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In Florence. Italianate facades. Espresso on Magenta and Corso Italia and a boy with a harmonica

Kids are beautiful in cities. They ain’t been ground up yet. There’s harmonicas. After grueling San Francisco-Paris-Florence flight we ride the tiny Pensione Crocini elevator to the tall windows on the courtyard, wash, nap, then espresso at the cafe and luxuriating in the beautiful visual rhythm of the Italianate style, the beautiful rhythm of spring on the Arno, which is rushing past the American Consulate now with the heavy spring rains (spotty snow still on the Alps as we flew from Paris), art students in retro ’80s T-shirts and Deloitte employees in white shirts and black ties on motos, and the carabarini with their carbines guarding the embassy down Corso Italia a block from the Arno, golden buildings in blue light, our tiny cage elevator with the seat where the operator used to sit, our courtyard with the magnolia tree in flower, the salmon-colored apartment block sprouting satellite antennas and bedsheets drying in the warm May air and laundry and awnings and the ubiquitous shutters. A city like a painting, pretty in its particulars, well composed, holding together, yielding up its treasure as long as one cares to keep looking, flowing past on bicycles and Maseratis and scooters. Three euros for two espressos at a red metal table under an awning in the breeze off the river. High walls. High fashion. Mysteries behind towering doors.

Saturday we meet Janet Shepard and Joya Cory and her husband Richard here at the Crocini and Sunday we take the train south from Florence to Castiglion Fiorentino and start the first of two nine-day writing workshops at the Le Santucce residence, looking forward to seeing our hosts Alfeo and Miranda and Luisella and Luca .

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How do I know if I’m an alcoholic?

Write for Advice

There are certain signs that I have a problem with alcohol, but nothing terrible has happened so far.


Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, MAY 27, 2005

Dear Cary,

You write so eloquently about alcoholism and drinking problems in so many of your columns that I hope you can help me.

I’m drinking a nice cool beer as I write to you, despite the fact that I’ve gained 30 pounds in the last year from this habit of nightly drinking. I’m not sure I’m an alcoholic — in fact, I don’t think I am — but there’s no arguing that I look forward to my evening drinks the same way I used to crave cigarettes, which I stopped without a problem 15 years ago.

I went to a 12-step program for close to a year. While I didn’t drink during that time, I felt like an outsider there. I rarely have more than about five or six drinks at a time, even though I do it virtually every day, and usually without others knowing. However, other than the weight (which isn’t yet a real deterrent, since I’m just slightly overweight), I don’t suffer visible consequences, so it’s hard for me to relate to the stories of woe and loss. I also usually stop around five drinks, so I can’t relate to the “I drank ’til I was toast” stories. I can’t drink anything other than wine or beer, even if I try. I would never drink and drive and never do. And I know it’s external evidence, but I am an attractive 40-year-old woman with a good job, well-liked inside and outside work, own a cute house, a nice car and have family, friends and a loving boyfriend who care about me.

However, I do feel a creeping sensation of “I must do this,” and this is beginning to worry me. For example, if I know I am staying somewhere I won’t be able to drink as much as I want, I put some beer or wine in my suitcase to be safe. The nightly drinking, which started last fall, also worries me, although another side of me says it’s OK since it’s not that much, just a habit.

I dread going back to that group. I spent the most depressed year of my life there, although physically I felt great. I went there in the first place because I had a few bad incidents, and in fact have never resumed that level of drinking. According to all my research, I appear to be an alcohol abuser rather than an alcoholic, but practically speaking, I’m not sure what alternatives that creates. I’ve been to two therapists and neither helped. I’m keeping this a secret from my family and boyfriend — well, he knows some of it — and so they can’t help much either.

Reading my story, do you think I’m alcoholic? And are there alternatives other than stopping completely? I tried Moderation Management and I felt even worse there — to me, a bunch of truly problem drinkers not wanting to deal with it. I feel like I don’t quite fit anywhere. Any help you can offer would be appreciated.

A Friend

 

Dear Friend,

One of the things we lose as we become full-blown alcoholics is the ability to make sound judgments. Luckily, it appears that you still have that ability. Unlike somebody who is too far gone to know what is good or bad for her, you are probably capable of making a clear-headed assessment of where you are in your drinking career and where it is likely to lead. For that reason, I suggest you return to those meetings you were attending with that very purpose in mind. They can offer you a wealth of anecdotal evidence on which to base such a judgment. I suggest you listen particularly for stories of people like yourself who have achieved a fair amount of success in life. I also suggest you tell your story to other people so they can perhaps help you identify the similarities and differences between what you are experiencing and what they have experienced.

In that way you can accomplish two things. You can assess the likely outcome of your drinking, based on the outcomes of others. And you can also be of service to others who want to stop drinking. By being present there, you give others the courage to be present as well. There may be women there who, like you, cannot relate to tales of utter devastation and loss, but are indeed concerned about their drinking. Perhaps they can relate to someone like you who has it pretty much together — although she does pack bottles in her suitcase for emergencies.

If you gather from those meetings that most people who reached the point you are at with their drinking found they were able to quit with relative ease when they decided they wanted to, then your mind may be put at ease. If you find, however, that many of those who lost everything were at one point roughly where you are now, it may give you cause for grave concern. This might be a good time also to take a look at the “20 Questions” pamphlet prepared by Alcoholics Anonymous. At the very least, if you do these things, you will have ample evidence before you and, being of sound judgment, can make a sound choice.

There is, in addition, a third reason to go back to those meetings, and this may the most directly relevant of all. You say that for the almost year you were attending those meetings, you did not drink. You note that you were not particularly happy during that period. But your reason for writing to me is not that you are unhappy. It is that you are concerned about your drinking. It sounds like the meetings did keep you from drinking.

As far as happiness goes, many people find that after an initial period of adjustment they can live quite happily without drinking. My guess is that you are not all that different from the rest of us, and that if you do finally decide to give up drinking, you will be just fine.

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I seem to be repeating patterns of abuse

I’m a well-educated and intelligent woman, but childhood trauma has brought me to the edge of madness.

Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, JAN 10, 2005

Dear Cary,

Ostensibly, I am a relatively well-educated, intelligent woman. I had a rough childhood. I was abused as a child; my usual punishment was caning, but my mother also pulled my hair and boxed my ears.

I grew up minimizing the abuse. I was weirdly adult about everything. I would carefully explain to my older siblings that our mother had a difficult childhood and she still loved us, she just wasn’t in her right mind. There is a picture of me with a hand-shaped purple-and-green bruise on my arms. I am on a merry-go-round. I have a smile plastered on my face, painful and artificial.

I have never felt safe. I was molested by a teacher when I was 4, raped by a teenager when I was 12 and raped again when I was 19. I turned to drugs and alcohol; I was self-destructive. I have been in a series of relationships that ranged from unhealthy to severely abusive. I overcame my addiction through sheer willpower. I moved home and stopped associating with my drug friends. I maintained rigid control over whom I associated with and did not allow alcohol in my presence.

I am in the process of ending my current entanglement. I was involved for 10 months with a man who had spent seven years in prison for, among other things, kidnapping and assault with a deadly weapon. No one, not even I, understood my attraction to this man. He became increasingly unstable, stopped taking medication he took for a mental problem, became an alcoholic, and developed a drug problem that escalated into using crack. This happened over the course of six months or so.

I was his caretaker. It was a process of systematically destroying my support network by isolating me from friends and family, and destroying my self-esteem with regular insults, spitting on me and humiliating me. He never hit me — he would cock his fist back and threaten to hit me, or punch holes in the wall. He was charming and manipulative. He would be abusive one day, and I would take him back the next. Sometimes it was a matter of hours. I don’t understand this. I don’t understand myself.

I have started having flashbacks from the rapes. I remember very clearly that I froze. I became utterly still, and silent. I remember thinking, if I don’t move, he won’t hurt me, he won’t kill me. If I stay still I will live. So I stayed still. I lived. I survived. I feel that way now — paralyzed with fear. I am afraid of him. He leaves messages on my phone, saying that he would never lay a hand on me, that he will kill himself if I leave him, that he only feels “safe” with me. Ironic.

Is my comfort zone a place of constant terror? Why did so many of my friends and family withdraw from me? My choice to be victimized must have hurt them, I know — but now I feel so alone, so terrified.

Two days ago he pounded on my door, smelling of liquor. I asked him to leave; he kicked in the door and threw me into a wall. I had a friend over in the living room, one of the few I have left — a neighbor who is very protective and a “big brother” kind of guy. My ex knocked him down and tried to choke him to death. Luckily, I own a pit bull. He did his job well and attacked my ex, chased him out the door and stood guard, with his ridge up. My ex was only recently bonded out of jail for possession and robbery, so he ran when he saw that we were calling the police.

I was pregnant by him, and lost the baby two weeks ago. I had left him already because of his escalating substance abuse, but because of my pregnancy he continued to contact me, occasionally to harass me, occasionally to beg me to come back to “be a family.”

I have prided myself on being relatively successful in life, despite the abuse and sexual assaults from my past. I am somewhat brittle, and extremely passive in my interactions with almost all men, especially men I am romantically involved with. I used to be strong, compassionate, intuitive, thoughtful — I worked to earn a degree in psychology and worked for a time at a forensic mental hospital. I enjoy being in a profession where I help others. I know that I am a strong person; I have fought to live my entire life. I don’t want to die; I don’t want to kill myself. I WANT TO LIVE, so badly that I taste it with every breath I take. But I have, instead, chosen merely to exist for so long.

I started therapy recently — this is where I was diagnosed with clinical and postpartum depression. My therapist said that I was, most likely, depressed before I lost my baby, but that the postpartum depression has pushed me to the point of being nonfunctional.

I feel as if I am doing this to myself in some self-destructive way. I won’t allow myself to consider suicide, so I choose passive methods, like “death by abusive, mentally unstable, crack-addicted boyfriend” — my sister accused me of this. Beyond all else I wonder why I still care for this man, why I worry for him and hope that he one day receives help and gets better. Why can’t I hate him?

Traumatized

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Dear Traumatized,

Did you ever have a string that was very tangled, perhaps so tangled you didn’t even have words to explain it? You just held it out to your mom, wordlessly, on the verge of tears. You were so frustrated you could hardly even say, Please untangle this. You just held it out to her, hoping something would happen.

Maybe she would help untangle it and maybe she wouldn’t. If she was going to untangle it, she wouldn’t be able to explain to you how she was going to do it. She would have to simply sit down with it and begin. There would be hours of concentrated effort, trial and error, struggle with string. She wouldn’t have any words or symbols for the intricate topology. She couldn’t say, Oh, here, dear, here is the mathematical expression that describes this particular knot. She couldn’t say, Here, you just push the button. Or, here, I have stronger hands, I can snap your snaps. She just had to sit down and start worrying it.

That is how I feel about your story. I feel as though you have handed me a tangled string. I feel that it is important, surely; I could hardly ignore you standing there, trembling, bruised and afraid. So I will sit here and tug at it wordlessly while you wait. Images will eventually come to me; they always do; but they may not make sense to anyone but me. The images are cryptic; they are my private language. Sometimes I need to translate or you think I’m speaking gibberish, or that I’m playing with you. I’m not playing with you. I’m doing my best to respond. But the responding is often tangled like the string. So I will speak as plainly as I can right now, in the beginning, before the images take over. For there are certain things that are certain.

I think you need to make a whole new life pretty much from scratch. How is that for startling clarity? Your new life will have strict rules, like in a recovery house. The rules are there to keep you from getting hurt. You need some rules, or you might wander into traffic or into a crack house; you might fall off a cliff or a curb. So you get a set of simple rules and live by them. You sit at the feet of your therapist as she works to untangle the string, offering help as you can, but mainly staying out of trouble and being patient, because it’s going to take at least all afternoon. And you spend time with others like yourself, listening to their problems and trying to help.

You need the strict rules because you’re in the grip of a crazy machine that wants to repeat the injuries. You don’t need to know why yet. You just need to follow the rules. But here is sort of why (the images are starting to come now, as they always do):

It’s not just the ball of string. It’s you. You’re all beat up. Your mom looks at the string and then looks at you and suddenly she sees you’re bleeding. How did this happen? she screams. And you say, You did it, you did it.

Maybe she did it and maybe she didn’t, but you need help and she patches you up. But some of the cuts don’t heal; some of the bruises remain, glowing under your translucent skin like stigmata. Remember that bruise on your arm in the shape of a hand? Remember how strange you found it, as a child, that bruises persist as they do? Cuts and bruises are our early journal entries, written on the child’s body; long before we learn to think and remember our injuries, they persist in the muscles and on the skin where we can observe and touch, as though touching our own memories. So we understand very early the persistence of injury. And we learn early on, too, that the sites of our injuries are strangely alluring.

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When you get bruised, you’d think you’d try to protect the injury, hold it aloft, maintain the bandages, wouldn’t you? Why do we pick at scabs and test our bruises against hard surfaces, as if remembering were a pleasure, even when it hurts? Why that peculiar interest in the wound itself, in its persistence? We rub the affected region. We replay the injuries, as though there were pleasure in remembering the pain. There seems to be a pleasure in simply remembering. If not a pleasure, then what? A drive, a compulsion, an urge: the urge to rub the affected region.

So we rub the affected region. We rub the affected region with abusers and pimps, with cops and prisons and whores and needles, the way a child tests a bruise against a sharp tabletop. We return to the source of our injuries, and we get injured again! Why can’t we learn?

At the source of our injuries, strangely enough, there are people hanging around the street corner with medicine. Isn’t that interesting? You rub the affected region with the pimp who bruised it, and the pimp’s got some rum, or some heroin. Here’s a houseful of people all rubbing their affected regions — rubbing them with each other, rubbing them with hammers, rubbing them with money.

In other words, again trying not to be so cryptic, you bring your story to somebody who will be like your mommy — your therapist — and you bring it like a humble and baffled child bringing a tangled wad of string. And then your job is just to stay in your seat until the thing is untangled. It may take years. But you keep to your routine. You stick to the basics. You eat well and stay out of the old neighborhood. You avoid rubbing the affected region. You stumble and fall and get up and keep going. One day you notice the stigmata are gone. The air smells fresh.

Something breaks and the lump is free. All that untangling must have weakened the fibers. You don’t even mind that the string is broken. You didn’t need the string anyway.

When it’s untangled, you have a new feeling. You take your first deep breath in centuries. Suddenly you have to get away. You jump in a car and head for the desert where there’s nothing, no scrap of memory, no parolees and no junkies, no men who remind you of your teacher, no men who remind you of your dad, no lures, no tripwires, no three-card monte games, no crap shooters in tiled elementary-school bathrooms, no blood on the walls: just desert sand and cactus.

You get out there and build yourself a lean-to and watch the horizon.

You have a long life yet to live.

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Why am I attracted to my stalker?

Dear Cary:

I am writing to you for writing advice, more specifically, if it’s ever a good idea to write a fictional story based on an event that has happened in the author’s personal life.

Let me be more specific. For the past six months, I have been the victim of cyberstalking. It began as a flirtation in an online chatroom and transformed into an obsession with me that involved the predator changing identities seven different times in an attempt to gain control over me. What makes it more interesting, perhaps, is my occupation. I am a psychologist.

The details of the stalking are rich, as are the life circumstances in which my stalking began. I am well aware of the potential effects of abuse and have enlisted the support of a supportive therapist to sort out my feelings, which are complex. This complexity stems from my poor decision to allow my stalker to engage me for a month, under the guise of gaining more specific information about his identity, thereby putting an end to this ordeal. Unfortunately and quite unexpectedly, I developed feelings for him and continue to struggle with those feelings.

When I shared the events related to this stalking, both friends and colleagues alike expressed a fascination with the details, often exclaiming, “You can’t write this stuff.”  So should I attempt to “write this stuff,” creating a work of fiction, possibly in the thriller genre, based on a life event that not only happened to me, but that has affected me emotionally?

My first career was as a writer, but centered on writing advertising and marketing materials. The only thing I have published is my psychology dissertation, which was praised for its ability to hold readers’ attention and was written in a narrative style intertwined with an academic style.

My mind has started to explore the possibilities of plot — both based on real events, as memorialized by every email and instant message transcript I saved, combined with a variety of possible fictionalized plot twists and turns I have imagined.

How does one begin a work of fiction? Should I buy a book on how to develop a manuscript? Take a workshop? Hire an editor? And if yes, how?

When one has an important life event occur that has all the makings of a great book or movie, should one keep it to themselves or attempt to share it? Or am I just dreaming grandiose author fantasies instead of dealing with my trauma?

I appreciate your thoughts.

Thank you.

Dr. Prey

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Dear Dr. Prey,

I’ve been reading The Art of Thought by Graham Wallas and it occurs to me that the reason it has taken so long to write this response is in part because of the “incubation” phase of the creative act. I did write to you when I first got this letter, excited to respond, intrigued with the situation. Then I waited a couple of weeks and was not sure why. Then when I began to draft a response, I needed clarification on a factual question and so I wrote to you about that, and you gave the answer that was required.

As a courtesy to readers, I will just say that I was not sure what the word “engaged” meant. You clarified that it meant you met with him privately in an online chat room. You never met him in person. He did request a meeting, which you declined. You gave me some other details, too, and I must admit I remain fascinated by the story, but want to just limit this to the one unambiguous response that I am clear about.

Now I sit, having been immersed in reading about psychoanalysis on a level I’m not really equipped to understand, and I come to your letter after a good long swim and some quiet time cleaning the kitchen, and it hits me: If you wish to write about this, I think the best form is not fiction but memoir.

You may at first object that you wish to keep your anonymity. Yes, of course you wish to keep your anonymity. And you can. But what is necessary here is to uncover and reveal to yourself your hidden impulses. You wish to understand yourself better. You wish to know why you acted in the ways you did. I think if you ask yourself these questions, and tell yourself the stories you need to tell, then it will become clear to you. And I think the way to do that is in the form of memoir and journal writing.

If you were an experienced fiction writer it would be different. You would be familiar with the way you disguise your own deepest themes; you would know, in some way, what you are saying by your fictional account even as it remains opaque to others. And so that might be a perfectly sensible way to deal with the powerful psychic material that is at hand.

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That might still happen. You still might find what you need by writing fiction. But I have a feeling it would be like trying to express something on the violin, and not knowing how to play the violin. You would have to learn how to play it, first. Whereas, you do know how to write first-person expository prose. You do have a voice already. You don’t need to burden yourself with the conventions of an art form that takes years to master.

My intuition says that the more rough and ready, direct route of writing memoir is the best way to deal with this material. That will mean journaling and recounting the story, going deep and freely into your own most primitive reasons for doing the things you did. Do not worry about protecting yourself at first. Treat the writing as though it were a confession, in the fullest, most profound sense. Pour yourself into it. If it helps, in the realm of a confession, to tell it to some imagined wise confidant, then do that.  Tell everything you know about yourself. Tell the pain. Tell of the fear behind the pain, or the pain behind the fear and fantasize about the ways you have found to alleviate it. What is your big pain? What is your big fear? I feel confident that the series of actions you took is related to your core fear. This is a story that has probably been repeated in your life. So tell the story. Begin with your deepest fear or your deepest pain and just confess it all.

Of course I don’t know what that is. You may not know yet. It may only emerge as you continually ask yourself what it is. This may be a route to finding that out. I can’t even guess. But the mystery is there for you to solve.You can solve it in the privacy of your own writing, which is a soul-searching practice. You needn’t publish what you produce. But you could. You could publish it under a pseudonym or you could publish it under your own name. That would be up to you. But I urge you to first write it as though it will never be seen. Write it as though it is your own secret, agonized journey, your own revelation.

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My husband won’t touch me — what can I do?

I want desperately to have a child, and so does he.

Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, FEB 23, 2005

Dear Cary,

I am married to the man of my dreams — except for one thing: He won’t touch me. I’m not just talking about sex; I mean he’s averse to basic human contact. We’re down to a chaste kiss as he leaves for work, an occasional hug when I ask, and sometimes another chaste good-night kiss before he turns his back to me and falls asleep.

We’ve been together for almost 14 years (we’re both 37) and married for 12. We don’t have any children, although we married each other in part because we thought we’d have great kids together. We met in graduate school and reasoned that we’d get our careers off the ground before trying to start a family. More than a decade later, we’ve stopped even trying.

I think passion and romance are the sweetest stuff of life; he finds them completely unnecessary. When we were dating, he was a reluctant lover, always telling me, “We’ll do it after exams” or “It will feel more right after we’re married.”

For the first several years of our marriage, he blamed my weight as the sole reason we were not having sex. Let me clarify that I am an attractive woman with a beautiful face, long blond hair and a curvy, voluptuous body, which many men find very attractive — just not my husband. He told me about five years into the marriage that he’d felt deceived, that he’d believed I would change and lose weight. Of course, I’ve always said I wished I were thinner. At one point I lost a lot of weight, and nothing changed. However, at some point he did stop openly criticizing my body.

Several years ago, I went against all of my morals and upbringing and had an affair. I told myself it was my husband’s fault that I was forced to get my needs met elsewhere. But I was racked with guilt the whole time, and ultimately I ended it, resolving to try to make things work with my husband. A year later, it was still not working, and I separated from him. Only after the separation did he accidentally find out about the affair, and it was a wrenching experience for us both.

For a year we lived apart; I wound up driving home every weekend to see him. Because we just plain missed each other, we reconciled. But he warned me that his intimacy issues might be even worse than before my affair or the separation. Still, I wanted to try to make it work, and so did he.

Fast-forward three years later. It’s like I’m living as roommates with a best friend who is totally supportive of me emotionally and professionally, but not physically. He is my rock, my companion, the one I want to grow old with. Still, I don’t want to have a platonic marriage.

We went to a marriage counselor after our reconciliation with clear instructions that our objective was to find a way to be intimate with each other. The therapist said that our marriage appeared normal — if we were in our 60s, not 30s! During the second session, the therapist said he would only continue to see us if divorce were on the table. That was the last session we had with him.

Since then, we have near-weekly conversations about how to fix our little problem. We talk; I inevitably cry; he says that he doesn’t need intimacy and he’s sorry that I do, but he can’t give it to me. We’ve tried talking about this at other hours, too: on a Saturday afternoon over a game of Pente, over a bottle of wine at our favorite restaurant, in the car on a road trip as a philosophical discussion.

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Some people might ask if maybe my husband is gay. But he denies that he’s attracted to men and says that he likes to look at attractive women (implicit in that statement is that I’m not included in that group). He says it boils down to the fact that he doesn’t really like to be touched or to touch other people, and that he feels emotionally dead inside. I have a nephew with Asberger’s syndrome, a mild form of autism, which among other things makes people ultra-sensitive to touch. I see a lot of similarities between my husband and my nephew, and I wonder if he might be afflicted with that disorder, too. I do know that my husband’s first and only other love really devastated him when she ended their relationship when he was 21, and I’ve wondered if that was the cause of his intimacy issues. But he said he was like this with her, too.

Every once in a while (three times last year), my husband takes pity on me and says that it’s time to reset the clock. That means we do the deed. Then I can no longer say, “Come on, honey, it’s been three (four, five, six) months since we made love,” since the clock is reset to zero. After such a resetting, it is an unspoken rule that I am not supposed to ask again for a really long time.

Cary, if I didn’t love this man, I would just leave. But he is wonderful to me in every other way. We are great partners in this thing called life, and we really get each other as people. I don’t want to leave; I want to break through these intimacy issues.

Please don’t tell me that I should get my physical needs met elsewhere. I’ve worked hard over the last three years since the reconciliation to rebuild trust. But for all of my self-denial, I feel like it’s getting me nowhere. I’m starting to go a little crazy from being starved for simple affection. And, yes, for sex, too. And deep down, I fear that I will never have a family, something which is extremely important to me (and, I thought, to him).

My heart is breaking over the loss of so many important dreams. I may never become a mother, I may never have a family of my own, I may never again know sweet intimacy between a man and a woman, I may never even have another passionate kiss.

I can roll with things not being perfect. But he turns his shoulder to me every night when all I want is for him to take me into his arms and show me his love. Is this too much for a good wife to expect?

Mrs. Heartbroken

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Dear Mrs. Heartbroken,

It sounds like what you are going through is very painful. I know how desperately you are seeking a solution. But I do not think that a solution will arise until you look at the situation in a new light. I suggest that you ask not how you can get your husband to give you what you need, but what the meaning of your suffering is and what you are being called upon to do. Once you discover what you are being called to do, and accept that as your fate, you will find it easier to surrender, to stop fighting, to do what has to be done.

What your suffering means, I think, is that life wants to come through you. You are stopping it by remaining with your husband. That is why it hurts you so much. That is why you are suffering. It hurts to deny life. Of course it hurts. It’s meant to hurt. That’s how life tells you what it wants. You’re leaning into a wind full of needles. You’re defying something that wants to be born.

There is a baby that wants to be born, but there is also a happiness that wants to be born. There is some contentedness that wants to be born. And there is a man somewhere who wants to make you pregnant and raise a child with you. He’s banging on your window but you can’t hear him or see him because you’re frozen hard to your husband. Until you tear yourself away you will remain stuck, deaf and blind to your destiny. Of course, it is your choice whether you leave or not. I know you have said that divorce is nonnegotiable. I also know that nothing we say is irrevocable, and we cannot know the future or our own capacity for sacrifice and pain.

I think you will leave your husband eventually, or you will collapse around the emptiness. I only think you should leave him while you still have a chance to raise a family. It will hurt to leave your husband — it may tear some of your skin off, as though you were frozen to a January lamppost. But it would hurt more to stay. And I do not see that you have any choice, if you are to accept what life is asking of you.
Perhaps you feel that leaving your husband for purely personal desires might seem irresponsible. But these are not personal desires. These desires are universal. They are transpersonal. It will be easier to see that if you think in terms that transcend the individual self. Consider the awesome force that wants to move through you, to use you as its avenue of fruition; consider your needs for intimacy and affection as the way this force expresses itself. Think of the child who desires to come into existence.

Why is that so far-fetched a notion? We happily grant that when someone dies it’s beyond our control. Yet when life insists with a terrifying power on having us for its purposes, when some unknown being insists on disrupting our plans in order to be born, we find that strangely mystical and abstract. What is abstract about the force that through the green fuse drives the flower? Why is it so far-fetched to imagine that life wants to move through you, but that you are blocking it, and that is causing you pain?

It seems a shame that you and your therapist were unable to continue beyond two sessions because the question of divorce was deemed nonnegotiable. Shouldn’t everything be on the table in therapy? Isn’t the purpose of therapy revelation and change? How can the unexpected be revealed if you think you know what you want, and if you rule out certain options? I think if you rule out certain conclusions, you undermine therapy’s capacity to surprise, to unearth unexpected meaning. But perhaps that therapist did not have the right approach for you.

Divorce needn’t mean that your husband disappears from your life. If the bond between you is spiritual and familial, as it sounds like it is, you can maintain that bond. Your relationship needn’t simply end; rather, think of it as being transformed by grand, elemental powers. He will probably want to know this child and to remain your lifelong friend. Perhaps he can be like an uncle to this child.

Why life chose you, who knows? But I can’t see much profit in resisting it. It’s obvious that, painful as it may be, you have to leave this man and seek someone you can raise a child with.

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Adventure calls me but not my boyfriend

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I have an offer to study in the Arctic, but I’d have to leave my boyfriend behind.

Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, MAY 2, 2006

Dear Cary,

I am at a crossroads in life and it is difficult. I have been working since high school, building my résumé. I finished my Ph.D., and have had a difficult time getting a job. I am a bit picky — I like romantic jobs, in certain geographic areas (generally the West and/or Alaska). I like adventure. Anyway, I’ve been offered such a job, studying what I want, in Arctic Canada (a village of 600 people, not a lot of English spoken, no roads to get there, $3,000 flight to get there). It is a job that will give me the experience to then go and get a better job; it is a great steppingstone. A ton of awesome experience. However, it is cold, dark (50 percent of the time), lonely, dry (no wine), not English-speaking, no fresh produce, dangerous (10 people have died on similar jobs since the 1970s), requires “barging” in food supplies, and it is far away from friends and family.

And then there is my boyfriend (of two years), and I love him. He is sweet, generous, kind; we love to talk to each other and cook together. We get along, it is very comfortable. This is the best relationship I have ever been in. He said he would rather pull out his teeth with rusty pliers than go to the Arctic. He hates the dark — he has seasonal depression. However, he does not really have career ambitions, and doesn’t have many suggestions on how we will earn a sufficient living for our family in the future (I think the Arctic gig will set me up for a good academic job that will be beneficial for our future). He says, do what you want to do for your career; I say it’s not just for my career, it’s for my spirit, my love of adventure and unique opportunities, and my disdain for suburbia. He says, “I don’t want to be blamed for you not taking this job.” I want him to say, “I love you, I don’t want you to leave, we can work something else out.” But instead, he says, “I love you, I can’t handle being the reason for you not to take this excellent opportunity, but, Sweetie, I don’t want to go up there.” So, I have to make a decision.

It is not as simple as pro and con lists. It is not as simple as listening to my instincts, my gut, either, because honestly I can’t tell what they are saying. Do you have any insights?

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

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Dear Should I Stay,

You say you don’t know what your gut is telling you, but I think you do.

Hold the picture upside down. Then you’ll see. You didn’t say there’s this guy you really, really like, who fits into your plans for the future, who utterly fascinates you, who is in fact just the kind of boyfriend you have been studying about for years, who in a certain way is key to your spirit, who attracts you even though he’s cold, dark and so dangerous that 10 people have died on him since the 1970s. You didn’t say that about your boyfriend. You said that about this village in the Canadian Arctic. That is where your passion is. That is where your life is headed.

Your boyfriend is not an adventure. Your boyfriend is a trip to the store. He may be a trip to the store in a comfortable automobile, but he is not the aurora borealis, or a pride of polar bears, or a village where people are living the way they have been living for a thousand years, or a rare lichen that thrives without light and heat like something from another planet.

The crazy thing is, this crazy thing you want to do is not even all that crazy. It’s squarely in your career path. Again, hold the picture upside down: If you had said you had been working toward a certain career your whole life and then suddenly got this crazy notion to travel up to a village in Canada, it would seem you were running from something or hadn’t thought things through. But this makes perfect career sense. It’s simply a case of your big dream finally starting to come true.

Dreams have a cost. Dreams sometimes mean saying goodbye. I think you should say goodbye. Maybe he will still be there when you get back, but if you love adventure, soon there will be another trip that he doesn’t want to go on but doesn’t want you to turn down on account of him. I think it’s an unfortunate pattern that could hamper your prospects for happiness. So say goodbye and go.

There may be one more lichen up there waiting to be discovered.

Find it.

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I can’t control my murderous thoughts

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, FEB 22, 2007

Someone took a dump on my early-’90s blue subcompact. I feel targeted and I don’t know what to do with my anger.


Dear Cary,

OK, so a couple of weeks ago, somebody took a big, runny dump on the hood of my car, parked on the street near my house.

Gross. Really, really gross. I assumed it was just a disgusting yet random act, donned rubber gloves and cleaned up the best I could.

But then I go out after a snowstorm and someone has obviously urinated on the snow on the hood of my car. It’s not a great car by any means — just a little blue subcompact, circa 1990. But still, I feel targeted and I don’t know what to do with this anger at an anonymous pooper who has decided I deserve this harassment.

For background, I own a home in one of those white-ethnic working-class neighborhoods that time forgot; last year people filmed a movie that took place in the ’70s and all they had to do was move the cars. “The pooper” is no doubt one of the many Kevin Federline look-alikes found on every corner; the brown-stained wife-beater undershirt he left behind says as much.

I’m friendly with a few people on the block, but I don’t exactly fit in. One neighbor calls me and my fiancée “the quiet couple.”

But I still don’t know what I could have done to deserve this.

I guess this isn’t a big deal; my house is now sold. My fiancée and I are moving to a bright, sunny house in a diverse, progressive middle-class neighborhood in a few weeks. But it’s not just the pooper that’s got me down. I want to hit somebody and I don’t know whom to hit.

What do I do with all the anger that piles up from all the anonymous jerks who make life so unpleasant?

Feeling Pooped On

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Dear Feeling Pooped On,

I had a 1959 Chevrolet Apache long-bed pickup truck. It was rusty and didn’t run well and I loved it. It didn’t fit in my garage, so it was always on the street. It was beautiful like a sculpture. I’m no mechanic. I tried to keep it running. My friend and I had gone in on it together, $400 apiece, so we would have a pickup truck to use on occasion. As it turned out, we hardly used it. It wasn’t too reliable.

One day I had parked it near the beach and went out to move it for the street sweeper and both the right-side tires were flat. They had been slashed. I had to replace them. It was expensive. Then the same thing happened the next week — well, this time the air was let out of the tires on the curb side. I had to have AAA come out and pump them up. Then I went away on a trip and so parked it in another part of the neighborhood, and when I came back the air had been let out of the front right tire again.

There wasn’t much I could do. Someone was doing this to me. I had to let it go — the truck, I mean. And I had to live with the mystery of who did it and why, and was it the same person — even in a different part of the neighborhood? — and was I somehow to blame, was there something wrong with parking a beat-up truck on the street, and if so what did I just not understand about life?

My wife says there are people in the world who think an old beat-up truck parked on the street brings down property values and that making such trucks go away, by any means necessary, is a high civic act. She didn’t especially like that truck, but I don’t think she slashed the tires. She just claims to be able to see into the minds of people unlike us.

I hear what she says but it doesn’t register. The way I look at it is more like this: Whales and old men have scars and barnacles. They carry their history on their bodies — things they have brushed up against, parasites that have attached to them, places they shouldn’t have gone but went anyway and got stabbed or shot or just roughed up. An old man will lift his shirt and he’ll have at least one nasty old scar somewhere, from an appendix operation or heart surgery, or a bullet wound or knife wound, or a scar above his eye from a fall or a bad car accident. And if ugly old whales could talk I think they’d say, Here’s where a shark took a chunk out of me off of Port Angeles! Here’s where I got run over by an Evinrude!

If you stick around long enough you’re going to get some scars. You’re going to get your stuff stolen out of your locker or out of your car. Somebody is going to insult you at a party and you’re not going to have a comeback. People are going to shit on the hood of your car.

Can you retaliate in a meaningful and satisfying way, and is retaliation wise? Some would say you can and that revenge is sweet indeed, and they will show you how in books available on the Internet and in certain bookstores. But maybe you believe in karma — that the heavens house a large but remarkably efficient bureau of eventual retaliation and just humiliation, where experts of arcane arts transform princes into pigs and embezzlers into moles.

If you’re in an organized religion or have any moral program or philosophy that works for you, then I guess you follow that. But no matter what you do, whether you believe things are always taken care of in some way without your personal intervention or not, whether you believe that “everything happens for a reason,” you’re still going to have some uncharitable feelings toward persons unknown who have fucked with your stuff in the dead of night.

How do you deal with that? Thinking doesn’t make such feelings disappear.

You just have to live with it. That’s the best I’ve got. There are numerous ways of living with it — ways to regulate the mind and the passions, ways to channel it, such as exercise and taking your mind off it and meditating about it and going shopping and throwing the ball out in the back yard and chopping some wood and a million other activities to capture the mind in its darkest, most vengeful moods. Whatever works. But there are going to be times that for whatever reason, your heart is just full of murder. You just have to be big enough to carry it.

Everybody carries murderous thoughts; everybody carries big scars.

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Shorter, Newer, Differenter

We changed the WordPress theme. You noticed? Also:

Cary Tennis is writing a new, different Since You Asked column:

  • More questions
  • Shorter answers
  • Mostly about writing and ideas but also other things
  • Basically: It’s way differenter!

Why?

  • Who’s got the time?
  • Long sentences: hard to read on phone
  • The kid just wants to do new things

The “Since You Asked” advice column ran on Salon.com for 12 years. It was a rare and beautiful thing. Like all rare things, it arose from rare circumstances. Circumstances change. Really: That’s done.

Now stimulate Cary’s intellectual and literary interests by writing letters to him about the most interesting things you are doing and the practical obstacles you encounter and how you overcome them.

Write about writing and books and poems and technology and the business of publishing and also about:

  • Urban Planning and Traffic
  • Real Estate Prices in San Francisco
  • New poetry
  • The Ocean Beach/Outer Sunset neighborhood
  • Paris
  • Tuscany
  • Great short story collections
  • Fiction and poetry readings
  • Cool bicycles
  • Alternative energy sources
  • Other things I might not know anything about but am still interested in, like … shoes!

See, Cary  grew up reading Faulkner and Henry James. So long sentences come naturally. But he always thought, I’ll never become a stodgy old guy. I’ll always try to adapt and participate.

Who knew culture would change so much so fast? But it did. So stay nimble, big guy. Stay interested. This is an amazing time to be alive.

Sure, some changes suck. Feel free to write about changes that suck.

But life is short. There’s always breakfast at Outerlands.

What else was great this morning:

Music at the Medieval Festival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My boyfriend lied about his debts and now he’s couch surfing

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Cary’s classic column from

But he’s an artist. Should I boot him?


Dear Cary,

My boyfriend and I have been together for over a year — my longest and best male/male relationship. Right before we met, he quit his lucrative job in retail to go back to school in photography, a longtime passion. He simplified his life: he bought a motorcycle outright, moved into a cheap downtown apartment and got a part-time job that would be flexible with his class schedule. I think this was brave and admirable. He made the right decision, such is his obvious talent. He’s 31 and I’m only 25, we’re both artists, and both getting started in our careers.

A month ago he came to me and told me that he’d incurred some reasonably large debts, and that he was being evicted from his apartment. He cried through most of the discussion. He’d known about the debts (some was money due to the IRS for a year, some was more recent) and hadn’t told me. In fact, he’d hidden them from me. When I first heard of the “possible but unlikely” eviction, he attributed the trouble to a party we’d thrown at his place that had upset the neighbors — a party I’d thrown for my birthday. But he was evicted for simply not paying his rent. His lies (he says he never lied, just didn’t offer the information) were instantly forgiven. His raw emotion took me over (I love this man!) and I switched into my “solve it” mode.

One month later, most of his stuff is in storage and he splits his time between living with me and driving his now impractical motorcycle 35 miles to his family’s home and sleeping on the couch. I live with a roommate and — though I feel guilty about it — I haven’t told him of my boyfriend’s eviction because I’m afraid he’ll be angry and say he doesn’t want to live with two roommates (which he’d have every right to say). My boyfriend allowed me to plan a $1,200 vacation to visit my family, so now he owes me money he can’t really afford to pay back either (I feel guilty taking his money when I know he still owes a landlord). Basically, I feel guilty all the time.

After four years living in a big city and making just enough money to survive, I’m finally making enough to go to out to dinner every now and then. But this relationship is financially draining me. My credit card debt has grown to a level it’s never been at before, and I’m making more money than ever. I love this man and I know he’s being sincere when he says if the roles were reversed he’d take care of me in any way he possibly could. But I can’t have him living with me in this situation and I feel guilty when I make him drive to a house I know he hates. Worst of all, he just doesn’t get it. He thinks, with all his heart, that love conquers all. How can I make him understand that this is tough for me, too, when things are absolutely 100 percent tougher for him right now? Am I just a selfish person?

Selfish and/or Guilty

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Dear Selfish and/or Guilty,

You feel guilty because you’re doing something wrong. Isn’t that wonderfully simple? You’re allowing this person to lie to you, steal from you and mistreat you. It’s wrong to allow that. You know it’s wrong to allow it. That’s why you feel guilty. You’re not helping anyone by letting it continue. On the contrary, allowing him to continue makes you an accomplice. Standing up for yourself in such a situation is the farthest thing from selfish: It’s a selfless act of courage, a gift to the world. If you stand up for yourself, you stand up for your roommate and for your families. When you stand up for yourself you stand up for us all. You stand up for the weak, the elderly, the frightened, the codependent. You set an example of strength, moral clarity and courage. You add to the store of goodness in the world. You teach others by example. Even for your boyfriend: By standing up to him, you also stand up for him — for the good part of him who needs to know that what he’s doing is wrong, and can only lead to debasement.

It was courageous of him to go back to school and follow his talent. But it’s wrong of him to lie about his debts and become a mooch. His art can only suffer. If he quit a lucrative job to go back to school, he’s going to have to learn to live cheaply on his own. He already has an obvious problem telling the truth about money. Do not play into it. Do not feed this problem of his.

Do not think of what you personally may lose. Think of all the other people he is manipulating, and act on their behalf, not your own. The only power he has over you is your fear that if you stand up to him you will lose him. That is your weakness. You must think in larger terms: of your very self, your pride, your sense of fairness to others, your place in the world of family and roommates and friends.

Being a creative person does not mean that right and wrong do not apply to you. Because you have a larger, more profound gift for the world does not mean you get your bread for free. We should not pamper our artists and our stars. The more we pamper those we admire, the more we rob them of their belonging in the world, the more we feed their addictions, the more we blind them and render them ignorant, and thus destroy their ability to tell the truth through their art.

So do us all a favor. Stop letting this guy walk all over you. Tell him to pay his debts and get a place of his own.

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