Category Archives: Work

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A bohemian in the Cheesecake Factory

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I’m an INFJ working undercover at JCrew/Abercrombie/Banana Republic/Sephora/Barneys/Apple/Eddie Bauer Town

Cary’s classic column from Tuesday, Dec 7, 2010

Dear Cary,

I’m a worldly, well-traveled, experienced and vibrant woman, still young (age 55), I have a wide network of interesting friends, a talented, caring and loving husband and a young adult daughter (who I raised alone) who is holding her own and doing well. I was blessed (I guess) with physical beauty and I have a strong and elegant personal style. I was fortunate to retire with a full pension almost two years ago and set upon a life of leisure while pursuing my art as an avocation, have held two successful gallery exhibits and produced a book as well, which has been very well received in my Rust Belt American city. I am an INFJ, if that tells you anything. The most marked characteristic to me is that we are only 3 percent of the population.

I consider myself to be very strong and am a survivor. I won’t go into my past except to say it included a measure of poverty, violence, loneliness and estrangement from family.

All of that has been long worked out. I truly believe that I am firmly on the path of being the woman I would have wanted to be when I was younger and full of doubt, avoidance, fear and uncertainty.
I believe those are traits that I still have — they are human traits, after all — and even when I feel overwhelmed by such emotions I am able to put them into context and move on.

I recently began working again, part-time, at a small retail establishment that is a corporate entity of her sister stores. It’s located in an affluent suburb in a pretty little shopping district that was built for just this purpose: retail. A pretty, little fake town with nice shops selling expensive goods: This is how the shopping district is set up. It’s pleasant and pretty and in my view it’s all pretend. Or it’s not. It’s all about marketing and spending money and capitalism. It is fascinating and when I go to work I feel as though I’m a cultural anthropologist visiting JCrew/Abercrombie/Banana Republic/Cheesecake Factory/Sephora/Barneys/Apple/Eddie Bauer/Brooks Brothers Town.

I see this as an opportunity for personal growth in getting along with people, especially women. In my real world the people I know are bohemian, earthy, acerbic, witty, creative, artsy and outrageous. My new work world is not like that. I feel that my challenge will be in honing my skill at interpersonal relationships. I have always been a square peg in a round hole, even among the boho crowd. I’m good with that. However, I am concerned about workplace relationships. The woman who hired me is lovely. I’m not worried about my boss, I’m worried about getting along with co-workers, all women.

I want to fit in, without fitting in, if you know what I mean. Already I am trying to squelch my internal critical dialogue of what I observe around me. I am also blessed (I guess) with the ability to see scenarios as they really are and to see people as they really are, i.e., I’m perceptive. Sometimes this makes me judgmental and I internalize that dialogue. I am now in an environment where my wry observations, sardonic wit and sarcastic barbs would most definitely not be well received.

I can control myself, no problem. My challenge is to learn to internalize acceptance of what I find to be icky: namely, entitled, outer-ring suburban McMansion, probably racist, certainly Republican (that is the demographic of the area), greedy, hypocritical and clueless. See, already I’m sounding harsh. How do I stop?

I really appreciate this job, even though the hours and wages are meager, because I believe it is giving me a valuable opportunity in navigating interpersonal relationships, including honing the art of diplomacy. These would be skills that I could apply in many different places for the rest of my life. How do I not fuck it up?

The Outsider

Dear Outsider,

They’ll assume you’re one of them until you bring in a painting.

So don’t bring in a painting. Keep the paintings in the trunk of your normal automobile, which they’ve seen you drive up in.

Don’t pose as normal, though. Pose as eccentric in a normal automobile. If you pose as normal they’ll know right off you’re weird. If you pose as eccentric but they see the normal automobile, they will believe the normal automobile.

You can’t fake normal.

It may be idiocy but it’s a finely calibrated idiocy you cannot fake. Look at Sarah Palin.

They’ve got too much experience. They’re like native French speakers.

It would be better if you rode bulls and drove stock cars. But your eccentricities can work. You can pose as the rebel insider.

You can do this easily. Just pretend. Keep in mind that you don’t have to hide everything; some of your activities will seem interesting to them until they learn enough to be confused.

Because you don’t belong, you’re going to work hard to appear to belong. Because you are skilled at appearing to belong, and because you are analytical and thoughtful, and because you know you are an outsider, you may appear to belong more than those who actually do belong.

This is the drama of the outsider.

Your difference makes a difference. But the difference to them is not as great as the difference to you.

You think they notice but they don’t. You think they know because to you it’s so friggin’ obvious. But they have not been issued a clue. They were not issued a clue and are not aware that a clue is available free on the Internet or at any public library.

So they will be astonished to find you’re not staying for life. “Oh, but you fit in so well here!” your boss will say, giving unconscious voice to the doubts that were there all along.

You will be mystified by their inability to see through your ruse.

One danger in giving this performance of fitting in is that you may appear weak. Someone may try to manipulate or bully you. That’s where the bull-riding story comes in. Or the story where you slit someone’s throat. Or a cop in the family. Some drama of throat-slitting or bull-riding will be a prophylaxis. It will sound eccentric, but since it’s violent, it’s permitted. That’s also where protection comes in.

Did I mention this is prison?

In prison you find a buddy. Figure out who has the power and make that person your buddy. Then, even if they do figure out that you don’t belong there, you’ll be protected.

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How long does it take to get what you want?

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I’m trying to get a job where my boyfriend’s living and it’s just not working!


Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, MAY 5, 2005

Dear Cary,

My boyfriend and I were together for the first year of our relationship, then moved to separate cities after college. That was two years ago. I’ve planned to move up there as soon as I get a job, but in two years, I haven’t found anything. I’ve had some interviews. They all tell me they love me but I’m either overqualified (because of my education) or I have no practical experience in the field (which is true but how can I get it if no one gives me a chance?). In the meantime, I’ve been getting my master’s (which I am now finishing up) and working a mind-numbing administrative job here but I haven’t gotten any of the literally hundreds of jobs I’ve applied for. I’ve tried recruiters, family, friends, colleagues — I always get great feedback, and no one can tell me what I’m doing wrong. I can’t quit my job to do an internship or volunteer in the field because I really need the income. Not only is this extremely frustrating professionally — my self-esteem is in the toilet right about now — but I feel like my relationship can’t move on until we’re in the same city. I am so tired of doing the long-distance thing and it’s really straining our relationship. My boyfriend can’t move here because of his career (unlike me, he’s very successful). He tells me I should just quit my job and move there. I can stay with him in the 450-square-foot apartment that he shares with his odd roommate who doesn’t speak to me!

Cary, I have enough trouble with his tiny apartment just when I come stay with him — tripping over my suitcase, contorting into strange positions just to use the toilet, going nuts over how cramped everything is — the thought of living there indefinitely makes me want to rip my hair out. He simply does not get that I need at least a little personal space for sanity’s sake. He thinks I’m being prissy and stubborn. Even more pressing than that, I have no money and he lives in one of the most expensive cities in the world. He’s generous and offers to take care of me, but I don’t want to depend on someone else financially — it’s just not an option for me. I am not comfortable with the idea of moving to this city with no job, no financial security. If I could just get a decent job up there, I could figure the rest out, but it’s like some cosmic force wants me to remain miserable in my boring job and distant relationship forever. I’m at a complete loss and would really appreciate any words of wisdom that you could offer.

Frustrated

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Dear Frustrated,

It is taking you a while to find a job in the city where your boyfriend is living. There is nothing unusual about that. It will probably take longer than you would wish. Meanwhile, you have an excellent opportunity to learn how to be patient and tough — lessons life may have neglected so far to teach you. Patience and toughness are qualities some generations are taught earlier than others. Wars and economic depressions teach patience and toughness; peace, global empire and unprecedented economic prosperity, as Jon Stewart would say: Not so much.

I saw Christina Hoff Sommers on “The Daily Show” the other evening. She was promoting her new book, “One Nation Under Therapy: How the Helping Culture Is Eroding Self-Reliance.” Some of what she said sounded shrill and kind of silly, and she has been accused of intellectual sloppiness, but I agree with her that trying to shield children from difficulty is dumb. And I have witnessed firsthand the pampered, fuzzy-headed, glazed look of inflated self-esteem that is the purported fault of our national softness. So when you mention that as a result of these setbacks your self-esteem is “in the toilet,” I can’t help thinking: Perhaps your self-esteem has merely experienced a natural correction.

I’m sorry, that sounds mean. Maybe I’m just being bitchy and jealous of the young. Perhaps I am hungry. What I want to say is that you are young and when you are young the waveforms of experience are short; you are just beginning to experience the yearlong and multiyear fluctuations of fate and circumstance that try the soul and harden the will. So treat your current struggle as an object lesson, and be prepared for similar setbacks. Self-esteem is cheap and, as Sommers pointed out, if she’s got her facts right, it does not correlate with morality or achievement. Persistence, patience, toughness: These qualities are dear and will last you a lifetime.

There, I’ve eaten. Life seems better now. Let me stop bitching and try to be helpful. The main thing is just to be realistic.

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So do this: Make a list of the things you want and are having trouble getting. The list might look something like this:

Finish your master’s degree.

Live with your boyfriend.

Get a job in your boyfriend’s city.

Find your dream job.

There might be other items, I don’t know. And these items all affect one another in complicated ways. But for the moment, clear your mind of how they interrelate, and just pick the one thing that is most important to you right now. If it helps, pretend you are dumb. Simplify. Just pick the one you want the most and put it at the top, without worrying about how doable it is.

Then consider how long that one thing might take.

Write that number down.

Then double it.

That’s probably a realistic target.

You get what I’m saying? Stuff gets harder once you’re out of school. It takes longer, costs more and isn’t as much fun.

But there are compensations. For instance, it’s your life and you can do what you want. Some would say that’s compensation enough.

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Grrrr! I’m one angry mofo! How to process my rage?

Dear Cary,

 Please help me process my murderous rage – a rage i suspect others share as well.

I’m sorry you don’t seem to be on Salon anymore. You were pretty much the only reason I bothered with that site so I haven’t been in ages. I’m not 100% sure whether you’re still doing this advice thing or what the new protocol is, your site seems to indicate you’re still accepting submissions, so here goes -

I am a person who possesses moderate to remarkable talents & abilities, a good work ethic, a mostly pleasant disposition, and all else that would be required of a person making their way in life. As well, just like every other of the 7 billion or so of us out there, I need to make a living. I can spend 48 hours straight creating something or reading something or learning something. Even boring routine work I am fairly OK at. But you can’t do anything in this world without having to hustle out the ass – this is where the whole thing breaks down for me.

I am very terrible at selling/promoting anything – even/especially myself. Not only do I find it uninteresting, incomprehensible, and a waste of my time, but having to be engaged in promoting or selling anything makes me very angry, like violently angry – like if I could pinpoint exactly one person who was responsible for my having the sort of life where I needed to go out there & pound the pavement & promote the same thing a million other yahoos was promoting, fighting for the same miserly few crumbs post capitalism has left for us, so that i may buy food or pay down debt or any of the necessary things – why… I would kill them. Violently. Medievally – with lots of screaming, blood, and terror involved.

I can’t pinpoint exactly the source of my loathing because it is so all- encompassing and elemental – but my  best attempt at defining it would be that it is vulgar, a waste of my time & resources that would be better placed doing what I do best – creating. Or other stuff that’s necessary – like cleaning the toilet. Anger that I don’t ask for much – just to sell $100 a week in my art, let’s say – and then progressively have that increase in proportion to people valuing what I do. And maybe that’s a source of anger – the violation of such a simple expectation. I expect that if I do a campaign, for it to work right away – not even in a spectacular way – but in a constant way – I don’t expect people to wanna give me 50 grand or nothing – just to once in a while buy some goddamned thing from me as opposed to that other asshole who doesn’t sell anything much better. It just doesn’t seem like a lot to ask. But even for that small thing you have to practically give blood. 

I am just not that sociable a person. I don’t understand why in this piece of shit world every goddamned thing – even selling something basic like apples – requires some motherfucking Barnum & Bailey goddamned circus act – I really don’t. Is it because there’s just too many goddamned people trying to sell shit? Should we just invite Ebola to America with open arms so we can go back to being able to make a simple living? Should we have our own Bastille Day and kill all the fucks who have parasitically sucked up all resources, leaving us plebes to scrabble for the few crumbs left? Maybe I should just find a way (in spite of zero experience, general cowardliness, lack of a certain sort of intelligence, and ethical makeup) just resort to thieving and assaulting in order to get my daily bread?

I don’t give a goddamned fuck about money. I don’t give a piss about it in any way shape or form. I suspect 80% of the people out there really don’t either. All anyone really cares about is getting laid, having health, enough not-disgusting food to eat, a roof, and as many friends as can be tolerated. News fucking flash – there’s plenty of all that goddamned crap out there. But they’ve set up this piece of shit system where you can’t even get $100 of sales on some crappy craft site without prostituting yourself to hell. If I could live in peace creating my shit, sharing it with whoever wanted it, contributing to my social circle or even the world at large thru art or thru volunteering or fuck knows what, I would be so happy and I wouldn’t need to be angry. I wouldn’t have to feel cancer coming on at just the notion of having to flog the same goddamned garbage nobody cares about — IE my creative work I should care about which i begin to feel acute contempt for due to its invisibility and its inability to get me what i want/need — in the same tired old shit channels nobody looks at.

So there it is, dear Cary – I very seriously hate and feel angry at the whole prospect of selling or promoting myself, as can be seen. And saying ‘get a job’ is really the same, isn’t it? Sell sell sell.

I started out asking, in terms of advice, how can I get past this intense & insane rage & loathing that is clearly holding me back from whatever sort of life is still possible to have… but by now I feel like anything anyone said on the subject would be interesting and worthwhile. I don’t feel justified or entitled to my rage, but I can’t get past it – I suspect I do not possess a healthy or proportionate reaction to this aspect of adulthood.

have an awesome day!!!!

Grrrr

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Dear Grrrr,

Well done. You have spoken. You have expressed what many feel. That was bracing. That was a bracing rant. I feel better already. I hope you do, too.

I feel the same way too, some of the time. And yet I promote myself. I sell. Did you hear me on the radio? I tell the world what I am doing.

I don’t sell that well. Like, if I did, maybe I’d still be at Salon. I forgot that when you have a job, most of what you are doing is selling yourself to your boss. I forgot I had a boss I had to sell to. That’s a lesson if you have a job. You’re always selling yourself to your boss. This guy, he was a new boss I’d never even met. I sort of forgot he was there. My mistake.

Anyway, it was good, because I needed to get kicked out of there. I needed to get kicked on my ass and figure out what’s next.

The truth is, you’re always selling. If you’re in a job you’re selling yourself to your boss. If you’re on your own, you’re selling to others. If you’re a kid, you’re selling yourself to your parents. You’re selling yourself to your teachers. Out on the street and in the bars, we’re selling ourselves to each other. We’re saying the things we think will close the deal.

We’re always selling. We’re Americans. That’s what we do.

All over the world, we’re selling. Sometimes it’s a hard sell, done with drone strikes. Sometimes it’s a soft sell, done with Angelina Jolie. But we’re selling every minute of the day.

Do we hate ourselves for it? Yeah. Maybe. But it’s our nature.

But there’s selling and then there’s selling. If by selling you mean that false, bullshit thing of pretending you’re somebody else and talking somebody into giving you money for something they really don’t want; if by selling you mean feeling guilty because what you have is not worth what you’re asking for it; if by selling you mean cheating people, lying and pretending in order to get them to something; then yeah, if that’s what you mean by selling, then I totally agree. You should feel like shit if you’re doing that. I would, too. I would want to slit my own throat and stomp on my victim, too, for being so stupid and gullible and spineless.

But that’s not really selling. That’s being a con. That’s being a criminal, basically. That’s stealing.

You’re not a thief. You’re a creative soul. You’re an artist. Maybe you’re an artist of anger. I don’t know. But you’re an artist and you’re confused about the terms under which you are asked to do this art. That makes sense. Nobody spells out the terms for you. We’re on our own. Part of learning where we fit in is stumbling around, spouting off. Ranting. Telling the truth about how we feel and watching what happens as a result.

Right now, what you’re doing in this letter is just being yourself. And it’s pretty cool. You’re not conning anybody. You’re just surrendering to your own rage. Some people will be offended or frightened by your reference to violent murder but this is expressive speech. It’s not a threat. It’s expressive speech. It needs a venue.

Here’s the deal about selling: We all have stuff other people want. We all use money as an exchange medium. If you’ve got what I want I’m going to offer you some money for it.

For instance, let’s assume I want to watch you stomp around on stage and act out all this rage. I don’t know what I’d pay. Maybe $5. (Is that insulting? I didn’t mean it to be. I’m cheap. I used to pay $5 to go into a punk club and that was fine. Maybe now it’s more like $20. I don’t really go anywhere so I wouldn’t know.) But it wouldn’t just be me. It would be like 200 people paying $5. That’s a thousand bucks. Give some to the house, but that seems like a workable deal.

Would I buy one of your creations? I don’t know. My house is kinda full of stuff. Would I look at it in a magazine though? Probably. Would I look at it on the Internet and then pay to go see you stomp around on stage and talk about your murderous rage? Quite possible. Because hearing you talk about your murderous rage makes me happy somehow. I don’t know why. Maybe it shouldn’t. Maybe that makes me a bad person.

OK, let’s take this bullshit word selling out of the equation. Let’s talk about being in the world, and playing a role in the culture.

Take me, for instance, and this column. After I lost the job at Salon I kept doing the column for a while but I resented not being paid directly for it. I had a donation button up there for a while but that  felt like panhandling. I’ve done some panhandling. When I was a hippie kid. It’s unpredictable and kind of demeaning.

So I went through all this anguish about it and finally realized, well, I thought about Herb Caen and how much pleasure I got out of his column for the San Francisco Chronicle. I realized I thought of him as a member of my culture, as a voice I depended on to be there. If he had suddenly quit doing that, it would have seemed like a cop out.

I realized I had a cultural role to play, too. It’s that simple. People like reading this column. They’re used to reading it. It’s part of American culture. This column isn’t a job. It’s a cultural role.

I can afford to write it once a week, as long as I do other things too, for money. So I just keep doing it. I like it, actually, if I don’t have to do it five days a week.

That’s really all you have to do. You’re playing a role right now. You might get mad at me for saying that, but you are selling yourself right now, in the sense that you are showing yourself to the world. That’s all it is. Don’t worry. You can’t make us buy your stuff. All you can do is be visible to us. We’ll decide if we like what you’ve got and if we want to engage.

Me, I’d maybe go see you on stage. It’d be satisfying. I might watch. It might make me want to get up on stage too and unburden myself of certain unresolved feelings about certain media personalities the sight of whom incites certain rather acute feelings that could be termed murderous rage. Yes. Could be. I might join up up there on stage.

Also, part of this thing, frankly, part of living with your own rage, involves faith. Not pious, quasi-religious faith. But fuck-it-all, I’m-doing-this-anyway faith. The faith to be who you are, do what you do, and see what happens. Fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke faith.

Be who you are, do what you do, see what happens.  Don’t kill anybody. Just get honest and have some faith that things will turn out. Maybe somebody will buy something.

So stop selling. Do more ranting. Get up on stage and express your anger at the system. Maybe bring your artwork up on stage with you. That might be too much like selling. I don’t know. That’s up to you.

I just have a feeling, if you continue to genuinely express yourself, that people who get what you are saying will be attracted to you, and they’ll want the stuff you make, and it will work out.

Some people might tell you to calm down. Some people might want to punch you in the head to make you shut up. But fuck that.

Don’t calm down. Fuck that. Keep ranting.

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I survived — now how do I survive my survival?

 

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Cary’s classic column fromWEDNESDAY, JUL 2, 2008

 


Cancer changed everything. I need a new paradigm.


 

Dear Cary,

Please help me figure out how to survive surviving.

Three years ago I was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. After a year of surgery, chemo and radiation, my cancer, for the time being, seems to be at bay. My doctors tell me that this type of cancer cannot be cured, but that I have a 2-in-3 chance of living beyond five years. I’ve come through all of this slightly scarred, and bearing some permanent side effects from my treatment, but otherwise feeling pretty good, at least physically.

My problem is that my entire worldview has radically shifted, and things that were once important to me no longer are. It’s not the first time that I’ve had to figure out a way to reinvent myself, but for the first time in my life, I have no idea what changes I need to make in order to feel better about being alive, and to be happy.

My unhappiness seems to center mostly around my employment. I worked my way up the ladder into a well-paying but dead-end job. For the first time in my life, I haven’t had to work long hours and struggle to make ends meet to provide for my family (I was a single mom). On the other hand, the company I work for is no longer the edgy high-tech firm that it was when I started there 14 years ago. Instead of contributing new ideas and feeling part of a team, I’m stuck, along with everyone else, in a gray cubicle farm. I can work from home if I want to, and I often do, but doing so makes me feel even less a part of the team. Most of the work has lately been outsourced, and many of my favorite co-workers have lost their jobs. I miss my friends, and dread that I could be the next one to go. In the past, this wouldn’t have gotten me down. I would have brushed up my résumé, and perhaps even started proactively looking for another job. But now, I’m petrified to move. I desperately need my health insurance because of my cancer. I’m also physically much weaker now, and just the thought of looking for another job, going to interviews, pounding the pavement, tires me out. In three words: I feel trapped.

Aside from feeling trapped, though, I’m also questioning what I’m doing. After surviving cancer, and knowing just how fragile my hold is on life, I can’t help but wonder if this is really what I want to do with the rest of my life. And even if I can figure out what it is that I want to do next, will someone want to hire a middle-aged cancer survivor?

In my heart of hearts, what I would love to do is to take three or four months off to explore other options, to work on getting my strength and endurance back, perhaps take a class or two. However, I need to keep working. Even with insurance, my medical expenses have eaten away all of my savings, and I have nothing to fall back on. This depression isn’t helping. I’ve lost interest in many of the things that made me happy in the past. And the physical activities that I used to love, like hiking and dancing, I can no longer do.

I’m stuck. How do I get unstuck?

Grateful to Be Alive (I Think)

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Dear Grateful,

What I want to suggest to you is that you find a group of cancer survivors and throw yourself into work with them. Help them cope with the same questions you are coping with. Make this the dominant, driving force in your life. Trust that the other elements will fall into place. If this means continuing to work, for now, in your same gray cubicle, then paint your cubicle pink — or green, or purple, or black if you like! Fill it with flowers. Fill it with sunshine.

You can’t go back to the cubicle and the way things were. You just can’t. It isn’t right. That life is gone. I imagine you in that cubicle, just surviving your days, and it breaks my heart. It breaks my heart not just for you but for the world. The world needs you in the hospitals and living rooms of fellow survivors.

If you can get the sabbatical you so desperately need, take it. If you must continue to work, in your mind let it go. It is no longer the most important thing in your life. It is just a place you spend some time. Throw your energy into helping others like yourself. They need to know how you got through it and what it feels like and how you cope with the questions that arise. They need to know how you get through another day.

So how do you get through another day? That is a good question. Answer it. Ask others how they get through the day. Acquire knowledge about this central question: How does the cancer survivor, whose future is uncertain and whose present is compromised, get through another day?

I think you will find that the answer is circular; that is, you get through the day by helping others get through another day. And, in being circular and tautological, it is partly an impractical act of faith. But the faith involved is a pragmatic faith. It is a pragmatic faith in the workings of deep human community. You will find, if you turn to a life of service, that certain ancient forces of human community coalesce to benefit you. These forces may seem mysterious and full of paradox, but they are real and historical and if we must reduce them to the biological they probably serve some purpose in the continuation of the species. Compassion, agape, selflessness — whether these are evidence of our divinity, our material and social arrangements or our biology, they are dependably awakened in crises and will come to your aid. Open your mind to these forces beyond your conscious understanding. Consider the possibility that this encounter with grave illness has put you in touch with the mystic stream of life itself in its most basic and primal reality.

If you are religious, or mystical, or interested in the arts, or if you have always wanted to sing, or if you are secretly happiest when you are gardening or sewing clothes or doing math problems, turn to these things. Turn to the things that have always given you the greatest happiness. Turn to them because they are a source of joy and joy is a gift to the world. In that way, you will contribute to the world, and you will gain what you need.

At work, if it is possible to cut your hours in half and maintain your medical coverage, do so. If you can take a loan to pay your medical expenses so that you do not have to work full-time, do so. If there are resources at your disposal, such as a house that can be sold or mortgaged over, do so. I know you said you have nothing to fall back on but when you begin asking around unseen resources may emerge. Ask others for help. These years are precious, unique and unrecoverable.

Never before have you been handed such an opportunity to place your life on a new footing. Always you have been working in the system. Always you have been tied down by the struggle to make your payments. These payments are not just checks and cash. We make our payments when we knuckle under. We make our payments when we live in fear. We make our payments when we pretend the emperor is clothed in the finest raiments of the land. We make our payments when we “buy in.”

I want you to stop making payments but I do not want you to do anything crazy.

Well, yes, actually, to be truthful, I suppose I do want you to do something crazy. I do. When we face life in its starkest terms we see that, indeed, our previous life is the life that was crazy. We see that we might have gone on knuckling under for the rest of our lives, still playing the role prescribed for us by people to whom we are just a number.

By suggesting that you stop making your payments, what I mean is, step out of the system as you know it. The system of work as you know it is geared to competition and based in fear. It is based on the premise that there is not enough and that no one is going to help you. There is another way to live, based on the premise that there is indeed enough, and that everyone is going to help you. By helping others, and asking for help, you live in a different system. Try that. Try asking for help, and doing what is right and true instead of what is practical and necessary. Try doing what is important — helping another cancer survivor buy groceries, helping someone who has just been diagnosed figure out what to do next, helping someone after surgery, helping the families of the sick and diagnosed and recovering. Try helping. Try helping, with the assumption — you do not have to call it faith, you can just call it a working assumption — that whether for sociological or psychological or spiritual reasons, the help you give is going to return to you; you are in return going to be helped, and loved, and carried forward.

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I made out with a jerk

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Cary’s classic column from

We work together and now things are very, very awkward


 

Dear Cary,

Hi. Today I’m working from home because I’m so confused and humiliated about a situation at work that I am taking advantage of this option whenever I can. I started this job about a year ago, as a temp who was quickly hired into a high-powered position. Before that, I dropped out of a Ph.D. program after a year of research in the Third World because I realized the academic life just wasn’t for me. After I came back from life abroad, I couldn’t find work for awhile and just got depressed. Between work, trips to the gym, and finally finding some friends, until a few weeks ago I was rebuilding my life and things were really starting to look up. I was looking forward to a lot of things. I haven’t dated or had sex in almost two years, but I figured that would come. I’m not a supermodel, but I’m good-looking and seem to attract men when I bother to do things that aren’t work or the gym. I’m 31, my situation in life is constantly improving, and a lot of people would be happy to be where I am.

When I started the job, a certain male co-worker caught my eye. We flirted a bit, but nothing serious. We would talk about sci-fi shows and books and generally had really nice interactions. He is 41 and divorced, with several bitter relationships behind him. He’s also a vegan and a self-professed feminist with high social ideals.

A few weeks ago we had a work party at a bar to celebrate a milestone in our year-long project. A few of us stayed late and were having a good time. When I went out for a cigarette, he followed me and kissed me. We spent the rest of the evening making out. It was followed by texts and Skype chats, and an invitation to the symphony. We went, had a great time, and went out for drinks. The subject of us working together came up, since we work in a small office where things could get awkward quickly. I said that we could take it at whatever pace he was comfortable with and see where it could go. So he invited me back to his apartment and sexy time ensued. I was happy and excited, thinking that maybe things were going to move forward in the one part of my life that had been empty for so long.

And then I heard nothing. When I texted him, I got a polite response that his day went well and that I left some jewelry at his place. Nothing more. Then I emailed him to ask if he wanted to get together over the weekend and heard nothing. I saw that he was active on the online dating site that we both have profiles on, but he didn’t answer for days. On a Friday afternoon, he sent me an email saying that he wanted to be good friends. That we could really be great friends, but that was what he was comfortable with. He said he was too busy to tell me in person, but he could drop my jewelry off and spend a few minutes with me before he went to dinner on Sunday. He said he was sorry I would be disappointed. It ended with an exclamation point about how excited he was about it being warm and being able to be outside. There was no real explanation, no apology, no discussion of how this would affect our work. Attempting to keep my dignity, I responded with “Message received. Please leave my jewelry on top of the fridge at work — no one will notice.” There has been little communication since, though when he did leave the jewelry for me, he was a bit chatty in the email, asking how I was. I didn’t respond.

I’m definitely hurt, but I’m angry and most of all confused. How do you go through a year of flirting to change your mind like that? How can he be so cavalier knowing that I’ll be uncomfortable in our workplace? He knew how long it had been for me and he escalated things anyway. The way he went about things and handled this was stupid and cruel. And we have to email each other 10 times a day for work purposes. How do I interact with him after he treated me with so little respect?

A close friend in my office knows what happened, and encourages me to just leave it alone and let it blow over. Part of me thinks that’s the way to get through this with my dignity intact. Part of me wants to send an email that isn’t explosive, but that at least calls him out on his bad behavior. Maybe I should talk to another co-worker for advice. I don’t know what to do, and it’s so much harder to shake off the hurt and anger when we have such close contact all the time. It’s also hard to shake off the feeling that there is something inherently wrong with me that made him change his mind so quickly. My self-esteem, which had been growing, is now at a rock-bottom low. I don’t think I function in the world very well, because I do expect to be treated with respect and kindness by those around me, and I do expect people who profess certain values to live by them.

What was he thinking? Why would he do this to me and to our workplace? Am I the immature one for expecting people to be careful? Is it right to do something or to leave it alone? I’m confused and uncomfortable, Cary, and I would really appreciate your advice.

Confused and Dismayed

Cary Tennis Writing Retreat in France

Dear Confused and Dismayed,

This guy had several bitter relationships behind him. Guys with several bitter relationships behind them are doing something wrong. Look at the pattern.

Here’s what you need to do. You need to adopt some protections for the future so that you do not get involved with another man like this.

Maybe you lack the ability to spot such men. Learn to recognize them. Here are some clues:

Real men who will treat you well may occasionally eat halibut. They might hold the door open for you even if you can get through under your own power anyway. They do it because they’ve seen what happened with Stalin. If that doesn’t make perfect sense that’s OK. It’s meant to be sort of oblique. A man who’s OK and not going to screw you over might even be rude to you but he’ll apologize when it’s pointed out to him. He won’t pretend his rudeness was an instance of high social ideals in action.

He’ll just apologize.

Without beating up on men, because after all I am one, can I just say that if you have been socialized as a man you have learned some pretty rotten stuff? This learning is called “being realistic about the world out there.”

For instance, if I were drinking with a group of young men (which of course I mean I’m 23 years sober but if) and if I mentioned that I had had a one-night stand with a woman at work and had decided I didn’t think it was going to work out long-term, and I was wondering what to do about it, there would not be an immediate outpouring of, “Let’s talk about this together, guys, and put ourselves in her shoes and imagine how she’s feeling and debate the ways you can smooth things over with her and make her feel better about what happened.”

The consensus would be: “Cut her loose, dude. End of story.”

If I were to pursue the issue and say, “Well, guys, what about her feelings, and the awkwardness of it, and the fact I sort of led her on to believe it was going to be more than what it turned out to be?” the consensus would still be, “Shit happens. Cut her loose, dude. End of story.”

If I were to say that I think she and I should have some conversations about how things are going to proceed henceforth, there would be some good-natured ridicule and they would move down to the end of the bar.

Guys are taught to let it go and move on. In a fundamental way, this leads logically to the eventual dehumanization of the other. That is, if you are taught to make unilateral decisions in a relationship, then what you are really doing is invalidating the relationship and in the course of it invalidating the other.

The logic of it looks like this: If one is in a relationship then each person has a say. Ethically speaking, if one is in a relationship, one cannot make decisions about the relationship without the involvement of the other. Yet we guys are taught to do precisely that: to be independent, to make up our own minds, to keep our own counsel, to stand on our own two feet, to lay down the law. That’s what he’s doing. He’s doing what men have been taught to do for centuries. He’s made this decision about the relationship all on his own, without any involvement by you. He probably thinks he’s handling it pretty well. Amazing, isn’t it?

If one person has no say in matters concerning them both, then that is a kind of objectification, isn’t it? To treat someone as having no say, no opinion worth hearing, no desires worth considering, is to consider that person less than human, is it not?

So this is why you’re upset. You have been dehumanized.

Of course, this kind of dehumanization goes on all the time. It is so common that we scarcely pause to consider it. We men are taught to do this. We are taught to dehumanize the other. We don’t call it that. We call it being realistic and grown-up.

He’s the product of bad conditioning. He may also have a mild personality disorder. That doesn’t mean you have to be nice to this guy or like him or feel sorry for him. It just means that his behavior is not inexplicable. It’s a perfect emblem of how we live today. It is a perfect emblem of the society we accept as normal.

That’s why many of us feel half crazy most days.

Don’t trouble yourself too much. You’re fine. You just thought you were dealing with somebody like yourself. You’re not.

You must learn to recognize guys like this and stay away from them. If you can’t recognize guys like this, ask your women friends. If you don’t have any women friends, make some.

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Should I sue for workers’ compensation?

 

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Dear Cary,

I recently hurt myself at work and was forced to take a few months off. I received worker’s compensation but it didn’t cover my bills and I ended up burning through my savings. Still, I was happy just to have all my physical therapy paid for. Then worker’s compensation denied me any more sessions of PT despite my physical therapist and the doctor (they made me go to) insisting that I needed more.

Because of this I was forced to go back to work in order to keep up with my bills. My doctor recently appealed the decision made by worker’s comp and asked for twelve more sessions of PT. They gave me four instead. My physical therapist did not express high hopes for my speedy recovery. In addition, I’m not thrilled with how my work has handled the situation. I was a good employee. I never called in sick and I often covered for those that did. My boss has also failed to keep any of her promises to me (and other employees) pertaining to days off or what holidays we get off and I’ve always just gritted my teeth and gone to work like I was asked.

While I was stuck at home she made aggressive comments to my co-workers about how I was “on vacation” and trying to prolong coming back to work. I feel betrayed and angry. Many of my friends are pushing me to sue worker’s compensation and my work. Part of me thinks that it’s unnecessarily mean, but part of me thinks they deserve it. My injury is pretty apparent and makes my life hell. I can’t even make a bed or put on shoes easily. I’m especially frustrated because I was promised a full recovery by now from the doctor if I followed his instructions. I did everything that was asked of me that I could. What should I do?

Injured

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Dear Injured,

The person you need to talk to is a workers’ compensation lawyer. I suggest you call a few and have some free brief conversations. You can pick up a lot in a free brief conversation. A lawyer won’t tell you in a brief conversation whether to sue or not. She won’t have enough facts to advise you on that. But you will learn some things. You will learn how much it would probably cost. You will learn some of the options.

It sounds like there are two issues. One is your injury. The other is how your company is handling vacation and holiday pay. If your company is cheating its employees out of money they are legally entitled to, that is a legal issue, too. But only a lawyer could advise you properly.

It would be great if you had a slam-dunk case. You probably don’t have a slam-dunk case. A slam-dunk case would be if you were in an iron lung and your boss poured hot oil on your face. Or if your boss made you wash her windows 20 stories up and you fell because she slammed the window on your hands. Or if your company has never paid any holiday pay or vacation pay to anyone, or has persisted in a blatant disregard for the rules over a long period of time after being repeatedly warned. It’s probably not like that.

It’s probably more like a gray area where the company isn’t being so great but then isn’t necessarily breaking the law either, or is breaking the law in a way that is hard to prove. Only a lawyer could tell you that.

That’s my advice about whether to sue or not. Talk to lawyers. They’re the experts.

I have some other advice, of a more general sort. I think you need to realize that you are being exploited. That’s not necessarily a terrible thing. We’re all being exploited, willingly, when we work for money. What I mean is that you represent labor in the marketplace. You are selling your labor. The exchange is market-driven, not morality-driven or ethics-driven. You are not in a personal relationship with your boss and your company, and your company does not necessarily reward you for good citizenship. This doesn’t mean that the people at your workplace are evil. They are just doing what is natural in their situation. They are maximizing their profits by minimizing the amount of money that goes out of the company.

Now, maximizing short-term profits in this way may turn out to be counterproductive in the long run. In the long run they might do better if all the employees at the company loved working there and felt that they were being treated in a way that is ethically and morally sound. But bosses and owners don’t always think that way. And even if they were treating you very well, it wouldn’t mean that your relationship is personal, ethical and moral. It would mean that they made a business decision that doing things that seem ethical and moral is better for long-term profits.

Being a good citizen is not necessarily rewarded in the workplace. Things that are rewarded in a workplace are: Making money for the company, and making your bosses feel good. Bosses will sometimes keep people around if they make them feel good even if they are not making the company a lot of money because bosses are human and don’t always go by the numbers. Conversely, bosses will sometimes keep people around who make money for the company even if they don’t like their behavior. But they don’t often keep people around and treat them well just because they are good citizens and show up on time.

That’s just something to think about.

Talk to some lawyers. It might be worth it to pay a reasonable fee to have your case reviewed in detail. At least then you would be able to make an informed decision.

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Stolen words

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Cary’s classic column from

My boss uses what I write in e-mails as his own. What should I do about it?


Dear Cary,

I’m an in-house copywriter/creative director with a small technical company, working for a boss whose communications skills, to put it delicately, are not his greatest asset. Lately I learned he’s been passing off my writing (not ad or brochure copy, just conversational e-mails on internal issues) as his own. I’ll write him a note on a topic, and later on that same note will land in my in box as part of a forwarded e-mail conversation chain — only now the note has his name on it. It’s happened several times that I know of.

I’ve always thought of him as a fundamentally decent fellow, and I sense he does this more for expediency’s sake (“Why bother rewriting this opinion that I share, when I’ve got this version sitting here?”) than to lay claim to my thoughts and words. Still, they are my thoughts and words, and I worry that by keeping my name out of these conversations he’s limiting my ability to benefit from people’s reactions to my ideas. Besides, I’m a writer: Even within the quasi-professional forum of interoffice e-mails, it feels like plagiarism.

Am I overreacting? And if not, should I confront him?

Accidental Ghostwriter

Cary Tennis Writing Retreat in France

Dear Ghostwriter,

Here are some suggestions: Stop giving your boss great lines that he can use and call his own. Do your job on the brochures and the official stuff, but stop giving him stuff for free. If there are people you want to impress with your ideas, send your ideas directly to those people. Or if there’s a discussion you’re having with your boss and you can predict that it’s going to widen to include others, if you suspect he’s going to steal your material, suggest that that you include those people to whom he’s likely to send your material. Ask, what other interested stakeholders are there? You know, act like you care.

Either suggest they be included, or just cc them as though you thought that was the normal thing to do, since you know they’re interested parties.

Don’t be telling your boss not to cop your copy. He won’t get it. He’ll just think you’re being a pain.

You might also review just what you were hired for. Did you get a job description? Did anybody ever tell you what your job was? There is probably some expectation that you provide “other written materials.” These e-mails could be considered other written materials. You just want credit for it, right? So I’d find some way to let others know where it’s coming from — like, by cc’ing them before your boss steals your stuff.

And I would beware of your own personal motives that are tripping you up, too. Hey, I know about this: You want to do a great job of writing e-mails because that’s what you are. After all, you’re a writer. So you could be tricking yourself into giving your stuff away because you’re so damned good and you can’t help it, and you can’t help trying to impress your boss. I know what it’s like to be a writer. It doesn’t matter who the audience is. You’re still going to sweat over a few sentences until they’re perfect.

Bosses in non-media companies are so weird. They have no idea what it’s like to be a writer. They are just so weird. How do they even get through the day without being able to communicate?

Who knows. But they do. I guess they do it by hiring people like you.

Don’t pick a fight with him, but don’t be a sap!

WhatHappenedNextCall

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My wife is mean to me

Hi Cary,

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

And we were happy.

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

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

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

And I loved that she found something she loved!

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

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

I did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Completely Confused: Thought I Did the Right Thing

Dear Completely Confused,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Doctor in love

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Cary’s classic column Tuesday,  NOV 4, 2003 10:29 AM PST

I had a crush on a colleague, and now she wants to be friends, but I don’t. How do I get rid of her?


Dear Cary,

I’m a Salon reader from Mexico and I enjoy reading your column very much. Now I need your advice.

I am a medical doctor and there is a colleague of mine I had a big crush on, but circumstances have not been appropriate for me to try to “advance” the relationship (she had a boyfriend at first, then she was out of the country for some time).

When I finally started — rather softly — to make a move, she started working with another doctor, 10 years her senior. Obviously he snatched her. Now, I am not really hurt nor do I have any remorse or hatred. It was just a crush. I was not in love or anything. It was not meant to be, and I am over it already. But she wants to keep being my friend. She seems to be completely clueless about my feelings. I don’t want to keep being her friend. I don’t loathe her; I just don’t want to be around her anymore. But I don’t want to hurt her. I don’t want to face her because I know I would end up saying more things than I would rationally think convenient.

I have tried to be evasive, tried to drive her away in a “passive way.” But she is still there. What should I do? How do I get rid of her (in a smooth way)?

Tired of Being Nice

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Dear Tired,

When beings are denied privileges solely because of attributes over which they have no control, such as whether they are women or men, or white or black, or human or animal, it is sometimes called “objectification.” What that means, I think, is that the one who has the power is free to act as though no bona fide relationship exists with the other, as though there is no bond of reciprocity, as though the other were a piece of furniture or a magazine, to be used without regard for its feelings or mental processes.

That sort of objectification is what your letter hints at, and it is that habit of being that you need to address. The tragedy of such a habit is that it walls off a rich and rewarding realm of human bonds, in which we trade some of our power and autonomy for a sense of community and trust.

“Obviously he snatched her,” you say. That makes it sound as though women are routinely handed around from doctor to doctor like so many copies of Playboy, to be privately enjoyed and then passed on. If so, there is a certain ethical inequality in your workplace, a kind of gender discrimination. I’m not saying it’s the kind of thing you can fix, but it’s the kind of thing you, as a doctor, should recognize as poison and avoid in your personal dealings.

I think you really did have feelings for her. You say you were not hurt, that it was just a crush. Regardless, you do not have the right to smooth this over and make it go away just because it is inconvenient for you.

You have probably spent most of your youth studying the medical sciences, looking for ways to control disease and analyze chemical and biological processes. So you may not have had much time to study how human communities function. But I think you will be much happier in life once you understand this: You have entered into a relationship with this woman already. In a moral sense, you do not have the right to simply, “in a smooth way,” get rid of her. You owe her the truth: That you were interested in her not as a friend but as an amorous companion, and now that the possibility of such a relationship seems remote, you are disappointed and it is painful to be around her.

What she then does with this truth is her concern, not yours. The reason we tell each other the truth is that we want to maximize personal freedom: The more truth someone knows, the better she can make the best decisions for herself. It’s true in medicine, and it’s true in relationships.

If it helps in preparing your speech, conceptualize it this way: You have some bad news to deliver to her. Deliver it like a doctor. Tell her the facts. Tell her what her likelihood of recovery is and explain her treatment options. Tell her the condition is curable and not fatal.

But please do not tell her that simply because it sounds good. Tell her the truth. And if you should say more things than you would “rationally think convenient,” there’s no shame in that. There’s no shame in having strong feelings for someone, or in feeling disappointed or spurned. It’s part of being a man.

Connecticut_SlightlySmaller

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I’m a gay man in a small town working at a gas station. So?

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Cary’s classic column Tuesday, Mar 18, 2008

I have a feeling maybe I should move to the city, but I like my job, I like my town and I like my family.


Dear Cary,

I have several concurrent problems for you. Bet you can’t wait. Firstly, my job … I work in a small gas station as a cashier. My job is like a pair of slippers. It’s comfortable. The pay’s peanuts, it’s easy, the hours suit me and it’s totally unchallenging. Frankly, a monkey could do it. I get on with my boss, I like the banter I have with the customers, and sometimes it’s quiet enough that I can just read a book. But is this reason to stay? I have had some terrible jobs in the past. In fact, virtually all of my previous jobs were awful. I have had so many terrible jobs in fact that I am scared of getting a new one.

Added to that, at 26 I still have no clue what I want to do. In fact I got so tired of thinking about it that I consciously stopped thinking about it altogether about 12 months ago. I got the simplest job I could find and vowed to give myself a break. During that time, I’ve become a different person. I appreciate little things now (like chatting to many different people who pass through while I’m working) and take time to go for walks, write, drive around without having a destination. I get by on little, I am no longer materialistic, and I’ve learned how to live simply. In fact, I enjoy the simple life. It humbles you. I definitely don’t envy my friends in high-stress jobs. However, financially, I probably need to earn more money. That’s if I ever want to clear my debts and find a halfway nice place to live. Somehow, though, I can’t make myself do it. I don’t have a clue what to do next. I can’t think of a single career that I’d be right for. Added to which, I have had a pretty checkered career history, consisting almost entirely of dead-end jobs/career gaps.

OK, wakey-wakey! Problem two. I moved back to my hometown a few years ago, due to financial pressure. However, the longer I’m around, the more I want to stay. This is odd, because I was always so desperate to get away when I was younger. However, as I get older, my family is more important to me, and whereas I was once crying out to get the hell away from them all, now I don’t think I want to be hundreds of miles away. I’m pretty close to them now actually. The only problem with this is that I am gay and this isn’t really the sort of place where you meet any guys. But I just hate the idea of moving to a big city because my sexuality dictates that I must. I’ve never been defined by my sexuality and I ain’t a city person either. I like calm places, nature, landscapes, and I feel at home when I’m close to that.

I realize the answer is simple: Either go or stay and live with the decision. But it’s hard to actually decide. And just to make it all a little more interesting, I’ve fallen for a gardener who fills up where I work. I used to know him a little when we were younger, but it’s not always easy for a guy to ask another guy out, especially in this sort of a place. I have no idea if he’s gay. It all gets me to thinking, is there ever any end to our problems, or do we just replace every one solved with a new one. Goddamnit!

Clueless

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Dear Clueless,

There’s something wonderful about your letter. Partly it’s the tone. It is so quiet. You are not screaming about the uselessness and unsuitability of your life. You are just thinking out loud about the possibilities. You have that same vague unsettledness that many of us have, the quiet restlessness and curiosity. But your nature has brought you to this place. It is not unsuitable. It is your place. There is much about it that suits you. That is what is attractive. You know what you like and much of what you like is here in this town. That is attractive.

There is also the presence, within this balanced situation, of one thing that makes you out of place; there is this one issue, this gardener, and the fact that you are gay.

So we like the setup: an orderly existence with a modicum of tension and a mystery at the center: Who is the gardener? What will he say?

The scene you suggest has a cinematic quality. People drive in slowly and stop by the pump. They get out and pump the gas. They come in to pay or to buy a quart of oil or some gum, or they pay by credit card at the pump and drive off. Life proceeds by repetition. Maybe there is a lull after each fill-up, or maybe the fill-ups go on constantly with a lull now and then. It gets busy and it gets slow. When it gets slow you are behind the counter reading “Madame Bovary,” or some old Tarzan pulp, or a French detective novel.

Now I am adding things. It is your story but I am adding things — because imagining you in the gas station makes us remember things.

As children on a long trip in a car we experience the gas station as a place of peculiar power and mystery.

We have been sleeping; we wake up and look out; the car has slowed down; we are coming into somewhere strange and different; a tattooed young man in tight jeans, a greaser from a small town, comes out to pump the gas. He grinds his cigarette butt into the concrete floor of the garage with his boot heel, walks slowly to the driver’s side window and ask if you’d like him to fill it up; he pumps your gas, cleans your windshield with a spray bottle and a blue paper towel, pops your hood (it makes a squawk because the hinges need grease), checks your water and checks your oil. He says you’re a quart low. You say, go ahead and add a quart of 10W-40.

Sometimes you pull in and run over the bell switch and the gas station attendant does not come out. You sit there in the heat wondering where he is. He might be on the john. He might be eating a sandwich. Eventually he will emerge from behind the garage. Once when I was a child traveling through the South with my parents on a hot Saturday afternoon we drove over the bell switch and sat for many minutes. Finally the mechanic emerged from behind the garage, grinning, and his girlfriend peeked out from the side of the white gas station building as he hitched up his pants, buckled his belt and pumped the gas. In the front seat, my mother looked at my father. The girlfriend’s hair was tousled. Her eyes were bright. The mechanic looked down at the ground as he pumped the gas and raised the hood and checked the oil and water. We were a quart low. He poured in a quart of 10W-40. He did not need to use a funnel. He poured it straight into the crankcase with a steady, grease-blackened hand.

So we have memories of gas stations. Those of us lucky enough to have traveled by road when gas stations were still on small roads in small towns remember the mystery and the quiet.

Imagine, by contrast, if you were to think to yourself, Well, I’m a gay man, so I guess I’d better move to San Francisco and sign up for all the activities.

Imagine giving up your family and the land you love; imagine giving up this life where you enjoy casual conversations with people as they drift through the gas station; imagine taking a new job in a big city and being unable to read because there are all these things that have to be done right now because it’s a big city and it’s an important job. Imagine trying to play a role that doesn’t feel right for you — and imagine choosing to do that when you don’t have to!

I think you summed up the situation nicely when you asked, Is there not ever any end to our problems? We do replace every one solved with a new one. But I must say your problems sound fine. Your problems are manageable and contained, and you basically have an enviable situation.

Sure, you are in some conflict. You cannot know the future or see inside other people’s heads. So you cannot know if you are going to get to know the gardener better; you don’t know if he will turn out to be also gay, and interested in you; you cannot know that. All you can do is get to know the gardener. Get to know him as a friend. Detain him in some conversation long enough to determine what his interests are and so forth.

Basically, I’d just say, don’t muck it up. Stick around. I was watching the waves the other day at the ocean and I thought to myself, stick around for the credits. Let’s stay and see how this turns out. Let the wave wash completely up on shore, and watch how it slowly retreats. Watch it the whole way. Notice the details — the foam, the ripples, the reflections. Here’s another wave. Watch it develop. Watch it unfold. Stick around for the credits.

Enjoy this. Maybe you can stretch it out. Maybe you can be one of those people who actually has an OK life for a while. Change will come. There’s no need to rush it.

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