. You would do well to safeguard it.

I suggest, in short, though I don’t know exactly how to do this, that you do two things: 1) Tell him that if you got married you would want significant control over the finances — that as a matter of principle you would want to be thrifty rather than spendthrift, and that you would invest the money wisely. Tell him that you want to be in it together equally, sink or swim. 2) Engage your boyfriend politically. Tell him that if you were to marry, you would want to use at least some of his money to contribute to helping the poor.

See a lawyer who specializes in family estate planning, or an accountant. Get as much information as you can about what the issues actually would be if you were to marry. Get things in writing.

And then relax and see if you can’t make a go of it!

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My father has ruined us financially

 

Write for Advice

 

Hi Cary,

This is the second time I write to you. I don’t want to take advantage of you, but your advice has given me such a wise and comforting, yet concrete external point of view through which looking at my problem that helped me a lot, and I really look up to your words and brilliant way of looking at things. I wrote to you about my parents who refused to meet my boyfriend. Things haven’t changed about that, but the background is so complicated that I think I have to tell you a bit about my parents, in order to make you understand (man, is my life a mess), because I’m starting to feel a bit discouraged about my future.

As I told you in my previous letter, I am 31 years old and still live with my parents and younger brother (quite common here in Italy for us 30somethings . . . I know I know); we’ve never been rich, but we were quite wealthy, as in my mother could afford to be a stay-at-home-mum, we always owned the houses we lived in, made nice long vacations and travels together as a family, etc. Eight years ago, my father blew away ALL family savings (money that resulted from selling our home and were supposed to be used to buy a new one) for buying a big loft that he wanted to transform into a clothing retail outlet (we were living in a rented house in the meantime), in spite of my mother completely disagreeing and cautioning him against doing so.

Those money were not only my father’s, but also mum’s, because they wed in community of goods [“community property” as we call it in California–CT], and since my mum has not an income she completely relies on my father economically. My father has always been a plumber, and as much as he was good at his old job, he sucked at retail. He spent more than he earned, and completely lost control of this shop, trusting wrong people and losing everything until he had to end the activity. I worked with him at the shop for a while, but had to run away because he was impossible to get along with, always had crazy ideas which he imposed on me (even if he kept saying he opened the shop for me and was mine; but instead it was his toy and the vent for his unrealistic creative ideas).

I found another job as a secretary which I still have. As a result from the closing of the shop, since my father completely quit his former job as a plumber, we didn’t have money, so we stopped paying the rent of the house we lived in and were evicted, and now we live in the former shop, for which we have a 20-years mortgage (signed in 2006). Now my father has occasional jobs in flea markets and helping people move by emptying their houses, moving furniture etc. He is 55 years old, and age is starting to take its toll on his body, and he is constantly in pain (his back, his feet, etc.), and he is full of health problems in general, because he also eats mostly junk food, alternates periods of time as a chain smoker to other times of complete abstinence from cigarettes, and is very overweight. He is very unstable, both mentally and physically. He has always been a whimsical person, but in the latest years this has worsened to the point of being almost demented. He is totally illogical and doesn’t listen to advice, doesn’t listen to our worries for the future, seems to ignore that society has rules to live by, mostly that you have to pay for everything, and ignores that there are bills to pay. It’s me always having to remind him that the electric bill needs to be paid etc., and every time he complains that we only ask for money. Like I use that money to go to Vegas! He completely lost the sense of reality and keeps saying that at this point he is fed up of everything and only cares for his dog, which is untrue, given that he never even takes her for walks and I always have to take care of her. We really can’t figure put what is going on with him and why he seems to be gone nuts in these years; I suspect that he had to grow up too soon (he is from a very poor rural area of southern Italy and was detached from his family as an infant and sent to a boarding school where nuns used to beat children, then at 6 years old started working picking tomatoes from fields, at 13 he migrated to Milan to work and by the time he was 18 was already engaged to my mother and at 24 he became a father, has worked his ass off for an entire life and somehow I think now his brain is living the carefree stage of life that normally belongs to children.

My mom would like to start a job but here in Italy young people are not able to find a job, let alone a woman in her fifties who has always been a stay-at-home-mum. When my father signed the mortgage, as he was self-employed, the bank needed a guarantee, and so dad convinced me to co-sign the mortgage (since I have a salary). I was only 20 years old and completely naive, so I accepted. Because of this, now I won’t be eligible for a mortgage of my own, and so I won’t be able to afford a house of mine until 2027! But I will be 43 by then, and I really want to start a family with my boyfriend of two years (that’s the boyfriend my parents don’t want to be involved with, yes). Now my father has even stopped to pay the mortgage, so now I am afraid the bank will claim my salary (which is the only thing I’ve got), and that we will be evicted also from this loft, and then we will have nowhere to go.

Our former landlord is still claiming the rent we haven’t paid, so now we have to face him and the bank. My mother is completely devastated over this and stopped even acknowledging the existence of my father out of rage for having done this to our family. She is worried about where she will spend her old age, and I cannot blame her. Every month I give my mother a quarter of my salary to pay for groceries, but I wonder if I will have to take her with me the day I’ll go live by myself? But how can a couple begin married life with a live-in mother in law? I haven’t yet talked about this with my boyfriend; I do not even have the courage of breaking the topic. I don’t even have the courage of thinking of my near future,

Cary, because the mere thought of where will we be in just five years paralyzes me in terror. I won’t be able to make my own family, and I will be forced to take care of my parents as long as they live, because my father seems to completely have stopped caring about anything and doesn’t even provide for food. What will happen? Will I have to be a mother for my own parents?

I’m afraid my boyfriend will get tired of this (and he would have every right), even if he is extremely supportive and says true love means sticking together through thick and thin (he is such a star that sometimes I feel like I don’t deserve him at all).

I worry that I’ll never be able to go my way in life and that I’ll end up paying for my father’s mistakes. I resent him so much for all this, and still my heart breaks in two when I see him struggling every day, and also when I see my mother crying because she is afraid of not having a roof on her head. I have obviously excluded having children, given that, apparently, I already have two. I know that there are people who can’t even eat regular meals and I shouldn’t complain, but in this case what frustrates me is that we were having a normal life until my father decided to risk everything. This is not a case of random life misfortunes, this is a deliberately sought-after demise. It’s just not right that my father jeopardized entirely my future and my mother’s. Everything I see down the road is a black hole. Any thought you could offer me will be much appreciated. I thank you from the bottom of my heart and apologize for the obnoxiously long letter.

Futureless

Cary Tennis Connecticut Writing Retreat

Dear Futureless,

I feel for you and your family. To see your father go downhill like this has got to be not only scary but painful. I understand the anger you feel toward him for wrecking the life you had.

It is possible for you to plan for a future, however, and you can have children if you want them.

but you will first have to go through a period of some months or perhaps longer in which you soberly accept your situation and reflect realistically on your options.

To face the situation as it is now, you must recognize that good things also happen unexpectedly. After a series of setbacks it can seem as though the future is filled with nothing but further setbacks. But life isn’t like that. As many good things happen unexpectedly as do bad things. You are due for some good fortune.

Your boyfriend says true love means sticking together through thick and thin. Do you believe him? Do you trust him? If you do, you must lean on him now. You must call on his help.

If you don’t believe him, then you really need to get out of the relationship. You are going to need to depend on him. This is a crucial moment. It is a crucial moment because I suggest you and he marry and announce that you are planning to have children.

For the household you had has fallen apart because of your father. It is now your job to rebuild a household.

You and your boyfriend now must fill the vacuum left by your father. You must become the heads of a household and take responsibility for the practical affairs of your family.

This is a big deal but it is what life is asking of you. It is, in a sense, the natural order of things. As parents weaken, their children step in and displace them and their authority. Your boyfriend must, in effect, step into a role that has been vacated by your father. And you must step into the role your mother has occupied. She in turn, when you have children, may step into the role of grandparent.

Your father will resist. It will be ugly. For that reason, I suggest that you strengthen your ties with the people in your larger community who are your father’s age and whom you and he both respect. They may be family members or friends. Which ones do you instinctively think of turning to? Go to them. Tell them that you are planning to marry and have children and ask for their support and understanding. This will build opinion in your favor.

You have all the world’s natural sympathies on your side. Your father has fallen from grace and must be filled with shame and anger. But you have to go forward with your life. It’s best this way.

It may seem to you that conditions will not allow you to do this, but the opposite is true. You are in a position to change conditions just by making a decision. Deciding to marry and have children changes everything.

It strengthens your role and your boyfriend’s role. It strengthens the family as a functioning unit. It changes priorities. It confers upon you the family power, prestige, and moral authority needed to displace your father.

It changes the power dynamics. It shifts the family’s focus to the children who are coming, and the necessity for their care, to new life and its promise, to renewal. It galvanizes your community, your extended family and friends, and even the state, which has an interest in the care of children and the durability of families. And it changes your mother’s role to that of grandmother.

To take this action requires faith and courage. But if you do not do this you remain paralyzed.

The beauty of it is that it is also strategic. It places appropriate pressure on those around you in a way that they can neither deny nor denounce.

If you and your boyfriend marry and plan to have children there is no force on earth that can deny the rightness of your claims.

In short, I am saying rather than delay and let conditions dictate to you, make a bold move and change conditions. Sympathy will shift toward you and your growing family. Your mother will become an asset rather than a burden. It will awaken her sense of purpose and give her new power in the family.

It will tend to displace your father. That is the intent. He will probably fight it. He may take destructive actions. His condition may worsen. But you must not give in to him.

It may sound cold but it is actually just life-affirming. Go forward with your plans. Let love and desire guide you. It is how life renews itself.

In fact, while your father will probably fight these changes, this transformation could be healing; having lost his ability to care for and lead his family, your father must be mired in shame, guilt and anger; while he will outwardly resist, he may find that inwardly this is all a relief, the kind of solution he has secretly longed for, a way of escaping from the duties he can no longer perform. He may rage to save face but accept in his heart the rightness of the situation, as he must know that he has brought shame upon himself.

So that’s my simple, bold, timeless suggestion: Marry. Get pregnant. Force the issue.

Of course, I can already hear the objections from my good friends who, like me, are citizens in good standing of an affluent, mobile, atomized society whose religion is individualism and independence. To them the solution I am proposing may seem foolhardy or somehow politically suspect. To even acknowledge the power and grace of a traditional family structure may stink of something retrograde, repressive, patriarchal. What I am doing, however, is acknowledging these forces. Traditional Italian families are patriarchal. Women do gain status and power by having children. Young husbands do displace the fathers of their brides. To at one and the same time valorize the social progress of women by denying the very conditions that made that progress necessary is a contradiction. Traditional society is powerful. I am saying: Use the power of tradition to your advantage.

In modern America, sensible young people, especially women who wish to become mothers, take a practical approach: First establish economic stability and only then embark on the adventure of parenting. What I propose is more radical and requires a leap of faith that is obvious if we will only admit it. You live in a traditional Italian family. In a traditional Italian, power flows toward the mother and her children. It is a patriarchal society and one might complain that it is unjust that this would be the only way for a woman to acquire that power, but the fact remains: power flows toward wives and mothers. Abuse, too. That is the dark side. I’m not saying it’s pretty or perfect.

I am saying use the latent power that you have as a woman who can marry and have children.

Marry. Get pregnant. Force the issue.

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