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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

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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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Pay what it’s worth to you. What a concept.

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That’s right: For our great four-day writing retreat coming up May 16 through 19 in beautiful rural Connecticut, I have decided to do something radical yet sensible: I’m reducing the price, but rather than picking a percentage reduction, I decided to ask you, if you are interested in coming—and it is going to be really great—What would you like to pay?

Seriously. Here is the reasoning. I once went to a financial consultant who helped me a great deal with some business matters and the handling of money. When we were through I said how much and she said, “Pay me what it was worth to you.” What? I was shocked. But she had degrees in economics and had been genuinely helpful to me, and she sounded serious. So I had to think, on the spot, about what it was actually worth. I wrote her a check for what it was worth to me. The experience was empowering. I realized the world wouldn’t fall apart if we picked our own price, and that there’s no shame in talking about what something is actually worth to you. I realized that we could trust each other make a rational exchange. And I continued to benefit from her services and expertise.

Now I’m putting that lesson into practice. So if you would like to come but have hesitated because the price wasn’t right for you, pick a price that’s right for you.

Email me at cary@carytennis.com and suggest a price you can pay. The best offers will get rooms and we’ll all have a fantastic four days writing and doing workshops with me and with Pat Schneider.

Simple as that. Let me know. And if it’s not right for you but might be good for a friend, just forward this to a friend! Or tweet it, or retweet it, or Facebook it, using the buttons on this page, or however you share things that interest you and make sense for the world.
Best
Cary T.

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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

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

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Am I doing it right?

 

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Dear Reader,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is the letter.

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Hi Cary,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sincerely,
Creatively dumped

Connecticut_SlightlySmaller

Dear Creatively Dumped,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s it from me.

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

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The bride kept the money!

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Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, JUN 20, 2005

A snafu on bridesmaids dresses resulted in a refund to the bride — but she never passed it on to the bridesmaids and the groomsmen.


Dear Cary,

A little over a month ago, I was one of eight bridesmaids in my brother’s wedding. The bridesmaids’ dresses kept not arriving at the new dates the store kept giving us, until it was three days before the wedding and the store (I’ll call it Acme Bridal) admitted there was no way the gowns could get there in time. The bride and I spent a good eight hours scouring every other clothing store within a 30-mile radius, and I finally found one that could get us all dresses in the right colors, and still do some alterations in time. The bridesmaids got their dresses, the vows were exchanged, the wedding bouquet was thrown, the couple rode off into the sunset, everything was a happy ending … or so it seemed, and still seems, to everyone but me.

In a reasonable effort to make up for their extreme screw-up, Acme Bridal refunded the bridesmaids’ money for the AWOL dresses, and then the bridesmaids used that refund to pay for the new dresses. A few days after the wedding, I got a phone call from Acme Bridal, just offering another apology and best wishes, and hoping that their compensation was adequate and no hard feelings. Through that conversation I learned that not only had the store refunded the original bridesmaid dress money, they had refunded the price of the tuxedoes for the eight groomsmen (which were also bought through Acme Bridal, and had arrived on time with no problems) and given the bride a check to pay for the cumulative cost of the new dresses we found at their competitors. So, they not only refunded the bridesmaids’ money, and refunded the men’s money, but paid for the new dresses, all before the wedding even took place.

OK, I figured, “Linda” the bride had a lot on her mind at the time, she just forgot to distribute the check to the bridesmaids. My boyfriend was one of the groomsmen, and I know for a fact that he never received compensation for his tux, though I haven’t told him about all the vanished funds. I haven’t told anyone about them, including the other bridesmaids or the groomsmen, because I’m not sure what to do (that’s where you come in, I hope).

A few days after the Acme Bridal phone call, I asked my brother about it (they didn’t take a honeymoon after the wedding). He got very defensive and said that money was Linda’s monetary compensation for all the headaches this store caused her, and that none of the bridesmaids deserved the money (it’s $165 each) because none of them helped find new dresses. That got me all riled up because, like I said, I was running around, cellphone in hand, spending two tanks of gasoline and talking to more store owners than I can remember in trying to help Linda. When I reminded my brother “Ryan” of that fact, he admitted I had been very helpful. But he said they were still paying off the wedding and they needed that money, and he would talk to Linda about it, but the fact of it was none of the groomsmen or the bridesmaids needed the money as badly as they did.

I was flabbergasted, to say the least. First, it doesn’t matter who needs it more — that money came from a source, it should go back to that same source. Let alone that by keeping this a secret, my brother and sister-in-law are doing what’s tantamount (in my opinion) to stealing from people who are their family and best friends! I brought it up with Ryan once more a few days later (despite having been in the wedding, Linda and I aren’t close. I was there as the groom’s sister more than as a friend), and was chided for being so selfish and basically told to drop it.

Like I said before, I haven’t told anyone else, in my family or otherwise, about the non-compensated compensation. I don’t want to turn this into some huge scandal over money, especially right after a wedding. Acme Bridal paid for the costs of the new dresses and tuxes and made the check out to Linda — but is it her right to keep it? I need an unbiased opinion on that, and on where I should go from here.

Bitter Bridesmaid

Connecticut_SlightlySmaller

Dear Bitter Bridesmaid,

It seems reasonable that the bride should pass the money on to the people who paid for the dresses and the tuxes. I think that would be the right thing to do. I don’t think very highly of the idea expressed by the groom that the wedding was expensive and they need the money more, so they’re keeping it. The money was intended, presumably, to be passed on to all the parties who were inconvenienced. It wasn’t intended to enrich the bride or compensate her for wedding costs in general. It was a goodwill gesture made by a business intended partly, no doubt, to protect the firm’s reputation and help it secure future business. Ideally the store would have reimbursed each buyer individually, but for one reason or another that didn’t happen. So if the store were now to contact each person in a further gesture of “goodwill,” telling them why the refund was made and asking for their future business, that would make sense. It would also put the bride in hot water. Perhaps the store thought it was more discreet to simply send the money to the bride and stay out of whatever squabbles may result.

A little more detail on the transaction would be helpful in saying exactly what should be done, but it’s not necessary to see what’s basically right and wrong here. It’s pretty clear that the bride should distribute the money. Instead, the bride and your brother seem to be doing something small-minded and selfish. Assuming the eight tuxes cost roughly what the dresses cost, we’re talking about substantial money — over $2,600. While the bride may have no strict legal obligation to pass the money on, the legal concept of “conversion” does spring to mind; she’s taking money meant for one purpose and converting it to another. I suggest you talk to an attorney, not so much because you have a legal cause of action but because your legal position will inform your ethical and moral position. A legal perspective can bring clarity to highly emotional issues. The more aspects of the situation you understand, the better you can deal with it.

There’s one other thing I would do. I would talk to the store owner again. It’s the store owner’s money. If the store owner wanted to just make a gift to the bride and groom, then fine. But if the store owner wanted that money to go to the people who purchased clothes and were inconvenienced, then I think the store owner has a right to know that the money hasn’t gotten to its intended recipients. And there are certainly things the store owner can choose to do. Maybe an owner would not want to take it further, but I do think a conversation is in order.

Ultimately it’s up to you if you want to fight about it or put it behind you. So far, I must say, you’ve shown admirable restraint. One word of this could ignite a wildfire of outrage among the other members of the wedding party. To your credit, in spite of your personal feeling of being wronged, you haven’t bad-mouthed the bride. I think you’re wise not to. In deciding what to do, it might also help to take a step back and contemplate why you participated in the wedding in the first place. You wanted to support them in their commitment, right? You wanted to step up and do your part. You wanted to take actions that would cement long-term bonds with your brother’s new family. So you did all that. You did a great job. You performed admirably. But was your heart in it? Or was it a cynical gesture? I’m not saying your attitude is relevant to the bride’s behavior. But it seems useful to review your motives for participating in the wedding, because if you take action it could have long-term implications for your relationship with your brother and his new family.

So if I were you … what would I do? I would talk to the store owner and talk to a lawyer. See what they say. If we’re correct in assuming there’s no legal obligation on the part of the bride, and the store owner doesn’t care what happens to the money, then it’s a question of personal ethics. In that regard I think principle is on your side, so I would make the case one more time to your brother, and perhaps to the bride herself if she will hear you out. Stress that news of this will probably leak out eventually. It always does. When that happens, reputations and relationships can be severely damaged. But if they still refuse to distribute the money, it may be more practical, and perhaps wiser, to let the matter drop.

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My parents owe me money

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Cary’s classic column fromWednesday, Nov 10, 2010

I loaned them a large sum and they haven’t paid me back. Should I demand payment?


Dear Cary,

I am struggling with whether to ask my parents to repay a loan I made to them several years ago.

I am a 40-year-old professional, living on a coast while my parents still live in the Midwest city where I grew up. I make a good living, although I have many obligations (kids approaching college age, a house that we are not living in on the market over a year, etc.). Several years ago, my parents were in a financial crisis. My mother, a professional who had been the breadwinner of the family for some time, was having some health issues and her income was down. They ran up a great deal of credit card debt and were on the point of declaring bankruptcy. They asked me for a loan.

I was quite conflicted at the time about whether to give them money. I love my parents a great deal, and they provided for me very well, sending me to college and setting me up to move forward independently in life. (I put myself through professional school and am still paying off loans from it.) My parents have never been good with money. For most of their adult lives both have had very good incomes, but they have spent their money, and more, as soon as they got it. They had very little savings (less than $10,000). My father, for a variety of reasons of his choosing, had not worked full-time for several years. When they asked for money, I really wanted to help them, but I wasn’t at all sure what would be the best thing to do. I was concerned that if I loaned them money, it would simply delay the inevitable for a little while.

Finally, after they explained their plan to refinance their house, restructure their debt and change their spending habits, I decided that I would lend them the money. The amount was large, but not unduly painful for me to part with. My dad said to me at the time, “You will see this money back.” I replied, “Thank you. I do want it back someday, but I am doing this to help you, and I don’t want you to be stressed more about when you pay me back. Get through your situation.” They did, and to their credit, were able to right the ship to a degree and make it through.

A couple of years after that, my wife (now ex) of 10 years and I were separating and I was financially stretched. She had moved out and the kids and I were living in our house with about half the furniture we needed and a 15-year-old TV. I was dipping into retirement savings to pay the mortgage, etc. At that time, I took the kids on a long-planned trip to visit my parents. When I got to their house, I discovered that they had, thanks to the housing bubble, refinanced their house again and were in the process of entirely redoing their kitchen and family room. Their brand-new gourmet appliances, flat-screen TV and an entire family room of expensive, stylish furniture were in their garage while the work was being done.

No mention was made of the money I had lent them. I probably should have said something at the time, but I was, frankly, stunned. I also did not want to ruin the visit for my kids.

Several more years have passed now. During that time, my parents inherited several hundred thousand dollars from a family member. They are retired and living comfortably, although both of them have chronic health issues. Fortunately for me, I have done well in the interim, and am in no dire need of the money that I lent them. Nevertheless, the issue eats at me. I was very hurt that my parents, after I had helped them, did not step up when their fortunes had risen and it would have really helped me. Now, the money doesn’t really matter, but I live with this feeling of hurt and resentment.

Am I being petty and ungrateful to the people who raised me? Or should I confront them about my feelings?

Conflicted Son

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Dear Conflicted Son,

I know how it is. These issues can hang over you but you think, well, I don’t really need it.

But the issue hangs over you.

I wouldn’t confront them about your feelings. I would confront them about the money.

And it’s not about whether you need the money. It’s about honoring the agreement. It sounds like it was one of those agreements that are open-ended. That’s a shame. Agreements need dates in them when things are supposed to happen.

But with family, well, I know how it is.

Here is one way you might approach it. Consult a financial planner and look at the tax implications for both you and for your parents, and talk about investment strategies, and broach the subject from that angle. If there are, for instance, advantages to receiving the money in increments over a few years rather than as a lump sum, you might propose that as the reason for broaching it now. Or if now is a good time to invest it in something, propose that as the reason. You might say that as long as it’s going to be paid off, the proper way is to pay it off in smaller amounts, for tax purposes. You could say that you want to avoid a situation in which your parents pay it back all at once, or a situation in which you might need it and they might not have it.

Your parents probably have feelings about this money as well. They may feel a bit ashamed at having to ask their son for money. They probably want to pay it back but are having trouble mustering the willingness to do so. In fact, that is one sign of people who do not handle money well. They do not willingly pay their obligations. Sometimes this is because they do not feel secure that more money will come. They live in fear about money. They binge and purge. They gloat and then they starve.

It’s possible that your parents are actually quite dysfunctional about money, and so this will also be an opportunity for you to go over their situation and plan for the future. As their health problems and age increase, they may start to do dumb things with money. Perhaps you can start now to become involved with their finances, you can monitor things and avert catastrophe.

The matter of your feelings of hurt, that’s a separate thing. It was a hard time, I’m sure. You were getting divorced and probably felt somewhat alone and vulnerable. It’s likely that you did not know how to talk to your parents at the time and tell them how you were feeling. Perhaps they had feelings about it, too. But you stayed away from emotional topics. You left much unsaid, not just about money but about the divorce.

There are ways you can heal the relationship with your parents, and taking care of this outstanding loan is a good beginning. Maybe after you work this out, you can start talking to your parents about your life in a way that is a little bit more open than you have in the past.

Asking for money is hard. But it’s your job. It’s what money requires.

Money requires that people ask for it. If nobody asks for the money, then the money doesn’t move. It just sits there. Money doesn’t want to just sit there. It wants to move around. It wants to be shown that it’s needed, that it’s important. So don’t ignore the money. You can’t anyway. You’re thinking about it. Of course you are. Because it’s money. Money is great. It deserves to be thought about.

So asking for it is part of the process of getting paid back. It’s necessary. You might consider it a service to the debt, or a duty to the debt. That is, it’s not about you wanting the money back. It’s about completing the transaction.

What will you do if your mother or father says, Well, we didn’t think you really wanted us to repay you, or, We think you’re doing well enough and don’t see that you need the money.

It would be good to have something in mind if they say this. You might say, well, let me talk to my accountant again … which would buy you time.

It isn’t about whether you need the money. It’s an agreement that was made. It’s about honoring the agreement.

One thing is certain. The debt is not going to go away. It’s not going to pay itself back.

Cary's Writing Retreat in Chester, CT

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