Hard choice: Husband or job?

 

Cary’s classic column from Monday, Apr 16, 2012

We’re 4,000 miles apart. He wants me to join him but I don’t want to sit around the house


Dear Cary,

I got married about three months ago to a man I truly love and respect. We are both doctorates in the same field in the sciences. We’ve always been long distance — we met in undergrad, seven years ago, but started dating only three years ago when we were both in grad school on opposite sides of the country. He finished his degree a year ahead of me, and started his new job in a city on the East Coast.

My problem is that upon graduating, I had a very hard time finding a job in my husband’s city. I had a good offer from a city 4,000 miles away, and have come here now to work. But I wonder if it was the right thing to have done and I am still applying to jobs in husband’s city. We are both miserable, he wants me to come back and give up the job. (He can’t leave his job right now because he is in the middle of a project and has to stick around for at least another year.) He keeps telling me that I should go back and live with him, and we should face our problems together.

I would love to go back as soon as I get a job offer and I have told him so. However, he thinks I should go back even if I don’t get a job offer in his city, as we are meant to be together now and he makes enough to support us both. But I don’t think I will be happy just sitting at home. I should mention that my current job in a faraway city is far from my dream job, but it comes with very good money (about 1.5 times what he makes) and I like being busy. I love my husband very much and cry myself to sleep sometimes, but I would still take being employed and being lonely over being unemployed and being together.

Is he wrong in asking me to leave the job without an offer from his city, or am I wrong in being unwilling to leave my current job before I get an offer from his city?

Thank you,
Confused

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Dear Confused,

If marriage is an arrangement in which the husband is in charge and the wife must obey, then of course you would have to sacrifice what you want and join him. But if marriage is a negotiated project between equals, then it’s not a matter of who is right and who is wrong but a matter of negotiation. And that is what your marriage sounds like: a modern partnership in which each partner negotiates, and in which each partner’s personality and aspirations weigh equally.

It is a partnership built on love but material considerations are not shrugged off. We know that love does not conquer all. Love conquers some, and geography conquers some. Economics conquers some, and personality conquers some.

The luxury of romantic love that remains in the modern, negotiated marriage is the recognition that feelings do have a place. They may not justify recklessness but they deserve to be heard. He wants you. He wants you there with him. That is a real feeling. It doesn’t have to be sensible. It arises from passion. It is his feeling. It is real. It is what he wants. That doesn’t mean he will get it. He must negotiate. When he asks you to leave your job and come live with him, he is asking because that is what he wants. It doesn’t have to be the smart thing or the thing that will make you happy. He can still express his wish. It does not have the force of right. It is simply how he feels. So perhaps you can give him some of what he wants. Perhaps you can visit him.

Visit him as often as you can while you work this out. Give him some of what he wants. But be vigilant in meeting your own dreams and aspirations as well.

In a word: Negotiate.

I love the West Coast

Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, JUL 1, 2005

My problem is, I think I love my East Coast family more.


Dear Cary,

I’m hoping you can help with something that weighs on my mind a little heavier each day. I’m a 25-year-old professional woman, raised in Pennsylvania with four little brothers and sisters aged 18-23 whom I adore. A few years ago, I was working a post-college first job near my family home. I had a nice apartment in the city, saw my family often, and was making friends … but I hated my job. I was completely miserable and mourned my college years, the days of fun, friends and having a reason to get up each day. I hated the humidity, the East Coast conservatism, the snow, the lack of people my age, the rat race … everything.

When I became so unhappy that I thought I had nothing to lose, I risked my entire small savings account, quit my job, bought a van and moved to San Francisco, where I didn’t know a soul and had no job lined up. Thanks to Craig’s List, I found a home with roommates, found activities and clubs, even a dead-end administrative job that I didn’t mind so much because it paid the bills and there was much, much more in life to distract me from it. I lived there for two years, visiting my family back East two or three times a year, while making more and more West Coast friends, having more and more fun and finally beginning to feel comfortable with myself. I was having fun on the weekends and weeknights, I was dating more often, and really discovering an artistic, liberal, outspoken, fun-loving, adventurous side of myself I hadn’t known before, even during college.

Then one day I was referred to a dream job by a friend. Life got even better — I had everything I wanted, including the job. I kept in touch with my siblings as often as possible then, although they themselves were busy with college. During this time, we were all doing our own thing in different locations, talking sporadically, but I don’t think any of us really missed each other. We were all living too fast for that.

The dream job ended up transferring me to Seattle, where I’ve lived for almost a year now. Well, it turns out that life got even better. I love this town more than San Francisco. I have beautiful, wonderful friends here, all of them transports from around the country. I’m making great money. I’m involved in the community, I date a lot, have plans every night, and generally have what my parents have always referred to as “The Life.”

Now my siblings are starting to graduate from college. I just returned from seeing everyone for a week. It always takes us a few days to get back into the groove, but when we do, it is amazing. I miss my little sisters so much it hurts. I miss laying with our arms around each other watching TV together. My brother is opening a store and the whole family is helping him get it up and running — except me, of course, because I’m out here. On the day I left, my sister wrote me a letter asking me not to leave. I cried when I read it, laughed about it with her, and left anyway, came back home to Seattle.

Cary, I love it more here every day. I see myself living the rest of my life here. But my brothers and sisters are settling into a life near where we grew up. I’ve seen my mom’s sister be the one in the family who lives far away, and I see her excluded from the special relationships that my mom and her other sisters share. I don’t want that. I could still live a couple more years out here, while everyone gets really settled (they are still career-hopping and moving around, but I know they will all stay near home), but I know I must go at some point. I know deep in my heart that I must move back to Pennsylvania if I don’t want to be “that sister.” Should I give up everything I love, including my job here (which can’t be replicated on the East Coast), to move back and start fostering a life in a place I hate everything about, save for my sisters, whom I love more than anything? I know it will stifle me to live back there again, right when I am flourishing in my identity and personality out here. Should I move now, or in a couple years, when I know I just shouldn’t wait any longer? Please help me

“Torn” or Something

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Dear “Torn,”

Yours is the dilemma of mobility and economic freedom. It is a dilemma disguised as a gift. It requires you to choose. I can’t really tell you what to do.

I do not know what I would do, either, if I could do it over. I have conflicting feelings about having spent the last 30 years on the opposite coast from my family. But here are some ways to think about it, some vague trajectories and generalities that you might consider, in somewhat random order:

San Francisco and Seattle are great cities for the young. What they offer can be found few other places — openness to experimentation, liberal social attitudes, concentration of youth with similar backgrounds, lots of highly educated people and the jobs to support them. In my opinion, while these areas offer incomparable experiences for the young, what they offer for middle-aged and older can be found elsewhere as well, and often at less expense — schools, housing, parks, good restaurants, recreation opportunities. And their drawbacks can loom as more important the older you get — the expense, the fast pace and loose social ties, the constant change. Likewise, or conversely, the tradition and stability of the East, which you find stifling now, may tend to become more attractive the older you get.

San Francisco and Seattle are great cities to visit, but expensive to live in. If you have to live in one place and visit another, it might be slightly better to be visiting the West Coast but living on the East Coast.

Dream jobs may be harder to find in Pennsylvania, but if you have experience and you are willing to spend a good bit of time looking, you may be able to find a job you like. You are in a perfect position to look now. You can take as long as you like. You are also gaining valuable experience — perhaps at a level of responsibility that might be hard to duplicate on the East Coast at your age. (That’s just a guess.)

You can always move back to the West Coast again, if you find the East Coast unworkable. Whereas, if you never come back to the East Coast to live, you may always be haunted by a thought that you abandoned your family, that you missed the best years of your sisters’ lives, etc.

The West Coast is a great place to reinvent yourself. The East Coast is great once you know who you are. Perhaps it’s during the process of inventing oneself that one is so fragile and thus so dependent on a nourishing environment. You need people supporting you while you’re experimenting with who you are; once you know who you are, it becomes less important to have external support and approval. So perhaps the East Coast would stifle you now, in your experimental period, but after you’ve constructed an identity and lived in it for a while, worked out its kinks, smoothed it out, made it comfortable, then it can travel with you back to Pennsylvania.

So I suggest you do as much as you can on the West Coast while you can. Become who you are. Become who you aren’t and everything in between. Try everything you want to try and some things that you don’t. Then you can return to the East Coast with a glad heart, knowing you’ll be with your sisters and your brother and all the people you love so dearly.

As to the West Coast, it’ll be here for you. Drop in anytime.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

My boss wants to get rid of me

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, SEP 2, 2004

She wants me to leave under my own power — in a nice, quiet way.


Dear Cary,

I’ve been working at a high-tech company for about five years. My previous boss adored me, gave me good raises and promised me a promotion. Unfortunately, she got fired three years ago and was replaced by another woman. (BTW, I am female as well.) Anyway, the new boss is youngish (she’s in her young 30s, I’m in my young 40s) and felt she needed to take the bull by the horns by giving everybody hell.

There is no question she is smart, organized and driven, but she expects way too much from her employees. There has been high turnover in her group since her tenure, but management doesn’t seem to notice because she manages “up” if you know what I mean. My first review from her was scathing, but the subsequent two were fine. I’ve been working on a major software project this year that required a lot of travel and a great deal of time and effort. I thought everything was going fine, but lo and behold she tells me that my “management” skills aren’t up to snuff and wants me to leave the department. She said she’ll get me another job in the company, but doesn’t want me in her group. No paperwork, no human resources, no anything — she just wants me to leave.

Here’s my beef: I had no warning about this at all. I appreciate that she doesn’t want to involve H.R. because they are typically on the side of the company. I admit culpability and that some things slipped through the cracks. But she is the type of manager that if you do 10 things right and one thing wrong, the one wrong thing wrong will be noticed. In other words, she is a micro-manager.

Your advice? Should I just smile and find another position in the company, or investigate this further? I’ve worked hard and don’t feel I deserve this. To make a Machiavellian reference, maybe I didn’t kowtow to the prince. There has never been any chemistry between us, and I never tried to brown-nose her.

Getting Screwed by a Boss From Hell

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Dear Getting Screwed,

You are probably correct that the problem lies in your relationship with your boss — or, more precisely, in your boss’s attitude toward you. Had you “managed up” as you say, in that relationship, perhaps she would regard you differently. But I don’t think you can fix that relationship now. She’s apparently made up her mind. She wants you gone.

The manner of your going, however, is still up for discussion. So I’m not sure I agree that it’s best to keep H.R. out of it “because they are typically on the side of the company.” The very fact that your boss does not want H.R. involved indicates to me that perhaps they should be involved.

I can think of several reasons your boss might not want H.R. involved. Perhaps she knows that you have a good performance record and she can’t make any kind of business case for moving you. Has she said anything about how her plan to get rid of you would help the company? Probably not. Perhaps what she is proposing goes against company policy — after all, H.R. is there for a reason. Also, H.R. may have noted the high turnover in her department and she may be afraid of bringing further attention to the problem. Perhaps H.R. cannot be “managed up” as easily as the other subpar midlevel managers she’s got wrapped around her little finger.

Meanwhile, she is trying to enlist you as an ally in your own undoing: You and me, honey, we don’t need H.R., we can settle this between us. She may be pretending to be on your side and against “the company,” but remember: She is the company. She is management. So don’t fall for that line.

Instead, why not go to H.R. confidentially. Explore your options. Get some counseling. You don’t necessarily have to tell them all the details. Just say that you’re looking into, you know, career development. You may have rights in this matter that you’re not aware of. Consider it from H.R.’s position. One of the things they try to do is avoid lawsuits from disgruntled employees. And while many in companies view the H.R. department as something like the principal’s office, there are always a few individuals who went into the field of human resources because they wanted to help people flourish and succeed. Of course, others go into it because they like to fire people and make them fill out forms. So you never know. But it’s worth looking into. At the very least, it will show your boss that you can’t be cowed or secretly manipulated.

It could backfire, of course. She could make things worse for you. But I don’t think she would fire you — if there were grounds for firing, she would have done it already.

I look at it like this: A personality conflict in a work situation is not the end of the world, and it does not have to be some ugly secret. It’s a fact of life. It happens all the time. Not everybody gets along. Not everybody likes everybody else. The right thing to do, I think, is to acknowledge it and deal with it in an aboveboard manner.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

The workers I supervise are out of control

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Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, OCT 1, 2007

I am supposed to be managing 15 people, but they are crazy and unmanageable. What am I to do?


Dear Cary,

I supervise about 15 people at my job, 13 of whom are women. I am a man. It is an office environment, not high pressure, with relatively technical work that mostly gets done well and on time. I’ve been in the office for 20 years, rising from the lower ranks to head of the area. My trouble is that I have lost any interest in dealing with the women on the staff.

A couple of them are just not very smart. I can rearrange work to handle that for some, but others are just too aggressively stupid. Most of the others are unbearably irrational. I say, let’s decide between A and B; there are many meetings where A is mutually agreed upon as correct, many documents explaining the whys and hows of A; then comes the time to implement A and there is an outcry that B was not given a fair hearing, that A is hateful and unworkable. There are also constant personality clashes — she said this, so I said that, so she won’t have lunch with her, so I won’t have lunch with them; she does a terrible job and is never reprimanded, while I am working my fingers to the bone with no recognition, and on and on … and on! These people honestly seem to have no lives that do not involve a constant assessment of the faults of their co-workers. If I work at all more closely with or engage in conversation more generally with any of the women who are smart and rational, the others are on the lookout and begin “teacher’s pet” treatment of the offender. I can’t stand them anymore!

The two men and two or three of the women on the staff are not like this, although they are no smarter, harder working or more trainable than the other women. But they are also rational. If I tell them something was wrong, do it this way instead, they say OK, fine. They do not react as if I were condemning them to the eighth circle of hell. They are never in my office crying. They never engage in long, furtive, whispering conversations. They don’t form cliques.

Often I find that something has been brewing for weeks only when it explodes. Since in the past I have always tried to get feuders to sit down and talk to each other or, alternatively, have told them to stop behaving like children, they have stopped coming to me to resolve disputes at the early stages. Either I have an unusually recalcitrant and unmanageable group or I have lost any ability to deal with middle-aged women, and I don’t know what to do about it.

I don’t think this long-running situation has made me a misogynist, although it has probably angled me in the direction of misanthropy. Or maybe that is just middle age. I could throw out the redeeming fact that I have a wife I’ve been happily married to for 25 years and three daughters, all of whom I carry on rationally with at least seven-eighths of the time, which seems pretty good compared to my work life.

The obvious answer is to try something new, but there are a number of reasons, financial and familial, that make changing jobs unfeasible for the next decade or so. I could also work to get some of them dismissed, but I spent two and a half years documenting and insisting that we do just that with the worst offender, and it was like a daily trip to the dentist. So here I am, the supervisor of 10 menopausal nut cases who do not respond to carrots or sticks, who resent me for trying to make changes, who resent me when I bring in human resources to help us assess our workplace issues, who resent things in general. Right now I’ve settled on ignoring them as much as possible, but this won’t do forever. Any advice?

Muddled in Massachusetts

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Dear Muddled,

I believe that this kind of group dysfunctionality happens when a group of people is particularly starved of things they need. They feel trapped in a situation in which they cannot get their basic needs met, so they are acting out in strange ways. Their needs differ — some may need power, some solitude, some sociability, some challenging work. But they are trying meet certain needs that have nothing to do with their assigned tasks. And there is a perceived shortage of whatever they need. Perhaps too many of them need power and there is not enough power to go around.

A strictly rational approach might leave one baffled by such a situation. But someone more attuned to emotional and spiritual needs might walk in and immediately see what is going on. I sense that you have abilities in both areas — you would like to approach this rationally, as a grown man, with 20 years’ experience in the business, but your attempts at being rational have been rebuffed. You have some sensitivity as well. It just may not have occurred to you to use it in a consciously structured way.

Basically, I would say open your heart to these people — in a very structured, scientific way.

So I suggest that you conduct a 15-week experiment, one week for each employee. Pick one person each week and study that person. Do not judge or instruct or interrogate. Just seek to understand what that person wants. Look at what she has on her desk. Look at her clothes. Ask yourself, What is important to her? Is security important? Is her family important? Her husband? Entertainment? Gardening? Children? Keep a journal of your observations and thoughts about each employee.

Relate to that person as a person, emotionally. Listen to her or him. Use your instincts for sociability; pretend that individual is a member of your family, or a friend. At the end of each week, ask yourself, What does this person really want? Some answer will come into your mind. It may seem silly. But I suggest you listen to it, strange and nonsensical as it may sound. What comes into your mind? A birthday cake? A trip to Ireland? A diamond ring? To publish a book of poetry? A new car? Some shoes? A new husband?

Write these things down.

At the same time that you are observing individuals, observe how the group behaves. How do they interact with one another? Which ones want to lead? Which ones want to follow? Which ones want predictability and order, and which ones require novelty? Which ones like a quick pace, and which ones like a slow pace? Which ones are morning people, and which ones are afternoon people? Watch to see which ones work hard at which times. When do they make phone calls? What do they like to eat?

As well as studying these people, you must also feed them. They are very hungry. They are spending all day trapped in a place they do not want to be, not getting what they want. Give them encouragement and praise. Give them lots of it. Lavish it on them. Lavish encouragement and praise. Find things they are doing well and praise them openly for it. Start handing out praise all day, every day. Every day walk around and see what they are doing and say, “Nice job.” Say, “Well done.” Say, “I appreciate the effort you put into this.” Say, “I appreciate the long hours you are keeping.” Say, “I appreciate your getting here on time every day.”

You might also pick up some award certificates and start handing them out. Think of things they can receive awards for and give them awards.

Study them and praise them for 15 weeks.

Then use what you have learned.

At the end of this 15 weeks ask yourself a bunch of questions about them as a group. Which ones would work well as subgroups? Which ones work together well, and which ones are in conflict? Can you design tasks so that the ones who work well together can work together? Can you remove joint tasks from those who are in conflict? Who are the leaders? Who are the ones who are most well liked? Who would they listen to in a crisis? What matters to them? Food? The location of desks? Certain assignments? Work hours? What is flexible and amenable to change? Give the leaders some power, however that is done.

This is admittedly experimental. But the way I think about it, you could try all these things, and of all these things, there may be a few things that actually bring some tangible improvement. At the same time, for you personally, there will be a feeling of improvement and accomplishment that comes with simply carrying out a program and acquiring information. You cannot know how it might help you. If you set out systematically to learn about your fellow employees, and to respond to them on an emotional level, you may find out all kinds of things. You may find out that they have skills you were unaware of. You may also find out that they have deficiencies you were unaware of.

Being neither a lawyer nor an employment consultant, I recognize that there may be areas of inquiry you need to stay away from for legal and/or company policy reasons. In fact, this admittedly crazy-sounding idea may fly in the face of everything you believe about how a workplace is supposed to run. But what can be the harm? I cannot imagine there could be anything wrong with simply setting out to learn more about the people you work with and provide them with various kinds of recognition and rewards. It may seem kind of sneaky and cold to “observe them experimentally,” but all I am really trying to say is: Open your heart to these people, in a very concrete way, in order to learn what their needs are and why they are acting out. And then try to satisfy some of their needs.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

Will I ever find happiness in the U.S.?

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I could not have stayed in my country of birth, but I feel like my life in America is just unlucky

Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, JUL 1, 2010

Dear Cary,

I am so glad you are back. Thank you for still caring deeply for others while you are battling your health issues. I really need some advice at this point in my life and I need it to come from somebody who does not know me.

The problem is probably more pervasive than I can describe here but I gotta start somewhere. There is something really wrong with me and I don’t know what to do! I just can’t seem to be happy. Don’t get me wrong, I am usually a fairly funny and upbeat person and I always help people with their problems. I can hold myself together for long stretches of time, but I eventually always end up in the same state of mind again.

Let me describe:

I grew up in a different country under a fairly strict regime. Let’s just say that criticism is the choice of communication over there; not as much anymore, but still considerably. As I got older I did poorly in school; I barely made it out of there, had to repeat a grade, and I was a huge disappointment to my family. The focus in the classroom was on repeating prepackaged information and in that circle of negative feedback I always felt out of place. I started not seeing any point in living at around 16. When my parents had me they weren’t even in their 20s yet. I understand that they didn’t have the time, energy or experience to deal with a depressed daughter who couldn’t fit in. This is where I learned not to show any of my weaknesses because my family was overwhelmed with everything anyway. My issues in addition to theirs would have killed them.

As soon as I could leave I did. I came to the U.S. a little bit after graduating high school and it was awesome. It was new, I was independent, and I found some new friends. I finally felt like there was a place I could … maybe … possibly call home. Even though I only stayed for one year (visa regulations) I knew I’d go back eventually. After working my ass off and being put down constantly in an ungrateful job for a few years back home, I finally tore down all the bridges, I sold everything I owned, got rid of my apartment and moved back to the U.S. I moved in with a guy I had met online and figured I could go from there. I won’t even describe the disaster that this turned out to be. Can you tell I sometimes make irrational decisions? Well, it sure shocked the hell out of my family.

Anyway, I am a little better now in the sense that I cleaned up my life a little. I got rid of the guy and went back to school here in the U.S. My relationship with my family is fine. I graduated college at the top of my class, and I am now in a graduate program at an Ivy League university. Needless to say, I have no money whatsoever. Everything I make goes straight into my education. Everybody around me is in the midst of living life. All my friends have spouses, houses, children, jobs, and they deal with their little issues. At the end of the day they go back home and they sit down for dinner. They plan vacations and they decorate their homes. They bring their car to the mechanic and they drive to the grocery store to buy some bread.

And at age 32 I have nothing. I have no house, no apartment, no car, no husband, no nothing. I am alone. I rent a room. I scrape by from day to day. I can’t legally work as much as I would like to and I am losing my patience. Nobody wants to hire me full-time because then they’d have to sponsor a work visa for me. I will be graduating next spring with a master’s degree and a lot of knowledge about research and I don’t even know what to do then. Nobody even responds to my applications for summer jobs! What’s going to happen when I attempt to get a real job? The uncertainty is killing me. What did I do all this work for?

And here is the real bummer. Even though people tell me that I am attractive, smart and funny, I can’t seem to find a guy who wants to be with me. Seriously, I think I am like chopped liver to men. They stare at me on the street but they never talk to me. They ask other women out and bring them flowers, but they never do that for me. I have dates but we never seem to click (I do, but they don’t). They marry cute little women, but apparently not somebody who is freakishly tall like me. In short, nobody ever truly wants to be with me.

Honestly, Cary, I am back to zero here. I just want to cry all the time. I feel like everywhere I turn I get roadblocks. I am the ugly and dumb kid in high school again. I watch while other people date and get A’s. I even went to see a therapist a year ago, but if anything, she was predictable and forgetful and I’m not going back there again. She, like many other people in my past, made me feel unimportant and uninteresting.

So what the hell is wrong with me? What am I supposed to do to crawl out of this hole? I am worried that I will always be alone. I’ll never find somebody who loves me for me and enjoys my company. I want to get married and have children. I want to have somebody I can rely on. At night I want to go to bed with someone I trust. Why is this such an impossible thing for me to find? Other people do!

Thanks for listening.

Unlucky at Cards and Unlucky in Love

Dear Unlucky,

As I mentioned the other day, I have been reading some stories by Richard Ford. They were mostly stories, though one was a selection from his novel “Independence Day” and one, the one I read this morning, was “My Mother, in Memory,” a memoir.

So the thing I like about Richard Ford’s writing, and I hope I do not lapse into imitation of him as I say so, is that he struggles, as writers are supposed to struggle, to sum up, or crystallize these vague and insubstantial notions we have from time to time about what a life is or should be. He gropes to find a shape for life. And one thing that emerges from that seems to me to be an abiding sadness. But it is a serious sadness, a sadness that is responsible and clear, that does not arise from unconsidered expectations but inheres in what we can observe and experience. Thus there is some nobility and promise in the sadness. There is the promise that we will come to know life as it is, on its own terms, and when we do that, we can stop grinding our teeth and tearing our hair out and just live out our days with some abiding simplicity and peace.

To you I would say, under the spell of Richard Ford, as he says of the wordless understanding that passed between him and his mother regarding the mystery of what life gives us and does not give us, “Yes. This is what it is.” Your life as it has come so far is the life you have been given, and it is not inferior to the lives of others. In some ways it is magnificent; it involves significant overcoming, significant courage; it involves your recognizing that there was some stuff you just would not take, that you did not have to take; you realized that you could do something about it, that you didn’t have to have things as they were. You needed things that weren’t available to you in your family or your town; you didn’t belong in that kind of life so you set out to find a life you did belong in. And you found it. You found the kind of life you belong in.

You haven’t gotten everything. And perhaps you are aware that expecting to get everything is an error, an indulgent error that you have allowed yourself. Well, you’ve suffered enough, why shouldn’t you get everything, the boyfriend, the money, all of it? But in allowing yourself this indulgent expectation you are only torturing yourself. There’s no guarantee that you’ll get the boyfriend and the money and the apartment. Nonetheless, you have done something to carry you forward. You have done something wonderful and admirable. You have saved yourself. You have escaped the major, soul-killing awfulness that drowns so many others. You have carried yourself out of hell and found a place for yourself that is mostly OK.

Those of us like you and me who were not OK where we were and had to wander, we don’t completely belong anywhere. We suspect that we’ve blown it somehow. So it helps to remember that we did what we did — leaving family, leaving our birthplace, our origins — to save our lives. It was not an amusement. It came from a deep place. We knew we did not belong where we were so we set off to find someplace where we would feel more at home. I came to San Francisco. It was my kinda town. But I’m not completely at home. I have done well in certain ways. But there is always a nagging suspicion. I can let it nag or I can try to dig deeper to honor the larger story: that I was in a place I did not belong, that I felt if I did not leave I would be missing out on some life that was waiting for me to live it, like a suit of clothes hanging in a cabin across the mountain, waiting for me, and me alone, to mount the steps of the cabin and step inside and put on the clothes and find that they fit perfectly, and then to step out on the porch of the cabin and join a life. Something like that was the notion I had, that a life was waiting for me. So I went west and sort of found it, only it was not really what I had imagined. Instead of becoming a novelist and short story writer, I found myself writing these letters to people; instead of becoming a professor and conveying the words of others to people, I found whatever I can convey about the world comes from my own hard-won experience. I do not so much teach as commune with others in mutual learning. Still, that is what I did. So far I have done what I had to do, and life has turned out as it did. That is all I know.

What you need to get through this period is courage and self-regard. You need to know that you have already rescued yourself. You have done what you needed to do and you can be proud of that. One of the hardest things to do is take at face value — or value highly enough, or honor, I should say — the ways in which we rescue our own souls. It sounds so kooky to say that! It sounds kooky to say you rescued your own soul. There are other ways to say it but that is what I most want to say, because that is what I really feel about such actions: Something in us needs to leave where we are, so we pack up and go. And then later maybe we pooh-pooh what we have done, saying it turned out badly. We forget how desperately important it was to do what we did; we forget how much it seemed an act based on a high truth; we forget how right and noble it felt. And I think it right true and noble because it was. We confuse taking such true and noble action with how it all works out in the end. How it works out in the end is not our problem so much. Our problem is to follow our deepest instincts and intuitions and do what we have to do, because in that way we are taking care of our souls.

That’s how I see it anyway. I know the language is a bit corny but it will have to do.

So what you need now in your life is some peace, and some self-kindness, and I hope you can go through your days with the inner knowledge that what you have done already is enough for now, that you have gotten yourself out of a terrible land, and you have rescued yourself, and the rest will come in its own time. The best thing you can do now is find some peace, and be patient, and know that so far you have done the right thing. Wait for the next right action to occur. If you are in the habit of praying, ask for the next right action. Or just wait for it. Just know that the next right action will come to you if you wait. It will come to you. Trust it when it comes. You might not recognize it. It might surprise you. That is OK. Often the next right action comes as a surprise to us, and we do not trust it at first. We don’t see where it is leading. But trust it. You’ve been OK so far. Trust it in this time of difficulty, and wait.

I’m a singer — but I drift from waitress job to waitress job

 I don’t know how to settle down. But I’m almost 30 and don’t want to waste my life!

Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, OCT 3, 2008

Dear Cary,

I’ve written to so many advice columnists and no one ever answers. I am plagued by problems — for years. In general, what the hell is the deal with me? I was so blithe and great and happy in childhood — but ever since I was, oh, 15, things have gone downhill, and I’m just about 29 now.

After high school, I moved away to go to college, but I quit after two years because I wasn’t really happy. I wanted to be a singer, as I had since I was 5, and I was doing some singing. But in general I felt unhappy, there was something lacking, and also I was in a relationship I wanted to get away from. So I quit school and moved away. In my new location, I sang a bit, got into another relationship, really wanted to get out of it, and moved away again. In my new location, I sang more, met another man, moved away with him, definitely had to leave, and — yes, moved away again. That was when I moved back in with my parents. I waitressed, moved to a new place, waitressed and sang there, then decided to finish school and did, but hated it the whole time. The school was lacking academically and was in a podunk town– where I met a new man, moved in with him, and then, about a year later, yes, moved away. Now I am living with my parents again and feeling quite at a loss.

I always dreamed of great things in life. But I’m going to be 30 and I’ve done nothing — nothing to be able to say, “Hey, I’ve made it!” In short, I’ve made nothing for myself (except learning the hard way whom not to fall in love with). I’m waitressing again, and yes, singing (in a tiny show where I make $75 a week and wear a rubber cone head — don’t ask). I think I’ll stop moving — I’ve wanted to for years. (Though I will move out of my parents’ house.) But just what the hell should I do? I’ve moved around since childhood — four years is the longest I’ve ever lived anywhere, and one year is the longest I’ve ever held a job. There are so many things I am interested in — writing, editing, singing, dancing — but career-wise, my résumé is just a long list of waitressing and oddities.

Where I am now is the closest thing I have to a childhood home, and I have family here (my parents only live here half the year), and so I feel I might stick here. So sometimes I think I am finally ready to do “my life” and make something out of it, besides a mess. But other times I am very scared to think of the future — I don’t want to be forever drifting. I want a fulfilling career, a husband and family. But how to start? What am I to do? I am so bored waitressing and I have about three friends spread over the U.S. due to me being neither here nor there but always taken up with a tumultuous relationship with a man.

Tell me — where shall I start and while I’m waiting for roots to grow, how can I not be so bored?

Chronically Waiting, Dreaming and Scheming for a Life That Is Passing Me By

P.S. I have thought about performing musicals on a cruise ship but I need to build something for the future, not just another temporary excitement!

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Dear Chronically Waiting,

So you’ve written to lots of advice columnists and nobody ever writes back? Well, I’ll write back. I’ll write back because there are certain things you need to know that no one tells you, things I have learned the hard way, things that are simple but can take a lifetime. You don’t have a lifetime.

So here is the deal in a nutshell: Your actions have put you in the spot you’re in. I’m not blaming you. I’m just directing your attention to the correct area. It’s time to change your actions. How do you do that? You adopt a different set of criteria for making decisions.

You left college after two years because you weren’t happy. “Happy” was a criterion for leaving college. That will have to change. “Happy” is not a criterion anymore. “Required for the next step” is a your new criterion.

For the next five years I suggest you do only those things that are required to take you to the next step. It will be hard to change but it is doable and simple and it will give you a much better shot at being happy.

Where do you start? You start by clarifying the goal toward which you are going to struggle for the next five years. I suggest creating a goal that is obtainable through hard work and that is measurable. I would say your goal right now should be to attain proficiency and excellence in your craft.

You may want to be a star. You may think that should be your goal. But I don’t think so. I think your goal should be to attain proficiency and excellence in your craft. The desire to be a star may be a vision that motivates you. You may benefit from visualizing yourself as a star. But for a goal you need something that is under your control. Proficiency and excellence in your craft is something you can actually attain. It may sometimes precede stardom, but it is never a guarantee of stardom. There is no guarantee of stardom. But there are guaranteed milestones of proficiency and excellence that are obtainable.

So let’s say that your No. 1 goal in life is now to attain proficiency and excellence in your craft of singing and acting. That’s very simple. How is that done? It’s done through education and hard work.

If you adopt this one goal, your decisions can all flow from this one premise: Your purpose is to attain proficiency and excellence in your craft. What do you do? Whatever you have to do in order to attain proficiency and excellence in your craft, that’s what you do.

How? You take voice lessons and acting lessons. You build your network of fellow singers and actors. You locate yourself in the best place possible for getting that kind of education, experience and contacts.

What place is that?

Well, there’s no doubt that Los Angeles and New York are the best places to go if you already have the skills. But where are the best places to learn these skills? Not necessarily Los Angeles and New York.

I’m not saying categorically that you should go back to school for a B.A. in performance. But I’m saying you want to gain the hard facts and take concrete actions. Maybe you look and find the best teacher and that teacher is in one of these towns with a top-rated drama and voice program. The talent tends to cluster. So you might move to a town with one of the top-rated schools. It’s this kind of thinking that I’m suggesting.

You may find it impossible to sit long enough and concentrate long enough to make the right plans. There may be more work involved in doing this. Some of this work may involve understanding what happened when you were 15. You were happy and then something happened. Sometimes things happen in adolescence and we form patterns of behavior as a result and we don’t find out until years later how that happened. We underestimate the power of these events somehow; we believe that we are able to make the right decisions but those decisions keep putting us in a bad spot. So in order to make this orderly shift, you may have to enlist the help of others. That would make sense.

Want to know a secret? I can hardly do anything on my own. Actually, I now have three professionals helping me cope with life. Three! One of these people is paid for by the city, as one of its programs to help small businesses. One is paid by my health insurance through my employer. And one of them I pay out of my pocket. OK, I’m kind of a basket case, but I’m just saying, there’s nothing wrong with going out into the world and asking for help. It’s all worth it.

Want to know another secret? I want to be a singer, too. I used to be in a punk/new wave band. You want to hear me sing a punk song? I’m pretty bad! Tell you what. If you will promise me that you will go and start working seriously on your craft, I will send you — no, better yet, I will place on the Web for all to hear — a song that I wrote and sang in the early 1980s and, well, OK, that’s just the deal I’m offering. Because you need some kind of “accountability buddy.” You need somebody to be accountable to who won’t let you slide.

So you write to me and let me know what you’re doing, and then I will do this. I will place myself on the line, so that we have some accountability, you and me. So we have a deal.

I’m almost at my deadline now so I have to wrap up. But I want to say that the beauty of changing your life in this way, wrapping it around a purpose, is that your life begins to have a demonstrable shape. Someone asks, well, what brings you to Evanston, Ill.? And you say, well, I’m trying to become the best singer I can possibly be, and they have the best teachers here.

Having a goal makes your life a story. What is a story? It’s somebody who wants something and tries to get it. It’s what the person wanted and how he or she went about trying to get it. So you make your life a story. Then everything falls into place.

It’s not as easy as it looks. It’s not easy to change your life. It’s not easy to do things differently. But it can be done.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

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.

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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Help! I’m committing professional suicide!

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I know what to do and how to do it but I’m paralyzed! Soon my whole work life is going to come crashing down!


(Cary’s classic column from Friday, March 7, 2008)

Dear Cary,

It may be too late for me. I’m committing professional suicide. I see exactly what I’m doing, and I can’t stop myself. The problem is procrastination. In fact, I thought about writing to you about six months ago. If I had done it then, maybe I could have salvaged something in my present job. Now, I’m not so sure.

Through no fault of my own, I’ve risen to a managerial position in charge of marketing for a small manufacturing business. Deadlines are very important, and I keep missing them. I just spent the past week stalling on meetings with my graphic designer to prepare ads for the new line of products we just introduced. The products have been created, parts sourced, manufactured and shipped. Meanwhile, our introductory ad campaign hasn’t started yet. I know what has to be done, I know what I have to do to get it started. It’s not up to me to create the campaign — I just have to make sure it gets done. But every time I have the opportunity to move forward with the project, I … don’t.

I have already driven the last few projects I’ve been involved with into crisis mode because of my delays. The further behind I get, the harder it is to get started. I’m sure that’s a cliché, now that I look at it in writing. I know I’ll have to deal with questions about the delay, and I just can’t answer them. When I’m confronted, my brain just goes mushy.

I think I’ve probably used up eight of my nine lives with this company, and yet I still sit here in my office studiously not working on the projects at hand while the clock ticks away. Tick. Tock.

I’m miserable. I know what I have to do to make the misery go away (just deal with the projects, for God’s sake!), but I’m frozen. Or maybe I’m like a car and the driver is stomping down on the accelerator with one foot and stomping down equally hard on the brakes with the other. Whatever, it’s eating me up, causing problems for my employer, and threatening my family (I’m in my 50s and not looking forward to having to find another job).

Any advice?

Stuck and panicking

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Dear Stuck,

Call in sick for three days. Check into a hotel. Bring your documents and your computer with you.

Arrange to meet with a confidant on the morning of the first day. This confidant may be a coach, a friend, a spiritual guide, a psychological professional, a mentor. You must have somebody. If you don’t have a confidant, deputize someone. Deputize a trusted friend or relative. Insist that they meet with you in your hotel room for a minimum of two hours on the first morning of your three-day sick leave. If they have to take off work, tell them to take off work. This is an emergency!

Explain that you need somebody to be accountable to. You need someone to act as a supportive witness as you make a plan, someone to check in with as you complete your tasks, and someone who, if you don’t check in with them, is going to call you and say, What’s going on? Make sure you have their agreement: If you don’t call them up and tell them your progress, they are going to check on you.

Meet with this confidant on the morning of the first day. Make your list of tasks. Go over the list with your confidant. Highlight any difficult phone calls you have to make. Highlight areas that make you wince when you think about them. Then sit back and visualize the whole thing being finished. Visualize yourself conquering the whole thing. Write down on paper, in front of your confidant, how you want it to turn out. Read that aloud to your confidant. Make it in the first person, positive, something like, “I can handle this project and make it turn out well. I’ve done this before and I can do it again. When it is over I will feel accomplished and satisfied. And now I am going to take a swim.” If the hotel has a pool and you like swimming, take a swim. If you work out, work out. Sit in the sauna. Relax. Eat well. Visualize how you will feel when you are done with this project. In the afternoon, if you feel like working, do some work. If ideas come to you, jot them down. But mainly relax. Rest. Get a good night’s sleep.

The next day, get busy. Call your confidant first thing in the morning and say that you are getting up and getting to work. Arise, take a shower, get dressed, eat breakfast, get to work. Do the first task on your list. Just start doing things without thinking about them. If it involves dialing the phone, just dial the phone. If it involves writing, just write. If it involves making an appointment, then make the appointment. Don’t think about the things. Just do the things on your list. Work briskly. Piece of cake. Do six items and then take a swim and have lunch.

After lunch, if there are certain things on your list that you fear doing, do those right away. If you have to make difficult phone calls, make them. In dealing with the people you need to work with, take this approach: Ask for their help. Don’t order them. Ask for their help. Apologize for any delays you have caused. If you admire the work the people have done in the past, tell them you admire their work. If there is the possibility of bigger projects or promotions, mention that. Whatever you have at your disposal to motivate people, use it. If you have authority to promise bonuses or rush payments, do so. If you have personal discretionary funds, use them. If you have people working for you who have time to spare, enlist their help. Mobilize people. Make careful note of what you promise, so that you can follow through on it later.

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If at all possible, do not communicate with your bosses until after your three-day sick leave. Confine your work to setting in motion with your subordinates the things that will make the project succeed. If there are meetings to schedule with bosses, schedule them for after your three-day sick leave.

Check in with your confidant on the afternoon of the first day and on the morning of the second day. Make a new list on the second day. Check in with your confidant on the afternoon of the second day. Make a new list on the third day. Check in with your confidant on the morning of the third day. Check in again on the afternoon of the third day.

After your three-day sick leave, return to work and communicate with your bosses. Tell them that although you were out on sick leave, you were able to finally get things rolling, and that while the project got off to a slow start, it now looks like it will be a success.

Ha ha.

Now, maybe the details are different for you. I put you in a hotel because you’re in management and make the bucks. And it makes a good story. And stories of victory over crisis travel; they enter the culture and help others; they get passed down to family and to younger co-workers; so they make the world better. But maybe the details are different. Maybe the hotel is a metaphor. The essential thing is the process: You change your environment, clear your life of routine commitments, confide in someone about your crisis, make a list of tasks, attend to your physical and spiritual needs, commit to checking in with your confidant before and after doing your tasks, and do them briskly without overmuch thought. That’s it in a nutshell.

And then, after this episode is over, see about working with a coach or mentor, so you do not backslide. If you cannot find a professional coach or mentor to work with you, ask your deputized confidant if he or she would be willing to continue to meet with you. Buy the Julie Morgenstern book, “Time Management From the Inside Out,” and do what it suggests.

And every month, go back to that hotel for a swim in the pool.

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All my traveling makes my husband jealous

 

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, SEP 4, 2008

He seems to believe that when I travel I must be sleeping with my boss.


Dear Cary,

I married my second husband in 2002, just a couple of months after completing chemo treatments for ovarian cancer. We’d been together a year and a half before I was diagnosed. Several times during the time I was being treated, he made the suggestion that we get married and I said no each time.

I was a little anxious after my sixth and final chemo and my oncologist prescribed an antidepressant to take for six months. Everything seemed so much clearer once I was taking the drug and I actually told him that I would indeed marry him.

I stopped working for nearly a year during my illness, but when we met, I was selling software and traveling very much. But, honestly, I have always traveled since I was 14 and I lived more than a decade in the north of Italy. I speak fluent Italian and French, some Spanish and Portuguese.

Initially, he was fine with my travel, but after six months or so, he would just go crazy when I would have to take a business trip (this was where my reluctance to marry him came from). I’m embarrassed to say that once, before leaving on a two-week business trip to South America, I didn’t tell him until I walked out of the door with my suitcases. I found that telling him ahead of time to prepare him only made him bitterly angry for the entire time before I needed to leave — he’d stop speaking to me. It is incredibly stressful.

Cut to six years later. I’ve been working for a fantastic software company for the past four years with very smart people who are at the cutting edge of our industry. I am again selling software but have been promoted and am also leading a team. I’m making a lot of money — almost twice as much as him. Our two salaries give us the ability to do nearly anything we want and save much of what we earn. We have a lovely home that we enjoy retreating to. We have everything anyone could want.

I have really tried to curb the amount of travel I do because I know it distresses him, but there are at least six or seven overnights a year and a few day trips that I must take, otherwise I’m not doing my job properly.

Between the trips, we get along fine. I say fine as opposed to fantastic because, frankly, each time he wigs out because of a business trip, I feel far less willing to give him any sort of benefit of the doubt, or trust. I mean, part of me thinks that anyone so suspicious of business trips has to be totally screwing around while away. Note that while he travels far less for his job, he actually does have to go away, and I suspect he limits his trips because of me, and that this actually causes him some issues. (I love when he goes away; I get the house to myself — I am free for a while!)

I become more immature in my dealings with him when he acts like such an ass — I hate that because I vowed to myself that this would be my last marriage and that I would act in a way that was as mature and loving and supportive as possible.

So, yesterday I got up at 6 a.m., caught an 8:35 a.m. train to New York, arrived at 11:20 a.m. for a noon meeting that lasted about two and a half hours. My boss was with me at this meeting. I invited him to come — it’s an important potential account for us and I felt that it was important that he join me. One of my sisters happened to be visiting NYC with my niece, so immediately following the meeting I caught a cab (sans boss) to meet them to say hello. I told my boss not to worry, to just catch the train home. He said he’d wait and we agreed to meet back at the station to take a slightly earlier train.

There was a ton of traffic yesterday and cabs were few and far between anyway, so I decided to walk to Penn Station and arrived only four minutes before the train left; my boss was waiting there for me. I told him I hadn’t changed my ticket, and neither had he, so we decided to stick with the game plan and take the 5:39 train. Neither of us had eaten anything the entire day. So we sat at the bar at Hooligan’s in Penn Station for an hour, had a drink and a bite to eat. My husband called me while we were eating but I didn’t answer. There was music in the restaurant and I didn’t want the hassle of him asking me where I was (I guess eating and drinking is foreplay — whatever). I called him immediately after we left the restaurant and were about to board the train. He asked me if my boss was taking the same train and I said yes. He said he should have known I was “out drinking” with my boss, implying as usual that I was committing adultery. By the way, the thought has crossed my mind to tell him no, I’m by myself. But for chrissakes, I have nothing to lie about. (Sometimes I’ll ask him to look me in the eyes and tell me he honestly believes I am having an affair — he can’t.)

I have spent three or four days away on business without ever speaking to him — he won’t call. He used to make repeated calls, like 30 calls in a row and when I would answer he’d scream so loud that others would hear, so I don’t trust him enough to answer the phone unless I’m alone. Once he canceled the credit card we both had an account on, so my card was denied. (I immediately got my own account following that episode.) When I do arrive home I am so happy to be there. I have two border collies and I love them; they are so happy to see me. But upon my return, my husband and I will go days and days and days without speaking. Life is too short for silence. And marriage is hard work; you can take baby steps forward and giant leaps back. These periods of silence are the giant leaps back for me.

I have repeated over and over again to him that I have never conducted myself in a way that could even be remotely construed as undignified — and it is the truth. I want to work hard, make money, come home to a supportive companion, be an honest, loving companion, be with my dogs and feel peace.

But this situation leaves me feeling as though I have no peace.

We have not seen a marriage counselor; however, I’ve tried other things, like laying out in advance the trips I know I’ll be taking. It doesn’t help for long, and he reverts to this outlandish behavior.

What do I need to do?

Dispirited, Disgusted, Distraught

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Dear Dispirited,

One possibility is that your husband lives in mortal dread of being deceived by a woman. This dread may derive from experiences in his romantic past as well as from his childhood, and is probably part of a lifetime pattern of relationships in which he does not feel secure. Because this fear is so ingrained, and not actually conscious, he may not be able to see how stifling his behavior is; he may believe he is simply showing concern about your whereabouts as a normal precaution.

If he were to become conscious of this, like a man awakening from some kind of foggy dream, he might be able to say to you, I’m sorry, my love, I have been acting like a crazy man, and this is why: because I live in deep, mortal fear of abandonment and betrayal, and I’m sorry, I’ll try to stop acting like such a crazy man, I’ll try to get a more realistic view.

But until he becomes conscious of what he is doing, he will not be able to shine any light on this for you. Instead, he will keep you a prisoner of his fear.

Another possibility is that he himself is either involved or contemplating becoming involved in an outside affair. If this were the case then we might say he is projecting onto you his fear of discovery and his guilt about his dishonesty; he is seeing you as the untrustworthy party, the one who is deceiving him. He is projecting.

That sounds sort of clichéd but a friend told me a story, a very strange story, of just such an incident. A man she knew suddenly cut off all contact with her and began acting very crazy because he believed his wife was cheating on him. He believed this because he was cheating on her. There was no evidence that she was cheating. It was all because he was cheating and believed, therefore, that she must be cheating also. Very strange but true. He was imagining her to be having the same thoughts and feelings that he was having, and then he responded to her as though these projected thoughts and feelings were hers, not the products of his own guilt-driven imagination.

So such things are possible in our world. You will have to discover what is driving him. Is he simply afraid that you will abandon him, or is he himself being somehow unfaithful?

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But even after you discover, through couples counseling or principled individual struggle with him, what exactly is the basis for his behavior — insisting, that is, that he tell you the unvarnished truth about his life and not relenting until you get what you feel is a complete and satisfactory answer — you have only begun to solve the larger issue.

Because here is what we do in a marriage: We try to protect what we have. We see where things can lead. So we guard ourselves against the weak moment, the seductive situation, the enticing opportunity; we avoid them. Of course we do. We screw ourselves down tight.

But in doing so we risk cutting ourselves off from our very sources of vitality and beauty and pleasure. We turn away from the life force that created us in the first place and which is the only thing that can sustain us.

We try to shut out danger but we shut out life. We shut ourselves off from the source of our energy and beauty. We shut out eros.

We all want to survive. We all want to avoid pain. We all want to avoid situations in which our wives are fucking strange men doggy style in high, luxurious rooms in hotels in faraway cities and not telling us about it until the day they decide to pack a suitcase full of lingerie and perfume, and we sit on the bed watching in a rage of paralysis and incomprehension, flooded with emotions about the packing of the suitcase, baffled by why the suitcase full of lingerie and perfume is being packed right at that moment, baffled about what specifically might be wrong with us physically or psychologically that caused the wife to pack the suitcase full of lingerie and perfume on that particular afternoon when we might otherwise be watching television or eating or watering the lawn.

We all wish to avoid such moments. So we seek safety and routine.

But in seeking safety and routine we court death. In seeking safety we cut ourselves off from the wealth and abundance of life forces that created us in the first place and that will sustain us only if we expose ourselves to them. We cut ourselves off from temptation and we cut ourselves off from life. We bloom a suicidal purity. We blossom dead flowers. We kill ourselves to keep ourselves safe. Such murder flows from deep distrust. It is not just distrust of you. It is broader. It is a distrust of the enterprise of living. It is a wrong relationship to the world. It is a relationship to the world premised on illusory control. We forget that we are not our own creators. We forget that our blood is a gift, that our brain is a gift, that our water and sweat and semen and tears and arm hairs and tongue, teeth, gums, jawbone, epiglottis, eustachian tubes, nose and throat and eyes, our spit and our urine and our shit, our hipbones and toenails and kneecaps, that all of us is a gift, that we have a source in the world, that cut off from that source we die. We forget this. We have to be reminded now and then. So we go out into the desert and somehow we are reminded.

My trip to Burning Man has reminded me that it is good to go outside our situation to see our situation. This is the beauty of it: Put people together in the desert without social rules and restrictions and what do they do? They make things and help each other. This human goodness, this desire to make things and help each other, if given a time and place, seems to arise spontaneously.

How easily we can become accustomed to thinking of our relationships, our philosophical posture and our behavior as things that we control and so must constantly work on! And of course this is not a bad thing to do, to ceaselessly struggle to find a right way to live and a right way to behave. But in the struggle we can forget about the source of all that we are. We can forget that underneath our effort and our conflict there is a bubbling spring of goodness, creativity, love, light, desire to help, kindness, wit, humor, warmth, togetherness, grand vision and fine craft, deep humanity, which requires only that we partake of it, only that we give it a little space to bloom. We forget that we are not in charge of these human qualities but that we are the recipients of them. We forget that we have to reach outside our sphere of domestic arrangements to something mystical and beyond us.

You faced death and you endured illness. In this you perhaps came in contact with this force outside us; you felt it; you felt the life force bubbling up through you of its own accord: the life, the priceless force.

So I sense that the solution to your conflict lies not just in solving the immediate conflict about your travel but in the two of you finding new sources of life and vitality that can flow into the marriage and make it richer and fuller. You already have such sources — in your work and your travel. These things give you energy and inspiration. He must find such things as well. And he must find out what has happened in his past to make him so afraid. Each of you has to find strength enough to endure the other’s absence, or the marriage bed will be a prison cell, stifling and dead.

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