I’ve been lying to my family: I never actually graduated!

Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, AUG 4, 2008

I lied to shut them up but now I can hardly live with myself.

Dear Cary,

I need your advice on a problem of my own making. You see, I’m a liar: I’ve been lying to my parents, my sister and everyone I know, including my husband. I’m not lying about anything criminal or terribly immoral, but I have backed myself into a corner.

I don’t have a college degree yet. That is the source of my lies.

I lied to my family because they were asking me all the time if I had graduated and adding to the negative feelings I already have about not finishing. (It’s no exaggeration to say it came up in every conversation with my parents and sister for the past four years.) Long story short, my college career was basically cut at the knees when we moved from Boston to Phoenix for my husband’s job. This was good for him but not so good for me, as the only school here didn’t have equivalent courses for transfer, and to start over again was just too much in terms of time required, money, and so on. It was just easier at the time to get a job. I did, at one point, go back to my alma mater and complete one more semester, but it wasn’t quite enough to finish all requirements.

Now I’m tired of lying and deflecting questions. I’m tired of feeling like I have this awful cloud hanging over my head. I’m tired of hiding and feeling like a failure. So how do I tell my family the truth? And when I do, how do I face them with the admission I’ve been lying all this time? It’s so silly and stupid; I’m an intelligent, educated person and I realize that a piece of paper is not going to validate my existence. My fear is that they are going to lose respect for me, be disappointed, and, I guess, judge me as less-than. How do I face their recriminations? I fantasize about telling them all, but I just can’t seem to find the right moment. Will I ever?

Thanks for your time and any words of advice,



Dear Liar,

The matter of how to tell them is simple. We will get to that. But the lying is complicated. A lie is a tool of power and control. We achieve a result. They stop asking us.

But then the lie pains us. We dread the future. We dread coming face-to-face. We dread their finding out who we are.

Here is who we are: We are changeable, fearful, inconstant, moody, irresolute, conflicted. We do the best we can. We do not always measure up; we take shortcuts; we are sometimes lazy; we forget things and our logic is not always clear. Sometimes we do not really like the things we say we like; we say we like them because it is easier. We are not everything you think we are. We are less and we are more but it’s too hard to explain. You wouldn’t understand if we tried. You wouldn’t even stay for the ending. You would nod and say you get it when you don’t. You don’t even begin to get it. So we lie to keep it short. We lie to keep you at bay. We lie because it hurts to not get what we want.

And what do we want? What would we want if we thought we could get it? That’s a good question. We would want, perhaps, acceptance with all our faults? We would want, perhaps, acknowledgment? What would we want?

Whatever we would want from the family we are lying to, let us face this truth: We probably won’t get it. What we want is probably beyond their power to provide. They don’t have it to give. They don’t know what it is. They never got it themselves and they get along fine without it as far as they know. They don’t even know how it feels to want it. So we can never get it from them.

OK, here is a truth you may find amusing. In 1978 my father gave me money for graduate school and I bought a few pounds of pot with it and put the pot in the trunk of the car and took off from Florida to California. Along the way I smoked a good bit of the pot. I became paranoid. In Georgia I was already so paranoid that I stopped at UPS and shipped the pot the rest of the way to California. The pot never got to California. A note from UPS came in the mail saying the package had been damaged and the contents had been destroyed. Ha ha. Up in smoke. Obviously my efforts at concealment had been insufficient. I was out of money. I had to work as a bike messenger while in grad school. For a long time I never told my dad this. Finally one day I did. He just looked at me funny.

OK, here is something else. After all that, after all he did for me, I never actually got the M.A. I passed my orals and had my thesis approved. There were 17 typographical errors to fix. This was in the era of typists. The typist cost money. I delayed. Plus I had one incomplete. Tuition cost money. Again I delayed. That was 27 years ago.

Recently a kind professor attempted to rescue me, to arrange for me to get the degree. She pulled me into the boat. I fell out of the boat again. I am unrescuable. I am full of holes and soggy with water. Though I have changed my ways, not everything can be corrected or erased.

My wife sticks with me. People come to my aid. Things happen slowly in my favor. But there will always be more lies, more lust for control, more fear of how I will feel if this person says that, if that person says this, if that person thinks this or that. What you see is what you get, a dreamer who cannot finish what he begins, a lurker, a stay-at-home, a shuffler down Mission District sidewalks dreaming of the perfect burrito, a halfway poet who inserts his lines into prose, a struggler, an effusive mime, a juggler going for the jugular, a dog-lover who forgets to feed them and recently forgot them in the truck almost overnight: What? Where are the poodles? I left them in the truck!

So what I demonstrate to you is my mode of confession. I do not tell all but I admit what I am, my flaws, my forgetfulness, my nature. I do not pretend I am much better than this. I leave the being better to others who are better. I am middling. I muddle. I applaud at the right places in order to not unduly embarrass those around me. I get by. I leave a trail of unfinished business. I track mud through the house. This is me. Or this is I. Which is it? I am supposed to know but I am not sure. I prefer, in fact, what is wrong. So it goes.

You have the chance here to just get real. Write them a letter and spill it. Don’t worry about what they think. You can’t control what they think. They are many miles away and it won’t help you. Here is how you do that. Find a quiet half an hour where you can work without distraction. Say, you make an appointment with yourself from 3 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. and you sit down somewhere and do not answer the telephone and you get a good pad of writing paper and a pencil or a pen and you just write them a short note telling them the truth.

You mail it.

It’ll be fun. You’ll feel different afterwards. Your life will be a little more interesting. It will be something to tell.

One more thing before I go, as the dog is growing restless:

Thank heavens for time. Without time, everything we do and feel and say and remember would all be balled up right now in some horrid, intolerable present. As it is you can use time to your advantage by putting out the truth now and then allowing time to coat and soften the truth with its balm of forgetfulness so the truth comes not so much like a slap but like a series of little breezes blowing in off the ocean (and what is it that has brought these breezes together so?), or a series of communiqués, letters the relatives receive and ponder, and wonder should they say something to you about it or should they ignore it? The ball is in their court. You dare them, as it were, to take the next step. And then you stand your ground, the newly gained high ground.

I’m going crazy in my job

Dear reader, Below is another archival column from Cary. He’ll be publishing a brand new column next week. As always, if you would like advice, please write to advice@carytennis.com. Happy New Year!


Classic column from October 17, 2012


I’m going crazy in my job

I’m anxious and insecure and paranoid and bored — but it’s such a great job!

Hi Cary: Two reasons I’m writing to you specifically: a) you’re an advice columnist, and b) I have a feeling you might have dealt with exactly what I’m going to ask. I’ve just got a new job. It’s an office job, but it’s for an interesting company, it’s young, it’s safe, it’s comfortable, it’s even fairly moral(ish). As far as corporates go, it’s pretty right-on, if you know what I mean. It’s my first job since I went traveling a while back, and herein lies the problem. I don’t like work. I never have. There are three brief parts to this. First: It might be partly because I’m lazy, and almost certainly because I’m immature, but it’s something about turning up to work every day and being expected to do the same set of actions, have the same attitude and belief systems, have lunch with the same people. It seems crazy to me. I know this is hardly unique to me. The second part is that I hate business-speak. Even light references to competition, beating out the other players, maximizing profits, make me feel awful. Don’t they realize they’re talking about putting other people out of jobs? Don’t they realize that all we’re doing is taking people’s money for things they probably could live without? I cringe every time someone whoops about getting bigger numbers than the other guy down the street. The third and final part is this: For some reason there’s nothing like a business environment to bring out all my insecurities. I constantly worry that I’m doing OK. I constantly assume that every meeting by every superior is in regards to how disappointed they are in the new guy. Every time I look over at a conversation between two people, and one person’s eyes flick over to me … I have to spend minutes trying to calm myself down, reeducating myself on failure schemas, social anxiety schemas. It seems like modern office jobs, particularly those involved in the communication of information rather than the construction of goods, are impossible to self-gauge your performance in. You might be making one manager happy, but the guy above him may hate you! At the moment I’m involved in a project that is just under-resourced, everyone seems to know it is, and yet I can’t help but feel that they’re still disappointed — or angry — that I’m not able to do better. Maybe I should be staying later? Maybe I should be less honest about how difficult the current situation is when they ask? I feel guilty and inadequate all the time, even when I’m doing my best. In my last job, it lasted the entire time I was there, so I know it’s not a new job thing. Now, if I may, I’d like to cast free from the idea that I seek other work, or make do with a more nomadic, freelance lifestyles: I’ve tried these, they don’t work. I’m in my 30s and the idea that a perfect career will happen upon me has been shelved for reality: I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and work, I just need to figure out how. My current job is good, I was lucky to get it, it’s in a field I like, it has a good coffee machine, I like having a paycheck every month, people “oooh” when I tell them who I work for. If I quit this one, I can promise you I’ll just quit the next and the one after. I know, Cary, that you’ve worked office jobs in the past, and found them less than fitting in all ways. What I’m asking then, is this: how do I reframe my thinking to a) be OK with routine, b) be OK with corporate ideologies, and c) how do I get over the constant, nauseating feeling that I’m not doing well, that I’m screwing up, that everyone secretly wishes I wasn’t there? And does anyone else ever feel this way? Any clues?

Thank you, Cary.

Employed But Uneasy

Dear Employed But Uneasy,

Yes, other people do ever feel this way! And they find a way to keep sucking it up and doing the job day after day. But why?

I suppose there are good suggestions about how to make your days bearable, and I guess you really want this job and it is a good job, but frankly, as one human to another, I don’t want to tell you to just suck it up, work hard and be a part of the company.

I want you to find what you are looking for. This is alienated work and alienated work sucks. That’s no mystery.

There’s nothing wrong with you. You are just in the wrong job.

Until you somehow find the work you were destined to do, no amount of status is going to erase your nagging insecurity.

You feel like you don’t belong there because you don’t belong there. That’s not to say you can’t do the job. Of course you can do the job. But life is short. Every year is a year of your life. You can do it. We humans can put up with just about anything, from boring jobs to torture cages. But should you? Why?

Unless not doing this job is going to cause the death of a child or put you in starvation, I think you should plan to keep looking into your soul for what you are really driven to do. Sure, keep working and save some money. But don’t pretend that there is some magical way you’re just going to “adjust.” The reason you’re not comfortable is that this is not the right job. It never will be. I know what you are saying about the difficulties of drifting from job to job, how the insecurity of not having a paycheck or a place to live can paralyze you and make you literally sick with worry. Yet I know that there is some greater truth in your discomfort. There is something else you really belong doing and it is your larger purpose to find that thing. You may have to do more wandering. Maybe not now, but when you have had your fill.

Save some money. Tough it out for a year, save your money and then leave and wander some more.

I mean, you are a citizen of the world and the world is hiding your prize somewhere in its skirts, but not at this job. Welcome to the reason people start revolutions. Welcome to the reason people used to grow their hair long and get in vans and drive to California not having a job or a religion or even any relatives to stay with. Welcome to the reason that every day in America someone somewhere gets up from his desk and walks out and gets drunk and calls in and says he’s had an emergency and can’t come back to work that day. Welcome to the reason that every day someone looks for a job in the arts or becomes a police sergeant or a lifeguard or a taxi driver because our technology has allowed us to create these penal colonies of cubicles where spirits rot and emotions die and penises sit limp in the pants of avid young men and women’s breasts fall and their tight asses go saggy and their makeup runs and their bodies grow encased in useless fat from sedentary disuse and anxious eating and blood-sugar highs. Welcome to the reason that Prozac has become the new sacramental wafer. Welcome to the reason that so many of us are wandering around looking for a new car. You know this. I know. You have wandered. You want to settle down. But I don’t think you’re truly ready to settle down yet. If you were, you’d know it. So your discomfort speaks to me. I’m sorry if you just want to be shown how to fit in. If you stick around you will sort of fit in a little bit. But I don’t want to see you just fit in. I want to see you find your destiny. That’s not crazy talk. It’s very real, down-to-earth talk. It’s just that your destiny may not be some world-shattering discovery. Your destiny may be something quiet and true, but you will know it. It won’t make you insecure. It will come with a kind of “aha” feeling, and a sigh of contentment. Meanwhile, your story gets my ire up: What are we doing in this country about building a culture? What are we doing about building the kind of cities and towns where children can look around and say, Daddy, I want to do that! If the choice is to be Derek Jeter or a telemarketer, one will choose to be Derek Jeter — broken ankle or no — but there is only one spot for Derek Jeter and he’s already in that spot. So what is left are these prairies of desolation where human heads are fastened to glowing screens by stroke-counting software and surveillance is the norm, where phone calls are recorded and video cameras watch over the workers as though they were cattle in pens, where you wonder when every now and then one worker is singled out and culled from the herd, you wonder what they did with her until you see her installed in the marketing department with a new title and an Audi. Why do we live this way? Do we have no choices? Is making a living the most important thing in life? Why don’t more of us just give up and sit in the street? Is it any wonder that to many, many of us, it recently made more sense to encamp outdoors and call ourselves a movement than it did to continue to work day after day in these apparently clean and comfortable environs? Clean and comfortable? What is clean and comfortable to the questing soul? What is clean and comfortable to the spirit that needs adversity and difficulty and triumph, that needs the sun and wind and the hard muscling work of ranches and the digging of meadows, that needs to be in the body, working under a car or hailing a cab or making cheese? What does it mean to be clean and comfortable if you are dead in the spirit?


It takes a lot of courage to have no program and no plan for economic security and to trust your heart, to know that you might not have all the answers but that this shit is just wrong and go outside and sit in a tent near Wall Street or in front of the Federal Reserve Building for months at a time, to not know the answer but just to know that the answers given are not sufficient and to have enough faith in humanity, in our innate sense of need and desire and truth, to just say, Man, this is not it. This is not what I need. It takes a lot of courage or maybe you could call it cowardice, sometimes they look like the same thing, depending on whether you’re walking toward something or away from something, so I think the essential thing is just to be walking, and it takes courage to get up and walk. But sometimes you just have to walk out. You just have to say I don’t know what it is but this is not for me. And walk out. And maybe you spend a lifetime leaving this and leaving this looking for the one place where you feel at home. And maybe after a lifetime of leaving you say, well, you were a little irresponsible gutter punk is what you were. And yet I had wisdom! I had the wisdom of the stars! I had the wisdom of the poets and of Jesus and Mohammed, who never would have sat in a cubicle selling time shares in Waikiki, who would have gathered in the lobby and said enough is enough, my spirit says to go now so I’m going. So, listen, my man (or woman?!), you have articulated the angst and terror of our age and I just want to say it is real, and there really is something wrong with our culture and the way we live, and nobody has to live this way. My mother, bless her heart, said she had had enough and just packed up and bought some land way up off the road and lived up there in blessed quiet and solitude for 25 years. You don’t have to just do what they say. You can be a punk and move to San Francisco and get a mangy dog and live on the streets until you figure it out. You can go down to any marina and hang around until somebody will take you on as crew and you can sail around looking for your reflection in the water, waiting for the moon or the fish to speak to you and tell you what’s your next step. You don’t have to do this. So keep being discontent and keep trying to figure it out. Take your own discomfort seriously. Don’t just stuff it down. You’re uncomfortable there because you really don’t belong. You are going to have to get out of there eventually. Eventually. Go somewhere where you meet people who seem just a little crazier or just a little less crazy than you and make friends with them and follow them around for a while. Maybe they’ll be following a band like people used to follow the Dead, or maybe they will have some magical way of making money by selling people dreams. Go deep into your heart and ask what you want. Follow the waking dream that is your active consciousness. Who you are is what is going on in your head from moment to moment, and what is underneath that, and underneath that, and underneath that. Follow that. Narrate it as it speaks to you. Speak into a tape recorder what is going on in your head from moment to moment. That is who you are. Be like one of the ancient saints. Listen for the voice that tells you where to go and just pack up and go there. Your life might end up as a ragged mess but it will be a beautiful mess. My travels often ended me up as a ragged mess, but it was where I had to go and I am glad I did not stay home counting my vacation hours on my time sheet, waiting for my 401K to vest, hoping for a good golf game. © Copyright Salon Media Group Write for Advice


Advice from Cary: How to apply for that job you don’t really want but just to be on the safe side since your own job doesn’t feel all that secure and you haven’t had a raise in a long time you think you should probably apply for anyway just in case

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Hi Cary,

I’m in my 50s with a career in my chosen field. The pay isn’t great — never is in this field — but I love what I do. I consider myself very lucky to have found this job. However, the recession and continuing economic mess have not been good to my employer. I’m watching the business incrementally slow down, employees leaving and not being replaced, less and less work to do, bills not getting paid, paychecks late … well, you get the picture. I know things may turn around, but it’s pretty scary right now.

As business has slowed, so have pay increases. I can’t remember the last time we got raises, but it was at least five years ago. Yes, I’m lucky to even have a job in this economy, I realize that. We also lost our health insurance as a consequence of the company not being able to pay the bill. I don’t hate my employer, because I know she is doing everything she can to keep the place afloat.

The city I live in has other employers, including one right up the hill. There are many, many jobs available there, though not in my field. Jobs for which I am qualified, though; jobs I should be able to get. Not-awful jobs. What I’ve been thinking is I should apply for something part-time, something that would get me some benefits and steady income, a job that would allow me to keep the career I love until or if business improves. So I’ve been thinking of applying …

… for months. Three, four months have gone by, months in which I have not opened the file with my résumé’, have not rewritten it for the jobs I should be able to walk into, have not applied for the many part-time jobs I see online. My current job is no less shaky, no less scary. It could all fall apart in an instant. And I have the possibility of this reasonable compromise that would put me, at least, on a better footing.

So what’s the hesitation? Why don’t I move forward? I don’t know. I do know I have always procrastinated when it comes to looking for jobs. It’s not that I lack confidence — not at all. I don’t think it’s that I’m lazy, though I am in other ways. I guess I don’t really much like change — yeah, that’s an understatement. But I would look forward to a new challenge and think I could do these jobs well. Still, when it comes to looking for jobs, I sort of have to be pushed, more or less to the brink, to make that move. What is going on in my head? How do I make myself move forward now, rather than wait for catastrophe?

Looking forward to some insight, or a push.

She Who Hesitates

Dear She Who Hesitates,

Find an hour and a half of free time. Mark it on your calendar. When the appointed time comes, begin by meditating for 10 minutes to get calm. Just sit for 10 minutes and breathe in and out and notice your breath. Do that for the first 10 minutes so your mind is clear and you’re not distracted or worried. Then look at the clock and confirm to yourself that you have one hour and 20 minutes left of free time, and there is no rush and no one calling you and your phone is off and you are not looking at your email. Have some paper and pencil or pen — a notebook or pad, whatever you prefer. Write at the top of the page: “Just A List”

Then use the next hour to make a list of all the concrete actions you need to take in order for your résumé and application to go to this company, and for you to work there. Be detailed and “granular” with this list. List everything large and small. On the list will be, of course, the action of opening your résumé file. On the list will also be the item looking at your résumé. You might think about where you are going to look at it — at home, or at a cafe, or at the beach, or on the back porch.

On the list will also be interacting with the company. List how you might do that — email, etc. It might even mean a personal visit to the enclosure in which you would encounter other physically embodied humans who receive regular automated monetary payments and in return carry out duties under the company’s direction and supervision. In other words, you might have to actually go there. Put that on the list.

Each item may have things associated with it — looking at your résumé will include printing out the résumé, marking it up, changing and/or verifying contact info, verifying contact info of references and contacts, putting in your changes, printing it out again, proofing it, etc. All these little items are important because they take up time and energy. Put them on your list.

Some things may seem obvious but just put them on the list. If you might wear something different from what you usually wear for an interview at this company, or to work at this company, put that on the list. If you will shop for that, put shopping on the list — where you would go, what you might spend. If there is someone you want to speak with about an item on your résumé, or about the company you wish to work for — for instance, if you know someone who works there already — put that on your list.

List possible feelings — regret, shame, nostalgia, fondness, anger, loss, etc. — that might come up when looking at an old résumé or in an interview. Don’t shortchange the emotional part of it. Emotions take time and energy to feel. They are also full of information. You might might ask yourself why you feel that way. You don’t have to answer. Just put that on the list.

Don’t do anything about it! That’s key. Just make the list.

Making the list may exhaust you. That’s OK. You’re doing something you don’t want to do, something that uses your weaker side. That might be all you can do in the first session. So schedule your next session in your calendar. Begin it the same way, with the 10 minutes of meditation and the turning off of the computer and phone, etc.

At your next session of work, your task will be: Find some motivation.

It doesn’t have to make sense. It just has to be something you want, something that seems delicious and enticing. It might be the extra money. If it’s the money, then think about that money, how good it would feel, what you could do with that money, how much money it might be. It might be just that the building is at the top of the hill and you’d like to be up there on the top of the hill. It might be the lawn. You might think of lying on the lawn of that company and eating lunch. It doesn’t have to be about the job. It just has to be something you feel good about. Whatever it is that you would like about working there, let it become big and vivid in your mind so you can taste it. Write these things down.

What you will have, when you are done, is a way to make a concrete list of step-by-step instructions for putting your résumé together and applying for this job. That should help you relax a little bit. You will also have a proven method for scheduling time to work on the application. So repeat the process in order to actually apply: mark time on your calendar, eliminate distractions, meditate beforehand, then carry out your instructions by following your list and checking off the items.

If you do these things, you will accomplish the task of applying for the job. That will take it off your mind. You won’t have to think about it, or wonder why you’re not doing it. Later you can decide if you actually want to work there. That should be easier.

One other thing interests me about this; it may be evident why, as I also am in a period of transition:

Change requires transition and transition is uncomfortable so I’m thinking about vulnerability  and I’m thinking vulnerability can be delicious too if you don’t fight it but just surrender, if you accept that in this moment of vulnerability and surrender you are truly in the bosom of the life-giving universe and at its mercy; any belief that you’re in control vanishes and you must truly accept the capricious beneficence of the universe, this universe which provides the air you breathe and the food you eat.

Surrender simplifies. It gets you down to basics. Vulnerability and transition can be really lovely. But not if you fight it. If you clench up and fight, you might break something.

So plan, be vulnerable to change, meditate, take these little steps, and with warmth, curiosity and an open heart, accept what happens next.

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