Inherited money turned my friends into idiots

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Cary’s classic column from

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


Hi, Cary –

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

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

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

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

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

Jealous of the Newly Rich

Cary Tennis' Finishing School

Dear Jealous,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, maybe that’s a tall order.

OK, how about this:

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

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

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

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WhatHappenedNextCall

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

 

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.

France_Ad_fix

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.

Newsletter_NEW_Dec13

The bride kept the money!

Write for Advice

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.

France_Ad_fix

 

 

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

France_Ad_fix

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

Newsletter_NEW_Dec13

Am I being used?

Dear Cary:

Thank you for bringing humaneness to advice columns. I hope you’ll consider taking time to help me figure out a problem. I was raised in a tribal culture where women keep things to themselves in order to keep others from worrying. I have trouble speaking to friends back home to help me work this out, and I am in a very rural area with no therapists close by.

I do not have any friends where I am living.

In 2010 I started doing dissertation research in a small community far from my home. I met a man who was 62. I was 33. He seemed very young, was outdoorsy, and we spent a lot of time together on my project. He has been married and divorced four times. Only one of the marriages lasted a while, with “Sherry” (nineteen years). I have been married once (together for about twelve years, married for five)–the ex had an affair, and I will admit I have trust issues. My ex and I raised his son together, and I promised the son to love him like my own no matter what, and I do. Stepson still lives close to my “home”–far from the research community.

This older man and I started dating as a fling. We discussed that I was going to leave, write my dissertation, and seek an academic job. I’m of mixed heritage — American Indian, black, and white —  and I’m the first on my mom’s side of the family to have a doctorate, so this was a big deal, not just to me, but to my parents and Indian community. I actually did leave the research community and drove back home, to work and write my dissertation. However, a couple days after I left, a mutual friend called to say Manfriend had a heart attack and was in ICU. I immediately went back to take care of him and ended up moving in. His health generally declined from another condition, although he hides it well. He is now on disability, but it is not enough to support him at the level he likes.

Somehow helping him stretched out to three years. I love Manfriend — by which I think I mean I could not stand for him to be alone and killing himself trying to work, which is what he would do if it weren’t for my income.  I have supported him, cared for him, taken him to the hospital and to traditional healers, worried over him, taken care of all the work he can’t do around the house, advocated for him with doctors, etc. His kids rarely visit. He says he loves me, but he does not want to get married.  I did finish writing my dissertation, very slowly, while working two jobs to support both of us. There are no academic jobs here. I do other work in a high-stress but boring profession that does not pay well here.

Here are the hangups. He calls me “Sherry” sometimes. He speaks about Sherry to others and tells them how pretty she is, even shows off pictures of her and their daughter together and refers to her as “my old lady.”  Manfriend comments about how other men who are “shacked up” with women do so because they do not respect their girlfriends enough to marry them. About two years ago, Manfriend made comments about wanting oral sex from another woman in front of me and whispered to her something apparently salacious in front of me. He has not taken me out in about a year, so I no longer see him interact with other women, although he claims that the hitting on the other woman was only when we were “not as committed” (we had been living together and I was supporting him even then). He tells me that he thinks it is funny to tell people in town who ask about me and him (it’s a small town, and the age difference as well as my profession and race make us a curiosity for gossips) that he doesn’t even know me.

Manfriend is not as bad a boyfriend as it might sound. What I haven’t said is that he is also kind when he’s not being disrespectful. He cooks for me, listens to my frustrations with my job and my worries about Stepson and my elderly grandfather, and is very affectionate. When we are OK we laugh a lot together. We never go out together anymore. He does go out when I’m at work. By the time I get home and on the weekends, he says he is too tired or that I am too insecure and will get mad at him for looking at other women. But he doesn’t want me to go out by myself, so I have made no friends here other than “work friends,” not people I would share personal issues with.

I know I’m insecure and bringing my own old issues with trust into things. But I can’t get over the feeling that despite all this if Manfriend respected me or were committed to me much he would never have hit on other women (especially not in front of me), could manage not to call me Sherry during intimate moments, and could stop bragging about Sherry to other people. They’ve been divorced 15 years but apparently, according to her religious beliefs, she and he are still married since she does not believe in divorce. I also tend to think he would want to get married since, according to him, not getting married is a sign of disrespect. That we are racially different does not help. Sometimes I really think that if I were white he would not act like he was ashamed of living with me or try to shame me.

This is all very far from my family, and I’m now 36–getting old if I did want to settle down and have a child other than Stepson. I’m terrified that I’m losing precious time with my parents, elderly grandfather, and stepson and obviously weakening my relationships with all of them because we rarely see one another, and that I gave my beloved and also now elderly dogs back to Exhusband (Manfriend is violently allergic), all to be with a man who I sometimes suspect is using me. But, again, I hate the thought of leaving him alone, or of not having him in my life, and I think I find satisfaction in caring for someone.

How do I make a decision I can live with or let wanting a more stable relationship go? We are wearing each other out fighting. When we argue that pain and humiliation of him hitting on that other woman in front of me and telling people he lived by himself and didn’t know me just bubbles up as if they were new. I want to talk about it, and he doesn’t, which means I usually unload it all it once when I figure we’re already in for an argument–not good for either of us–and he responds with sarcasm and exaggeration, which tends to make it hard for me to keep “fighting fair.” The last fight ended with me vomiting up all these worries, crying, and telling him I was scared and him telling me I was making him sick with my “tantrum,” so I’m sleeping at my office for a while.

Any advice would be very appreciated.

Best,

Not Sure if I’m Being Used or Just Poisoning My Relationship With My Old Issues

Connecticut_PatCary1

Dear Longest Pseudonym Ever in the History of this Advice Column and that Means 12 Years,

Thank you for your letter. I don’t think it’s helpful to simply say you’re being used. It’s more complicated than that.

You are in an unusual relationship. You get a lot from this relationship. You also give a lot. You sacrifice. It is an unequal relationship. But you are not powerless in it. You have some power that you are not using. You have the power of refusal and of withholding. I don’t mean withholding sex. I mean withholding yourself, and the things you do for him.

Rather than be doctrinaire, strategically cut back. Stop doing certain things for him, while still maintaining the essential bond between you. The services you provide are not just practical. They are emotional. You supply him with approval and esteem; you allow him to believe that he is king. It’s OK for him to be king some of the time. But he is not all-powerful. He needs to know that his powers are limited.

I think you’re smart and compassionate and deserving of more than this man is giving you, but it is your responsibility to even things out with him. So pull back. Let him see that he can’t just get whatever he wants from you whenever he wants it. Retire into yourself a bit. Let him feel some tension. Let him wonder. Let him see that his lack of respect has consequences.

You say you are living in a small community far from home. You are isolated. You depend on this man more than you would if you had friends to confide in. So you need to make some friends. If that means breaking certain customs, by confiding things that in your tribe generally are not confided, and by on occasion denying him the pleasure of your company while you go and be among people in more equitable power relationships, so be it. In other words, branch out. Find some friends.

As to the essential question of whether to leave him in order to find a man to have a child with, that is a deep, challenging and far-reaching question I can’t presume to answer. But I do know that though you feel responsible for this man, you are not ultimately responsible for him. If you leave him, he will be OK. He will survive.

I sense that there is something deep between you and him. It is clouded and sullied by his crude lapses. That is a shame. I sense that he is not crude morally necessarily; he is a man of a certain time and he is used to getting away with certain things with women. But it is not too much to ask that he not call you Sherry, and not make crude comments to other women. It doesn’t matter whether you are there to hear it or not. You should insist that he not do this. It is disrespectful to women everywhere. It is wrong. He should be chastised when he does this.

We have a long way to go in this culture; our history of violence and subjection of peoples echoes in the present. To be a woman, an African-American and an Indian is to be thrice blessed and thrice cursed. Most blessings are also curses. This is nothing new.

So go inside yourself and be strong inside yourself. Do not give yourself away to him so freely. Let him see what he has to do. Let him see if he can make it up to you for his crude lapses, his arrogance, his pomposity. You obviously are drawn to a deeper side of him. He is not just an arrogant, pompous man. He is someone you love.

Just don’t be a sucker. Be strong. Make him work for it.

 

Breaking Down the Breakup (I think I should leave but I’m not sure how)

 

Write for Advice

Dear Cary,

I have been reading your letters for years, and usually I can find plenty of guidance through your responses to others. This time, I would like your thoughts directly.

I am a divorced mom of an elementary school child. I was married for a long time, and got divorced after my husband revealed years and years of extramarital affairs. It was a nightmare, but it’s been about six years now. I have rebuilt my life with much help from counselors, friends, and supportive family. I am starting to regain my professional life (I was once an incredibly high-achiever), and am used to the regular hassles of having to raise a child with a man who continues to treat me without much regard. I found much to relate to in your letter to a woman in a similar situation, and found comfort in your metaphor of a ferris wheel where everyone has turns on the highs and lows.

I do things slower than many, and it wasn’t until two years ago that I was ready to try dating. I met a lovely, sensitive, artistic man, and we’ve been through a lot together, between my wariness to date again and his health issues. We’ve struggled through because we have a lovely and deep connection. But after many ups and downs, we are parting ways. Or trying too. We have broken up a number of times, but this time at least for me, I can’t figure out any other ways forward. And I don’t think there’s anything to do about that. But I’m writing to you for your reflections because you are very insightful about these particular issues.

The man struggles with both mood issues and alcohol. He has suffered many different health problems, and has diligently trudged from doctor to doctor in search of answers, through traditional medicine, holistic health, and back to traditional medicine. He has had diagnoses of food allergies, depression, anxiety, and more recently, fibromyalgia. suffered a pretty large breakdown after his last switch between systems, and has worked hard to regain stability. He sees many different doctors regularly, is taking medicines and having his psychiatrist adjust them when problems arise. He works with a counselor, a psychiatrist, a family doctor, and a specialist. And he is working through his drinking issues, although he does not have them figured out. He has spent some time in AA, but didn’t last long there (for some semi-legitimate reasons, like a distaste for higher-power-culture, as well as for some less compelling reasons that point to him just not being ready yet).

All through our relationship, we have maintained an incredible friendship. I am so much myself with him, and I can talk to him about anything. When he is feeling well, I love thinking of our life together. But of course, he is unpredictable. He has been working at his health and well-being much longer than I’ve known him, but so many of his issues have responded to his past six months of work–but not enough that I feel confident moving forward. His drinking is a large concern for me, but is not something that I see in my daily life with him. That is, I know he struggles because he tells me so; but I am not with him when he drinks. The issue that I see most, and that is the cause for my lack of hope more directly, is his mood. When he is not feeling well, he cannot communicate effectively or, even, normally. It looks like he doesn’t know the rules for fair fights, but it turns out it is much more than that. He can’t hear what I say. He’ll be upset about something that happened two days ago, he’ll let it fester, and when we speak again, he’ll throw in kitchen sink complaints about all the things I do that drive him nuts. And there’s no speaking to him at this point, because he cannot hear. He takes anything I say in these conversations and turns all the words around. He has these problems with everyone in his life, at work, with family, with friends.

The heartbreaking part is that he knows this is a problem. He doesn’t want to be this way. He sees doctors and tries treatment and apologizes. He is a lovely, sincere person with a lot of beauty inside him, and a lot of struggles. But he doesn’t have it figured out, yet. That, and his drinking. And perhaps they are connected. We’ve hit the point in our relationship where we would move forward in some kind of larger commitment, which I can’t do under these circumstances.

My friends and family like this new man. And they also wish for something easier for me. They say things like, “He’s such a lovely fit for you, but you’ve also been through so much already. I wish it were easier.”

Cary, I’m not sure there’s any answer here beyond the one facing me, which is to continue to say no to circumstances I cannot manage. But it is heartbreaking. I find it difficult not to compare. My daughter’s father calls several times a week to talk to her, piping Facetime scenes of him and his cooing, round-faced sons into my kitchen. He has stomped on every significant relationship in his adult life, leaving a trail of heartache, debt, and lawsuits. But he is funny and charismatic. His reward? Marrying a smiling rich woman, and having babies. I see that, and then I see this man who can’t win for trying (that’s not to take away levels of personal responsibility). And I also see me–I am trying to work my way through this crap with honesty and without taking the easy way. Things are mostly fine in my life, but I have given up hope for another child, which I always wanted (I’m about to turn 40). And after this dating relationship, I feel so sad. I feel sad about the world, and how it works.

You should probably know that I am an INFJ. I realize I feel things bigger than most people.

From

A Possibly Dramatic Empath

Connecticut_PatCary1

Dear Possibly Dramatic Empath,

I think that this man is not suitable for you because of his many problems. I think you will need to let him go. This is not a workable relationship.

So how can I help? Maybe you need help implementing the breakup. So let’s break down the breakup.

First, whatever regular communication you have ceases. Communication changes from something you do routinely for emotional satisfaction to something you do only to tie up loose ends related to concrete commitments you have made during the relationship. That means if you feel like talking to him, don’t. That means if you have the thought that a certain performer he likes is in town and maybe he would like to go, don’t. That means if you want to explain something to him about why you feel sad it’s over or how you think he might improve, don’t. It means not communicating with him.

Second, it means physically disentanglement. If you have entangled monetary accounts and property, separate the accounts. If you owe him money, pay it; if he owe you money, collect it. Distribute or dispose of any joint property. If things he owns are left at your house return them. If things you own are at his house go and get them. Be thorough.

Third, any standing arrangements you have, such as meeting regularly at a cafe or going to the same bar: renounce them. Enact a new routine that takes you to places he doesn’t frequent. This isn’t because there’s anything traumatic or problematic about seeing him. It’s just the concrete way that a relationship is taken apart so that it no longer exists.

Often in seeking to know when a relationship is over one will wait to feel some subjective state of completion. But the relationship is not about your inner state; it is a tangible thing made up of interactions, commitments and property. You take away the interactions, commitments and property and the relationship is over.

You will still have feelings but that’s OK. You’re always going to have feelings. The important thing is to separate the feelings from the relationship. You will do better dealing with your feelings once you can deal with them as your own feelings, rather than as problems in the relationship.

I wonder if you will feel guilty. You might. I know you’d like to help him. The sad fact is that you can’t. Al-Anon is useful for that. It is also useful to take stock of both your inclinations to help others and your history of helping others and being victimized by them, starting with your ex-husband. Al-Anon can help you with that as well. We, the readers of your letter, don’t know exactly what happened but it is clear that he deceived you for years. So one thing you will need to do in the future is enact security precautions: In relationships with men, insist on knowing what the ground rules are. If it is supposed to be an exclusive relationship, be like an arms inspector: demand proof. That may sound crazy but it is simple logic: A man you knew intimately deceived you regularly for years. His deceptions were probably discoverable. Unless he was a trained spy with excellent trade-craft, his deceptions were discoverable. There was a trail. You didn’t see it because you didn’t look hard enough for it. Had you proceeded on the assumption that men regularly deceive women, you would have discovered it. So let that experience form the basis for a new, less trusting, more security-conscious practice regarding men and sex.

I’ll bet your ex-husband is some kind of narcissist or sociopath. So try not to date a narcissist. Try not to date a sociopath. If you’re not sure, ask up front. Say, “Excuse me, but before we date, can you tell me: Are you a narcissist, or a sociopath? Do you routinely lie to women to manipulate them into sleeping with you and then hide your other affairs from them for years just so you can feel powerful and in control? Because if so, maybe I’m not your gal.” Now, I know that sounds silly, and the narcissist or sociopath of course will act baffled and confused, or maybe compassionate and understanding, but the relationship won’t go very far. He will decide that you’re not the woman for him. Some non-sociopathic guys will just think you’re too weird, but some will find it interesting and will want to know more.

Also try not to date anyone who has a problem with alcohol.

That is my advice to you: Break up with this man completely. Visit Al-Anon at least six times, enough times to really be able to decide if it can be helpful to you. And exercise some security measures with men.

 

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I lost my engagement ring — and secretly replaced it at Wal-Mart

Write for Advice

Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, JUN 1, 2006

Cary,

I have a problem that I don’t know how to fix.

Three years ago, a year after I became engaged, I lost my engagement ring. While I was camping with my fiancé and two friends, we decided to take a walk in the water by the beach. As a joke, one of my friends pulled me into the water, and while I thrashed around, the ring slipped off my finger into the lake. We searched, but the ring was gone.

It still makes me sick to think about it.

To cover up the loss, I went to Wal-Mart and bought an inexpensive ring that looked very much like the original. This way, I hoped that no one would learn about what had happened. I didn’t tell anyone about the loss (most of my family and friends live out of town anyway), and I asked my fiancé not to tell anyone either.

However, my fiancé confided in his sister and one of his good friends. The grapevine was efficient, and soon all of his family knew. That Christmas, in front of my fiancé’s whole family, my future sister-in-law asked me if the ring I was wearing was a replacement engagement ring. I was forced to admit that I had bought the ring at Wal-Mart.

Meanwhile, the insurance for the ring came through. The amount was $900, less than half the ring’s value of $2,300.

However, the money has stayed with my fiancé. Although I’ve asked about it, he doesn’t seem interested in buying a new ring.

We are planning to get married in two months — a quiet affair, just the two of us, at City Hall. After the wedding, I don’t want to wear this “Wal-Mart special” anymore. I had suggested that we spend just the $900 insurance money on a new ring, or that he contribute the $900 from the insurance and I cover the remaining $1,400 to replace the original. However, neither suggestion seems to be the right one.

I have great difficulty bringing it up, because I feel such guilt over the loss. Should I simply let it go, and quietly stop wearing the engagement ring once we are married? We have other expenses right now — a trip overseas and home renovations — and I don’t want to add to the financial burden.

Please advise me what I should do.

Lady of the Lost Ring

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Dear Lady of the Lost Ring,

I suggest you sit down with your fiancé and try to resolve the emotional issues that surround the material issues. It may be that he is angry with you for losing the ring. You need to ask him, “Are you still angry with me for losing it? If so, you need to tell me.”

It was a lot of money. He may still blame you. You have to find out.

I’m sure you’ve already apologized. You need to make your apology once again and ask him to forgive you once and for all. The two of you need to agree to let this go. The ring is gone. It was an accident. It cost a lot of money. But it’s gone. Let it go.

If you don’t like wearing the Wal-Mart ring, put it away after you’re married. You’ll be wearing a wedding band then, I would presume, and you don’t need to wear two rings.

It’s vital to resolve this before you get married. The thing about marriage is that it lasts for a long, long time, and the patterns and stories you establish at the outset persist. So if this issue remains unresolved, it is guaranteed to come up later. When money is short or when you lose something again by accident, it will come up. You will realize: He’s still mad at you for that ring. Twenty years from now, it will still come up unless you act to resolve it now.

So act boldly and with confidence now, and turn this mishap into something positive. Make sure that he forgives you, and then:

After you’re married, use the $900 to buy a fishing rod and some top-notch camping gear and go back to the same lake with your same friends.

Go fishing.

When you catch a fish, clean it carefully. Look for the ring. Then cook it over an open flame and eat it by firelight.

Maybe one day you’ll catch a fish and inside the fish will be the ring. In fact, you could make it a tradition; you could go fishing there every year, and that will remind you and your husband of your early happiness and frivolity and your early mistakes, and it will become a tradition that will help your friendships endure. This innocent mistake thereby becomes a lifelong gift.

As long as you go fishing, there will always be a chance that you will find the ring. And that will serve as a metaphor for your marriage: Every time you open yourself up to possibility, there is a chance that you will find something precious you thought you had lost. Every time you cast a line, there’s a chance that you’ll reel in a miracle in the belly of a fish.
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