Category Archives: Work

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I’m an absent-minded engineer; my mind wanders and so does my wallet

I fear I lack common sense in life, and this affects my performance.

Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, JUL 24, 2008

Dear Cary,

How does one build common sense? I’m a 31-year-old who has been plagued for most of my adult life with this problem. I’m a software engineer by trade, but I really love the theoretical aspects more than the practical aspects: algorithms and design as opposed to debugging and being very, very careful.

Unfortunately, even though I work in a national lab that does research, most of my job is fairly mundane, building software, with occasional forays into the higher-level thinking I really enjoy. Also, I’m a fairly serious musician, and have been playing piano for 15 years, studying jazz and Latin music for the past six, practicing and gigging regularly and making a part-time living that way. I went to a top university, where I reveled in subjects in and out of my major, including chamber music, dance and drawing.

But this problem of common sense affects me in several ways. First, I tend to space out at work — often music is the culprit, or else ideas I happen to be thinking of at the time. I’ve become highly forgetful, from where did I put my wallet to the details of what was given at last week’s presentation at work, to the point of probably losing some professional standing. In a way, I feel like I’m living life as if insulated by some invisible suit, like there’s a layer between me and the rest of the world somehow. This layer goes away when there is an intense emotional experience, like when I’m really in the groove musically, or having a great conversation, or eating a great meal, or having my heart broken (i.e., pain).

I also have rather sporadic discipline; whereas in high school and early college I could be counted on to go above and beyond the call of duty in my own free time to prepare for some long-term goal, now my commitment wavers, whether it be regular daily music practice, regular exercise, keeping my apartment clean or reading science journals during spare time at work.

Overall, I’m doing fine, but I would like to increase my common sense and moment-to-moment awareness if I could. Or is it time to simply “accept who I am,” the absent-minded professor type with his head in the clouds? BTW, I do have friends whom I have a pretty good connection with and do not have much trouble with meeting women, but when out of my element I can be socially awkward, in case these are related.

Thanks!

Kind of Spacey

Dear Kind of Spacey,

Overall, you are fine. You really are. Common sense is overrated.

Now, I am no expert in software, but I know that software engineers seek elegant solutions. If a software program had 11 different places where one variable might be stored, and if every time this variable were needed the program had to look in 11 different places, you might seek a more elegant solution. You might say, well, let’s give that variable an address, or whatnot, and have it always stored in the same place.

Analyze the systems that are your own life. Analyze them as you would analyze a software-engineering problem. Define your wallet as a variable. Define your glasses as a variable. Look at all the places your wallet could be. Look at the system of where you put your glasses. You didn’t mention glasses, but that is probably because they are lost. We will help you find them.

As if from space, watch your movements through your house, through your town, through your office. Map your movements and see where the glasses go. Take notes for a week on where your glasses are. Where are the weak points in the system? When you stop to do the dishes, for instance, or when you answer the door? Or when you come in the house? Where do you put your glasses? Where do you put your wallet? Do you put them just anywhere? If you put them just anywhere, stop doing that. Put them someplace. Name the place. Name it: front table by the door, or kitchen counter. Name all the places.

Basically you have two stable areas, your home and your office. And then you have this phenomenon of travel, in which you are moving through space. You may be in a car or on a train or a bus or you may be walking. When you are traveling you are wearing clothes and you are carrying something. Your glasses are probably in a container and the container is either in your clothes or in what you are carrying. Your wallet is in the cargo area of your clothing.

Analyze the travel of the glasses and the wallet, their journey through space. Analyze your body’s proximity to the glasses and the wallet. Is there any way the glasses can always be attached to your body? If they were on a strap or string?

How many places can the glasses go? Eliminate most of those places. Do the same for your wallet. Stop when you are taking out your wallet and ask, Why am I taking out my wallet? Is it because it is jammed into my hip most unnaturally? Examine the architecture of pants. The back pocket attracts wallets. Naturally, the wallet seeks shade and warmth. So it gravitates toward the back pocket. But perhaps it does not belong there.

Today’s clothes are built with several cargo areas. Examine the cargo areas. As the status level of clothes changes, so the cargo area changes. High-status men carry no cargo.

Couldn’t there be just one system of wallet carrying? The left inside pocket of a blazer works. But then you take the blazer off. The wallet has cards and money. It has secrets. If you take the blazer off and hang it on a hook, you take the wallet. You might need it at the table to display your card status, your remaining strength, your devolving credits.

The wallet is inefficient. Soon electronics will solve that. It will all be in a device. Then where will we carry the device? The hip is no place for a device. It makes you look like maintenance. You are not maintenance. You are big-time. You are aerodynamic. You are not encumbered by key rings or pouches. The architecture of your ensemble forbids it. So where will it go?

The backpack or biker bag seems to be the way. The man purse or fanny pack is not the way. But a backpack or a biker bag can be manly. Strap it to you like a weapon. Keep things in it.

If you have a bag that is always with you, assign that bag as the place where the glasses always are. Practice putting them there. For a week, even though it may at times take more effort or time than you feel is efficient, always put the glasses in the bag. Carry the bag with you and always put the glasses in the bag.

Once you have mapped out a system for tracking your glasses, think of your attention as a pair of glasses. You always want to have your attention with you but sometimes it is not there. Where is it? Where did you leave it? Where did you put it down? Watch yourself as you go from the house to the mode of transit to the office: Where does your attention go as you travel? Watch it and see what it does.

The difficulty of this is that the attention is moving even when you are sitting still. It is hard to carefully observe the attention when the attention is in motion. So slow down the process by meditating. Sit for 15 minutes on the floor and breathe in and out. Watch your attention. See where it goes. After a few minutes you may see that your attention slows down. Like a bird, it settles somewhere. Take note of how long it settles and when it moves.

Scientists first observe. Then they hypothesize. In this case the instrument, or method, is the meditative pose. It is a duck blind from which you observe but are not seen. Observe where your attention wanders. Watch what it does.

After a while, you can learn to call to it. Call to it in a whisper. Say, Hey, attention. Over here.

It has, of course, its own devices. It is autonomous and wandering. It flits. It can be skittish. You will never control it completely. It has notions. But you can learn its habits and how to find it. You can learn to call it when it seems lost.

So to sum up, my suggestion is that you not worry too much about common sense because common sense is common. Instead, bring to these questions your unusual intelligence and your training. Analyze these phenomena as you would analyze something in your area of expertise. View them as systems. Become alert to the way they twist and turn, how they vary, how they wiggle. Elementary particles wiggle, don’t they? Wallets wiggle. Even time wiggles as it flows close to its opposite-flowing twin, does it not? Are we not in a tangle of strings? Is it not all music?

I work with a guy I don’t understand

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He’s a gay person of color, but he’s against the minimum wage!

Cary’s classic column from  Sunday, THURSDAY, JUL 21, 2005

Dear Cary,

I have been at my current position as an attorney at a law firm for less than a year. Although I work at a rather typical big law firm, I am a committed progressive with a strong background in grass-roots activism. After paying off a portion of my educational debt, I intend to return to the public interest world. Many of the views and values that I hold are diametrically opposed to those of my colleagues at the firm. I try not to talk about politics too much and keep to myself generally. However, despite the fact that I didn’t really try to develop a strong friendship with anyone at work, I have become quite close to a colleague at my law firm. He is a nice guy who seems to struggle with the same type of issues that I struggle with at work in balancing life and work, dealing with the stresses of being a litigator, etc.

But the more I get to know him, the more I realize that he and I disagree about pretty much everything when it comes to politics and social issues. For example, he believes that racism is not a problem and that people should just ignore any racial differences because human beings are ultimately the same. When I try to have a discussion with him about institutional racism or about the civil rights movement, he and I end up getting into an argument. We end these arguments by saying that we agree to disagree. He has also told me that he believes what the “Minutemen” are doing at the U.S. border is good. He believes that people should just move on from the Holocaust. Oh, and my colleague friend also does not go anywhere outside of the mainly white neighborhoods in the metropolitan area that we live in. I should also add that he recently moved from the Midwest and really believes in small-town living and values.

But what makes me not understand him at all is that he is a gay man of color. When it comes to gay rights issues, he becomes quite militant, but when it comes to issues about gender or race or class, he does not see what the big deal is. I have tried to have discussions with him about critical race theory or about issues of gender and class, but he just doesn’t seem to care. The other day, he told me that there should be no such thing as minimum wages or affordable housing.

And the more I get to know him, the more I’m troubled by some of the things that he does. For example, I have noticed that sometimes he can be very superficial. His conversations and interests really seem to lack depth. He likes to play tennis and work out, play video games and watch a lot of TV, and go shopping for clothes and electronics. He is also rather stingy about money and doesn’t seem like a generous person. He has told me that he befriends people oftentimes because they are good-looking. He pretty much always eats on the firm’s dime and does not seem to like to pay for lunch. What also really surprised me about him is that after a good friend of his at the firm left to go to another state, he didn’t really keep in touch with her or follow up with her or go out for a farewell meal (which we were planning), even though he often used to tell me how it made him sad that she was leaving. All of these things make me not want to be friends with him.

At the same time, though, he has told me that he cries a lot and sometimes wakes up at night crying. He has cried at the firm gym and in his office. I wonder why he cries so much, though I’ve only seen him cry once. And he kind of made it a point to show people that he was crying. I feel bad for him, since he is generally a nice guy, though not the most compassionate or open-minded person.

Also, he seems to cling to me, telling me that I am his best friend at work or telling other people how close we are. It makes me a tad uncomfortable when he does this because I am not sure how I feel about our friendship, though, at work, he is my closest friend.

Having these thoughts about him makes me feel awful, especially because he seems to think we are close friends. I am also confused about my friendship with him. Because I have never been close friends with someone who had such different views and values from mine, I am not sure how I’m supposed to continue in this friendship. I may be leaving the firm, in which case I will no longer have gripes about work — which is the glue that holds us together, I think. What’s more, I don’t like becoming friends with someone just out of convenience. If I’m going to be friends with him, I should be open-minded and listen to what he has to say and accept the fact that he is the way he is. Who says that only people with the same political views and values can be friends? Ideally, I’d like to be able to be friends with someone who has views that are diametrically opposed to my own. But is this friendship possible when I feel like he doesn’t share the fundamental values that I hold dear?

I appreciate that he is there to gripe with about work, but is that a sufficient basis for a friendship? If I am a true friend, shouldn’t I try to broaden his perspective? I fear this latter prospect might be patronizing to him.

I would really appreciate hearing your thoughts on this.

Trying to Be Open-Minded

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Dear Trying to Be Open-Minded,

You are describing what many of us would call a regular human being. With this human being you have a congenial but contingent relationship. Such relationships arise when people of contrasting ideologies are thrown together at the same workplace. As you have observed, they provide a rich opportunity for learning about other people. But it’s also just about getting through the day.

Here are some things about other people that I think you should know: People sometimes do things for no reason except they just want to. People sometimes think something and then just say it right out loud just like that. Occasionally a person will do what he feels like doing without considering whether it is consistent with his past actions and stated beliefs. For instance, a person will want an ice-cream cone, and next thing you know he’s walking down the street toward the place where they have the big cardboard barrels of many different flavors and the people behind the counter in aprons. If you ask him if he believes in ice cream, he might claim to have no particular passion or belief in ice cream itself. Nonetheless, he wants an ice-cream cone and so off he goes, jingling the change in his pocket. One day in the future, when sufficient computing power exists, we may be able to say with some certainty why a particular person arose from a desk at a particular time of day to go get ice cream. But until then, we just say, “Oh, Hank? He went to get an ice-cream cone.”

Hear me now: People do stuff. People say stuff. They have feelings and thoughts about things, and not all those feelings and thoughts make sense even to them, much less to anyone else.

While you describe the interaction between you and this other person in considerable detail, you still are standing apart from it, as though it weren’t you at all who was having this relationship, but some laboratory representation of yourself. I would suggest that what you are doing is just what it is: You’re hanging out with a person from work.

While his motives and ideas remain a mystery to you, consider how he might feel about one particular thing. It’s possible, this guy being a gay person of color, that he may be a little bit annoyed that people expect him to prominently display the latest up-to-date set of approved gay-person-of-color ideas and values. He may not even subscribe to the approved set of values — or he may have been a subscriber but let the subscription lapse.

People do sometimes hold political views that are contrary to their own interests. But can you imagine what it must be like to have all the “normal” people around you assuming who you are based on your skin color and your sexual preference and then getting all out of joint when you don’t live up to their assumptions? Wouldn’t that be a little annoying? Might you not even find yourself adopting certain beliefs just to confound people? Not that I’m saying he does — but it would be tempting, would it not?

Anyway, here is one helpful suggestion for trying to fit this relationship into your life. Consider what it is about him that you really like. Do you like his smile, for instance, or his cologne? Do you like the tone of his voice or the way his eyes look, or the way he walks, or the way he dresses? Sometimes we just like people. They make us feel good. We like being around them. It’s not always their ideas we like. Sometimes it’s their money or their nose or their books. Sometimes we just like people. Sometimes that’s enough.

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My boyfriend is my boss

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Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, NOV 23, 2009

I’m getting sick of being “the editor’s girlfriend”


Dear Cary,

I’m a college student and a reporter for my university’s paper. I’m a good writer — my work has shown up in publications beyond the university, and since arriving here I’ve established myself as “one to watch” in the English department. I really don’t intend to sound cocky, but I’m not affected with false modesty. I have a lot to learn, but I know I have a knack for this.

I’m in a fairly new relationship of about three months, with a boyfriend who so far has been entirely wonderful. We’re both ambitious types with busy schedules and social lives, but we make the time. I think it has been a revelation to both of us just how extraordinary it is to have another person who is truly in your corner.

Here’s the problem — he’s my boss. He’s two years older and is the editor of the school newspaper, while I’m a staff writer. We met outside of the newspaper, and other people are in charge of how much I get paid and where my articles run. We’ve had several serious discussions about ethics, during which we emphasized that I’d never, ever ask him to do me any professional favors, and he would never give me any sort of special treatment. The relationship is more public than I’d like at such an early stage — we’ve both gotten long personal lectures on ethics from the head of the journalism department, and how he heard about us is anyone’s guess.

The thing that bothers me is not the ethical question — I feel like we’re managing that. It’s that I’m entirely fed up with being “the editor’s girlfriend” and not defined as a reporter in my own right. I have never, ever been the kind of woman who would be defined by a relationship — it is extremely important to me that I be defined by my own actions and my own work.

I’ve been doing good work at the paper, and I’m likely to be getting a promotion in the next couple of semesters. But I’m so, so sick of having to hear jokes about my sex life every time one of my stories runs in a prominent place in the paper or I pick up a particularly coveted assignment.

These aren’t serious allegations — the newspaper staff knows that it is not my boyfriend who makes these decisions, and people from outside the staff are only kidding. My friends say to laugh it off, but the fact is that those small successes are things that I earned through a lot of hard work, and the suggestion that I’m somehow trading sexual favors for good assignments truly offends me. I worry that the staff will take me less seriously and that this could endanger my future at the paper.

I know that having a happy relationship and a successful career are not mutually exclusive, but I feel like I’m too young to be dealing with such a minefield. I don’t even know whom to talk to about this — my boyfriend and I are handling it as best we can, but I don’t know how to tell him that although I’m pretty attached to being his girlfriend, I’m getting damn tired of being “the editor’s girlfriend.” I’m not giving up on my work, or on my relationship, I just need to figure out how to reconcile the two.

Her Own Girl Friday

Dear Girl Friday,

I suggest you try to be a little lighthearted about this. Imagine strutting around campus wearing a T-shirt that says, “I’m sleeping with my boss and enjoying it. You got a problem with that?”
Picture yourself walking amid these yahoos with your head held high. Imagine striking them down with wit and glamour and sophistication. Imagine shutting them up and putting them in their place.

Do you feel better?

Keep going with this. Conjure up an image that makes you feel powerful and proud. Make it vivid and real. Draw some cartoons or make a collage. Create the image of the superhero you are. Inhabit her skin. Name this woman. Give her special powers. Keep her image close to you. Appeal to her for strength and guidance.

And know this: Sexism pervades our culture. The assumption that a woman’s achievements stem from her value as a domestic, sexual and romantic companion rather than as a skilled worker is evidence of that sexism.

You know what else exists in our society? Morons. The world beyond your college gates is a nightmare of hulking, mouth-breathing morons. Morons even run newspapers. So be ready. You’re going to be encountering a lot of sexist morons.

So that’s the sociological part of this.

The other part is psychological: By mixing creativity, sexuality and power, you run the risk of incurring deep psychological wounds if things go wrong. By hooking up with your boss, however much you trust him, you have placed your fate in the hands of someone who may damage you, even if he doesn’t mean to.

That is my opinion, but I assume that it is also a fear of yours. If you sense that you are in dangerous territory emotionally, I would agree that you are.

Stuff can happen in such a relationship to shape the rest of your life. Sometimes people make decisions in such circumstances that last for decades. “Oh, he told me I’d be happier if I wasn’t writing, so I quit.” You know, crazy stuff.

How power, sexuality and creativity combine to damage the psyche is complicated. Let’s assume that our emotional responses are rooted in invisible structures formed very early. As a baby, you must be loved unconditionally. You are helpless. You have no vocational skills. You are just a cute, wiggling bundle that eats and shits and throws up and makes noise. You are not a cowboy or a princess. You must be loved and cared for unconditionally. We get older and develop skills, but underneath, our need to be loved unconditionally persists even after we develop great skills and charm and form adult relationships. One area where this need for unconditional acceptance seems to persist most deeply is in the area of creativity. Why is this so?

Could it be because creativity is our one way back to that primal state?

That would be my guess. Betrayal of this creative self reaches beyond personality self into some realm of existential pain and fear that is difficult to find access to. So if you are exposing this fragile, unprotected, raw creative pre-verbal self — the one that cannot protect itself but must be cared for unconditionally — to the upheavals of romantic and sexual relationship, you are in frightening territory. If for instance you were to break up you might feel unconsciously it was because you were not a good reporter. That may sound stupid. But these decisions, we do not make consciously. They are made by this pre-verbal, emotional self that reacts to rejection as if it were an existential threat. So I assume you feel concerned and confused for good reason. You are exposing your psyche to risks that you might not consciously understand.

What can you do? For one thing, you can begin getting assignments outside the school. You can strike out on your own so that there is no question in anyone’s mind how you did it. And  I would suggest, if possible, that you find some ally, a therapist or counselor or older friend, and go through this with that person, checking in frequently, discussing this, asking for protection, watching for ways that you have placed your fragile creativity in danger. If you are in self-doubt, ask yourself why. If you feel like quitting, interrogate your feelings. Honor them but interrogate them. It might be this frightened child who wants to quit. Beware. It’s complex. Keep moving forward.

p.s. You know that Yeats poems that ends, “I have spread my dreams under your feet; Tread softly because you tread on my dreams”? What a lovely and moving poem that is.

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My husband thinks I should make more money

I’m doing the kind of work I love, but he’s earning so much more!

Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, FEB 16, 2006

Dear Cary,

How do I get my husband to stop telling me that I make too little money? I am a full-time copy editor at a magazine, making what copy editors make when they first start out in their careers. I love my job and feel that I am well suited for it; unfortunately, the pay is crap (you’re well aware of this, I believe).

My husband is a first-year attorney at a prestigious firm, earning more than triple my salary. He has worked hard to get where he is, putting himself through law school at night while working a full-time job at a firm during the day for four years. He grew up without much money, and the result is that he’s not only deeply concerned about financial security, he now always wants (I’d even say needs) the best that money can buy.

He associates with a lot of attorneys whose wives are also attorneys or hold high-paying positions, and these people live it up in a way that we can’t. This frustrates my husband and sometimes when we’re confronted with this, he’ll ask me why I can’t get a better-paying job, perhaps go to law school and become an attorney myself. I’ve told him that comments like these are demoralizing, not to mention unfair, since this is the path that I’ve chosen for myself and I’ve worked hard at it — he just works harder. He’ll acknowledge that his comments are not supportive, but add that that’s just the way he feels — that I’m not working as hard as I could while reaping all the benefits of his hard work.

I know it’s true that I benefit from our situation while he puts in long hours at a job that’s not his passion, but it’s not that I’ve ever asked him for any of this. In fact, I’d rather he switch careers and do something that makes him happier, since it’s quite clear that he doesn’t love any aspect of his job except for the salary. But he completely rejects that idea.

Sometimes I wonder if maybe he’s right. He does half the housework and is a caring and loving husband in every other respect. In fact, I’d say that his disapproval of my career choice is out of character for him — he’s really quite easygoing about most other things and I can’t say that we seriously fight over anything else. Do I need to suck it up, start bringing home half the bacon? Am I being a slacker? My heart tells me no, but maybe that’s just because my mind is screaming, “I don’t want to work any harder than I have to!”

A Grim Reaper

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Dear Grim Reaper,

There are three interlocking issues here. The first is political — how two working partners of different sexes apportion the labor fairly. The second is personal — why he at this particular time seems to have a need for you to make more money, and how you personally respond to that. And the third is historical — what family history and long-standing needs are being expressed here.

To answer the first question, what is a fair distribution of labor in a marriage partnership between equals, I think the obvious answer is that it should be 50-50. But of course you have different abilities and different needs, so you make adjustments. And don’t forget, you also have a question about how to share in the rewards. So ask yourselves, What is a fair way for both partners to share in the labor and the proceeds from the labor, if each partner’s labor is disproportionately rewarded?

If you and he can agree in principle, you will have a common goal of fairness that you are both working toward. You probably cannot answer these questions with certainty and exactitude — people have been trying to do so for decades! — but discussing them and struggling to find a balanced answer will reveal much, particularly any previously unexpressed beliefs and expectations that may be influencing you.

The second question involves a bit of a mystery: Why does he at this particular time need for you to make more money? You say this behavior is out of character. That suggests that he has recently encountered some new kind of stress that is too great for him to handle in his accustomed ways. Most likely that new stress comes from his job. Since he is a first-year lawyer, he is working long hours under intense pressure to perform at a high level. That alone can change somebody. But second, he is in a new social realm, and while the work pressure is intense, I am going to guess that it is the social pressure that he is finding most painful.

You say he grew up without much money. Many of the lawyers he now socializes with probably grew up quite comfortably. He may find himself a little intimidated though he might not come right out and say so. Instead, it would express itself as an aspiration: If I only had what they’ve got, I’d be on top of the world (i.e., the unexpressed thought: I would not be as intensely uncomfortable as I am right now).

He has advanced socioeconomically, but that does not mean he automatically belongs to the club; climbing the ladder in America is not a painless experience; it takes guts; it cannot be done without some sacrifice of confidence and dignity and self-worth. He is going to feel small and unentitled at times. He is going to be a small fish. So perhaps in addition to a typically murderous workload for a new associate, he is feeling socially inferior, his manhood and status are being challenged, and he has begun fantasizing how nice it would be to have a high-powered wife, a diplomat or movie star, to bring to the party, to bring to the table, to display to his boss. It would be natural to envy the men who squire rich, beautiful wives to the office functions, to long for the kind of ease and power represented by their addresses and their automobiles.

As to the third issue, it would be a mistake to underestimate the power of family history in shaping our attitudes toward work. Having come from a family with little money, but being quite ambitious by nature, he may have grown impatient with his father and mother, wishing they had made smarter choices and worked harder. It’s possible he’s responding to you with the same impatience with which he responded to his family.

If he thought that once he became a lawyer life would be cleansed of doubt and fear, he may now be dismayed and frustrated at how difficult such transformation is. When we are under stress we sometimes combine several issues in one symbol. So although he knows better, he may see your job as the one thing that now stands between him and the realization of his grand vision. (Perhaps that’s overstating it, but it’s the kind of thought-knot we can get into when frustrated.)

His family history is not the only one that is relevant here. It is likely that you got your values and attitudes about work partly from your family as well.

You have different attitudes toward work. You like work for its intrinsic value, how it opens up and magnifies your abilities and your interests; he sees work as a vehicle to survival, status and acquisition. Neither approach is wrong. Most kinds of work have elements of both. But for him to suggest you take his approach to work instead of your own — I can see why it is demoralizing. You probably feel it as an attack on yourself — because your choice of work is an expression of who you are, not where you are trying to get to.

You need to sort these things out together.

You’ve got a lot to talk about. Good luck!

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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.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

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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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