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

Dear Cary,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

have an awesome day!!!!

Grrrr

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Dear Grrrr,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

My best friend is down on his luck. How can I help?

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Cary’s classic column from SUNDAY, OCT 17, 2010

We grew up differently. I got great guidance from parents and friends. He kind of drifted. Now he’s in a tough spot


Dear Cary,

I have something of a quandary with a friend of mine. He’s my oldest friend, we’ve known each other since we were about 4 years old. At that time we went to nursery school and kindergarten together; we were both children of decidedly middle-class families, growing up in the same suburb. Even though we didn’t go to school together we always spent our summers together, and made a real effort to keep in touch over the years. At some point though, during that time my parents moved along in their careers and my family sort of left the middle class to that ill-defined region between the wealthy and the doing-OK. However, his father left his mother and took off, leaving her to fend for her son by herself and somewhat bitter about the way things turned out, and his life was more difficult for it. But none of that ever affected our relationship, the two of us got along great all through high school, even though I had gone on to the local private school while he stayed at the local public school.

After high school I went off to college and he kind of bummed around working as a ski lift operator so he could snowboard at his favorite resorts. My parents were the demanding types who wanted to make sure that I had a focus in my life that would lead to a career — his father was basically absent and his mother had become shrill to the point where it was a guarantee if she told my friend to do anything he would do the opposite. At this point our lives started to really diverge.

Fast forward a few years — we’re both now in our early 30s. My life isn’t perfect, and there are things about it that I would change if I could. But overall I can’t complain — I’ve worked hard and (finally) find myself in a position where I’m easily self-sufficient. I have no debts, I live modestly, and every month I manage to save a nice sum of money that I plan to put towards a down payment on a house. I have a solid junior-executive position at a good company where I’m on an upward trajectory. I also have no illusions about how I got here. I know that I’ve worked hard but I’ve also had parents and friends who have looked out for me and tried to help me out when they could, and I’ve gotten lucky with some opportunities that I’ve taken advantage of when they made themselves clear. My friend, on the other hand, is in a very different place. After a few years of bouncing around resort towns so he could snowboard and surf during on-seasons, he’s come back to the area where we grew up with virtually nothing to show for it. He had a job doing house remodeling but was laid off because of the recession. Recently when I talked to him he told me he had a part-time job that was barely helping him to pay his rent and bills with almost nothing left over to live on, and was looking for work but hadn’t found anything.

We both come from the kinds of upbringings where guys typically downplay how bad things are because you don’t try to garner sympathy for yourself — you just don’t. So when I hear him say this I know that it’s for real, that’s he’s barely hanging on with what he’s got. I know that he hasn’t been as lucky as I have, he didn’t have parents looking out for him, and he just hasn’t had the kind of luck that I’ve had in getting himself on two feet. I don’t know if he’s worked hard or not, I really can’t say, but from what I know of him I imagine he has. I do know that he’s a good person, he’s easy to get along with, he’s the kind of guy everybody likes.

I want to help out my friend if I can. I offered to have a look at his résumé and pass it around to the people I still know where we grew up, and I’m trying to do that. But I’m also realistic about the kind of economy that we’re in right now, and I know it’s a long shot that he’ll find a job that way. I would like to tell him that if things get really difficult he can come to me for money if he needs it, but I just don’t know how. The last thing I want to do is condescend to my friend and make him feel like he’s a charity case for me, because he’s not. I know that if our situations were reversed he wouldn’t think twice about helping me out. I just want to figure out a way to help him and keep his dignity intact. Can you offer any advice for how I can do that?

Thanks,

Looking to Help a Friend in Tough Times

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Dear Looking to Help a Friend,

The best thing you can do is stay close to your friend. Be honest with him. Help him if he needs help. Go snowboarding with him. See the houses he has remodeled.

Beware of your desire to fix his situation. Know that his situation is not an accident but has meaning; it is like a signature; it is who he is and it is in a sense holy. The way to avoid condescending to him is to be honest in your regard for him. If it hurts you to see him having a hard time, be honest about that. But recognize that it’s his hard time to have. It’s his hard time, not yours. He is learning something he has to learn. He is encountering life on its own terms. He has to do this. He has to knock about until he’s had enough. The time for setting an orderly route was earlier, and it was a job for parents and family, and that job was not done. So he is finding out what life is like at a later stage than some. He is taking things in a different order. Maybe he is spending longer in this phase than one would hope. But that’s his path. Be his friend and respect his choices.

If you do this, time will pass and when he has a change of heart and sees that he needs an orderly direction he may confide in you. He may ask your advice. He may decide he needs to go to college. He may see a business opportunity in the world of resorts. If he comes to you with a business proposition, scrutinize it. Don’t lie to him. Don’t encourage him in something that won’t work. But if he has a workable idea and you have contacts who might help him, be generous. Only do this if you really believe it’s workable. It’s easy to kid ourselves about our friends.

Meanwhile, let’s look on the bright side. He may be having a hard time financially, but he is pursuing what he loves. He is not an office guy. He is an outdoors guy. He knows what makes him happy and he is seeking happiness in his way. His life is harder than yours. It’s harder to make a living that way. But he’s being true to himself.
So if he is your friend, the best thing you can do is be a good friend. If you are a good friend to him, then he will know he can ask for help. And you can give it, too. If you ever see that there is something you can do for him, you don’t have to ask. If it feels right to give him some money, or lend him some money to help him get over a difficulty, then go ahead and do it.

He can always refuse.

What you do not want to do is try to fix his life. What this says to him is that there is something wrong with his life. Remember: His life is fine. It may be difficult and more uncertain economically, but it is the life he has chosen. He chose it out of love. He loves to snowboard. He loves the outdoors. He loves building things. So the equation he has followed is simple: We do what we love and we deal with what happens. After a while, we learn to fine-tune. We know we love to snowboard but we see what happens when we snowboard all the time. We make no money. We have no place to live and no food. So we snowboard but we also do something to make money. Sometimes it is hard to make money. Money is scarce sometimes. That’s the way it is for those of us who just do what we love. We learn to adapt. We learn how far we can take it. We make compromises when we have to.

But the beautiful thing about it is, he knows what he loves. He knows what he values. And he is being true to himself. I wouldn’t change that. It’s hard doing what you love. It can wear you down and put lines in your face. You end up with a leathery neck and tattered jeans and scarred workbooks and callused hands. You end up weather-beaten. That is, you end up with the face that you deserve. Your face becomes the record of a life lived according to what you love.

There’s something to be said for that. So stick close to this friend of yours. There’s much there to cherish. Don’t pity him. He’s doing what he has to do. If he wants your help he’ll ask for it. And likewise, there may come a time when you could use his help. Don’t be afraid to ask for it. There’s dignity in asking for help and giving help, and not offering until asked.

Value this friend. You’re a lucky man. So is he.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

 

The bosses used to monitor us on video from home

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Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, APR 21, 2008

I hate my job and hated my last job and feel like a failure. But is it my fault?


Dear Cary,

I find myself running in circles, around and around inside my head. I just started a new job and I despise it. Everyone was so excited for me to start, believing it to be that much-longed-for next step in my career. I’ve spent so many years sliding from industry to industry, trying on this hat and that hat, hoping for something that will fit just so. All of this has been to no avail.

I started the new job last week and quickly realized that it wasn’t for me. After hours of soul-searching and a long discussion with my boyfriend in which he played devil’s advocate I saw that I couldn’t do this job. I went through all the permutations of why I was uneasy with the job, sussing out whether it was nerves from being in a new environment or if it was the actual job itself. It was the pressure of getting that sale right then over the phone as well as the fact that I found the product (not to mention the sales method) shady at best.

My problem is, my last job I left because I couldn’t handle the pressure of having my bosses constantly down my throat, watching the cameras from home and picking apart every last thing that I’ve done.

In the discussions with my boyfriend last night I began to fear that I was finding excuses for leaving jobs with some pressure involved in them. Or if it was that I wasn’t in that right position for myself. Or if they really were bad jobs.

I spend so much time second-guessing myself that I no longer know what my real gut reaction is and why I’m having it. I think I’ve come up with the answer, but I’ve then become so paralyzed that I’m not sure what I’ve done and why I’ve done it. I’m lost in this sea of confusion that I don’t know how to swim out of.

A few months ago I made myself a promise to be kinder to myself, to find time to create a calm environment in the hopes that it would provide a clearer viewpoint. I promised myself that I would reconnect with myself and with my body and with my environment so I would be able to get and stay calm.

From when I was 13 to 22 I was battling depression, suicidal tendencies, panic attacks, general anxiety and recovering from a nervous breakdown I had when I was 18. I’m proud of where I am now, that I’m alive, smiling, and able to accept the love of my boyfriend and I’m able to give him my love back as well (which is quite something to say considering where I was at before).

I’m now 24 and I suppose much of what I’m going through is part of the aftermath of all that time just trying to heal myself enough to function. But all that time spent picking myself apart has left me with a bewildering sense of displacement. I wish I had some overarching idea of how I view myself and view the world around me. I really wish that I had some self-confidence that everything would be OK. Most of all I feel like a disappointment to myself and those around me. I’m that brilliant girl who could do anything but couldn’t get her act together. And I feel like I’m never going to pull it together. That I’m never going to be able to have a life that’s mine.

I’ve thought about running to some far-flung location to escape, I’ve thought about getting a cheap apartment somewhere, living quietly in a quiet home, with little contact with the outside world. I know that neither of those options fixes my problems; that they’re physical manifestations of what I emotionally want to do. As awesome as that all sounds, as much as I keep telling myself “you’re only 24, you’ve still got tons of time ahead of you,” I feel so much pressure that I’ve built up for myself, hurdles that I just can’t see myself vaulting. Where do I go from here? What do I do?

Wrapped and Confused

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Dear Wrapped and Confused,

You are a rare individual. It is good to be rare. It is better to be rare than to be ordinary. And yet since you are rare, an ordinary job won’t do. You need a rare job. Rare jobs are hard to find.

Most jobs suck. When you were in school, didn’t you take MostJobsSuck 101? Most jobs will not bring you happiness. It may be that you will have to be an entrepreneur and create your own wealth.

You must assert your right to exist and to be as you are. You must assert your right to feel as you feel. You must say to yourself, If I don’t like this job, maybe it’s because this job totally sucks ass! Maybe that’s why! Maybe this country is going down the toilet and maybe that’s why I feel lost and alienated and afraid. Maybe I’m not the problem.

Try that, would you? Just try saying to yourself, I’m not the problem. I didn’t create this world. I didn’t make these rules. I didn’t come up with this asinine idea of bosses monitoring employees by video from home. It’s nonsense! I have a right — moreover, a duty! — not to participate in such nonsense. I’m better than that. I’m a free citizen in a democracy. I have some rights. I have a conscience. My conscience is outraged by this. No one should have to put up with it.

Try saying that to yourself. Try shouting it out loud. You are in a shitty situation. This job of yours sucks. Who says you should do this job? Let them find someone else. This job is not for you. Any job where the bosses watch you on video from their homes is a job in a totalitarian atmosphere. So if you fail at such a job it is perhaps because you value individual freedom and dignity.

So why do so many young people seem to think that the problem lies with them? The problem is not with you. The problem is that a lot of things in the world really suck. So try to enjoy your life. Don’t worry about succeeding. It is a sucker’s game. Until you can find something that you genuinely enjoy doing, do not assume that employers and institutions are on your side. They are not looking out for you. They are looking for suckers.

I fear for the individual lives of people in this country when it is permissible for employers to spy on employees at work from the comfort of home. That should not be permitted. It is an outrage.

So please do not turn your anger on yourself. Do not accept this. It is bullshit.

How does it happen that we are robbed of the ability to register our outrage? How does it happen that we turn this outrage inward when it should be directed toward the men who are doing this?

If I may vent just a little: I myself get great help from the psychological professions, and — as I was telling my therapist yesterday — I basically think everybody ought to be in therapy! Nonetheless, our social and economic struggles produce a proud pain, a noble pain, and this pain ought not to be medicated but celebrated. It sounds as though you treat your own pain as a sign that you are still ill. On the contrary, it may be a signal that you are healthy. You are fine. You just need to get out of there!

If you must work for money, for the time being, get any kind of job. Work in a coffee shop. Sell surfboards. Meanwhile, study money. You may be the kind of person who will never be happy in a job, being told what to do, what hours to keep, when to go to the bathroom and when to go to lunch. Study money. Learn how money works. Get your own.

And who are all these people you are supposedly disappointing, anyway? Stop living for them. You are God’s child, not their child. You are a child of the universe. You are made of the stars and the moon and the earth; you are a person, unique and unprecedented in human history.

You must assert this or they will take it away from you. Do not let them take this from you. It is not theirs to take. It is yours.

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Dammit, don’t tell me I need to be more “assertive”!

 
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Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, SEP 15, 2004

You’d think a Ph.D. in Renaissance literature from an Ivy League school would count for something in the business world.


Dear Cary,

On paper, I am talented, bright, creative … almost perfect. I am 33 years old; I have a Ph.D. in Renaissance literature from a prestigious Ivy League university. I’ve been married for 10 years to a wonderful husband. However, if you met me, you would not be able to surmise any of that based on how I look and act.

I work as a copy editor for a small company. I have the most credentials of all my co-workers and yet I am constantly passed over for promotions or leadership roles in projects. Time and time again, my reviews have indicated that I need to be more assertive and confident. I’m very shy and rarely speak in meetings.

I was the same way in graduate school. Yet not only did I manage to earn my degree, but I also taught undergraduate classes and presented papers at conferences. Basically, when it was time to perform in public, I somehow gained the strength and got through it. But these experiences seemed like walking on fire. I dreaded them. After graduating I had several promising interviews for teaching jobs. But I failed horribly and never received an offer. Five years and several degrading jobs later, I am now in my present position. Instead of being proud of my education, I have come to resent my Ph.D. I feel like I wasted those 10 years on graduate school. When I meet new people, I no longer tell them I have a doctorate for fear that they will look at me like I am a freak.

I want desperately to be confident and possess the spirit and aura that befit my achievements. I know I can do better, but I am paralyzed. I’ve taken more public speaking and assertiveness classes than I can count. They have not helped. I’m beginning to think it’s genetic and I am destined to be underemployed and miserable forever. Please tell me I’m wrong.

Cubicle Dwelling Ph.D.

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Dear Cubicle Dweller,

Of course you don’t have to be underemployed and miserable. You just need to find a place where you fit in. If I were to meet you on the street, I’d know for sure, but just from your letter, I’m going to guess that you are an introverted intuitive type. That would explain a lot — why you were so successful in academia, why your interviews went poorly, why you’re slaving away in a job that you’re probably doing very well but not getting credit for, and why people keep telling you to be more assertive.

If my hunch is correct, telling you to be more assertive is like telling a cat to bark. It’s not that you lack self-confidence; I’m sure you’re quite confident in your own abilities. But you’re stuck in a world whose symbols are alien. Business is burlesque! Competence is signaled symbolically. You go around acting all confident and assertive and people go — Look! She’s confident and assertive! We’d better promote her! Business is filled with people who aren’t really thinking straight. It’s full of voodoo. If I were you, I’d get back into academia fast.

But first, let’s talk about your type. Perhaps you have never given much thought to your underlying type. Perhaps “type” seems mundane or shallow; perhaps you find the idea distastefully deterministic. Perhaps you think of Jung as cultish. But I have found it useful to learn about Jungian types as they are simplified and codified in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.

The introvert is the ruler of a vast interior dominion. For the introvert, everything happens there. Who else would get a Ph.D. in Renaissance literature? Who else would live in a world accessible only through art? We extroverts out here in our hiking shorts and blazers don’t get to see what’s going on inside that head — whose eyes are sometimes cast slightly downward as if trying to see inside themselves. It bugs us that we can’t tell what’s going on in there, and that she won’t just come out and explain how she got to where she is. When the introvert speaks, sometimes it seems to come out of nowhere. What is she talking about? It seems as though she’s jumped from A to Z.
The introvert doesn’t share her feelings with us in that easy, cooperative extroverted way that we snowmobilers prefer. She’s not going to say, Hey y’all, come on in, let’s all do therapy together, let’s tinker with my dreams! Paradoxically, the introvert doesn’t really notice her interior world as something distinct from who she is; to the introvert, the interior is real. We extroverts crow about our grand excursions into psychic space, but we’re just tourists there, handling every object with dumb amazement: Look Ma, I’ve found an intuitive connection! The introvert sits on her porch and watches with detachment — or perhaps mild annoyance — as we bumble through her domain.

You get what I’m saying? Some of it may ring true, some may not. There are degrees. I’m winging it. That’s my talent. I’m an improviser. It’s an extroverted talent. I don’t mind getting up here and winging it. I’m a bit of a showoff, something you probably don’t like in a man, but there it is, we’re different. The thing is, though, I know who you are. And I know you don’t belong in an office full of people who think you should be more assertive.

So if I were you, I’d begin looking again for employment in academia. If you cannot find a teaching job, take another job in academia. That is where you thrived. That is where you belong. That is where you will be appreciated. If you can’t get a job in academia, then look in fields where intellectual talent is valued above a go-getter’s bravado — in research, for instance, or publishing, or journalism. Look for a firm where others with advanced degrees also work; chances are if they are happy there, you can be too.

And then, once you’ve secured a new job, go to your old boss and say, “Hey, motherfucker, get this: I don’t do ‘assertive and confident’! I quit! I’m an introvert, damn it!”

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Turning 50: It’s all downhill from here

 

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Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, OCT 6, 2009

I’ve got only a genetic disease and old age to look forward to


 

Dear Cary,

I have been reading your column for a while and always find your advice useful in a roundabout way, but I especially find it honest.

I’m going to be turning 50 this year and have learned I have a fairly rare genetic disease that will (and, indeed, has already begun to) cause great suffering in the years to come, though it likely won’t end my life prematurely.

Unfortunately, I have seen what this disease has done to my father, who is now in his 80s, and I have no desire to go through the endless hospitalizations, treatments, etc., that he endures just to keep on living. I feel tense and anxious most of the time, and also sad.

I’m realizing, however, that the disease is not the only factor in my feelings. Frankly, life in middle age is a tedious, boring chore. I become sad when I think back to my 20s, which was really my peak — a series of endless mental and physical challenges, pleasures and obstacles to overcome.

I’m stuck in an unchallenging but well-enough paying job that I despise. Leaving it would mean competing with people half my age for less pay, and I probably can never get health insurance again, so that option is out.

My home life isn’t much better. I’m stuck with a partner who offers, at best, extremely mediocre sex once every couple weeks. I watch porn to remember the types of adventures I used to have in real life, but it only makes me more sad, angry and resentful.

I’ve given up most of my hobbies as they were fairly pointless wastes of time. Even volunteer work became unsatisfying. For every person or animal I was able to help, there were hundreds of others for whom I could do nothing.

My one true pleasure, hiking in the hills with my dog for hours on end, ended when the dog became severely ill and I had to euthanize her a month ago. Yes, I could get another dog, and yes, I realize everyone anthropomorphizes their pets, but this dog was indeed unique and irreplaceable and her spirit is sorely missed. Her sweet nature and enthusiasm could melt even the most cynical heart.

Well, I will stop with this pity party, but it seems to me that nature had the right idea with human life spans that used to be so short. Now it seems we get 30 or so good years, then 50 years to sit around and wait for the inevitable.

In youth, there is excitement of the unknown. Unfortunately, at this point, I pretty much know how my life is going to go: a slow, steady, physical decline; deaths of more friends and loved ones; and a relationship that will become nothing more than buried resentment over a complete lack of sexual fulfillment.

Frankly, I see very little to look forward to, and I’m not even sure what I’m asking you.

Nothing to Look Forward To

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Dear Nothing to Look Forward To,

Well, my friend, I don’t have the skills to persuade you of what I intuit, or the power to compel you to do as I ask, nor do I have the kind of deep responsibility toward you that a family member or loved one might feel, so I am just going to say what is clear to me and hope that you can overcome the voices in your own head telling you the contrary long enough to act on my suggestion. First of all, and I don’t know why I really want to say this, but I’m just going to trust the impulse: You are going to be taken care of. You’re on a road. You’re not just a forlorn sack of chemicals in a marriage; you’re a human being; you’re a person; you’re a being; you have a place in this world. I also feel this: I feel that you are grieving. You may be depressed, but “depressed” feels vague. To me, you are grieving. “Depression” feels like the damming-up of that grief, not the grief itself. You are grieving the loss of your dog and your connection to nature. You are grieving the loss of your dog and your connection to nature but you are also berating yourself for your grief, perhaps to protect yourself from its full, wracking extent.

You also sound like you are grieving for your youth. For that I salute you. Yes, I salute you. Why don’t more of us openly grieve our youths? Why don’t more of us admit that when we wake up one day and find ourselves no longer 20 and hard, indefatigable and quick, irresistible all night, a world ahead of us just for the asking, etc., etc., (I’m not trying to lyrically eulogize it; I’m just trying to name it), why don’t more of us admit that we are filled with a deep and painful sadness? Why don’t we have rites for this? Why do we have to say goodbye to our youth alone, in the shame of our advancing decrepitude?

(I tried to do this publicly, in a way, seven years ago, back in 2002, and indeed it did help to acknowledge publicly that I was no longer 20, although of course it did not arrest the arrow of time.)

You are grieving the loss of your youth and the loss of your dog and you are also living in fear of the future.

That makes you a perfect candidate for membership in the moment.

So, my friend, make your application now!

Yes, you, my friend, are a perfect candidate for membership in the moment. There is always room for one more. So welcome. Come on in. Welcome to the now. Welcome to the now that’s up on the trail, the glistening, humming, vibrating, iridescent, incalculable, inescapable now: Welcome to this very moment, wherever you are. Unless one of us is traveling faster than the speed of light, you and I are both inhabiting this mathematical simultaneity we call the now; we are in it, you and I, right now, so it might be said, though it sounds silly, that we are even together in the now, that as I sit near the window of the cafe in early morning, shivering in the first frost (there was ice on my truck this morning, for heavens sake!) and wondering idly why the employees have the windows and the door open (I know, it gets hot back there) that you and I are, in this moment, perhaps sharing a breath; perhaps as I breathe in you are breathing in too, and the innumerable creatures and souls who also inhabit this moment are also breathing in or breathing out, and the unfathomable underpinnings of our enterprise are operable; the equations and magics of chlorophyll and ganglia are in effect; the infinite, expanding factory of existence is running all night; it’s all going on right now. Welcome.

In this moment you have many choices. You can concentrate on the breath alone, climbing the breath like a rope into the heavens, following the breath back to the beginning of time, rising and falling with the breath like a column of smoke, with every inhalation and exhalation rehearsing the beginning and the end, the creation and the obliteration of the cosmos and the beginning and the end of your life, your wakefulness and your sleep. You can do that in this moment. You can do that in this moment and it may free you momentarily from your stranglehold on the future, or the future’s stranglehold on you, or however you want to place subject and verb in expressing that asphyxiating entanglement.

You can also in this moment allow thoughts of your next move to arise. You can, for instance, determine to contact a cognitive therapist and see about pruning some of the vines.

Yes, you can also in this moment choose to contact a cognitive therapist and get to work on that pattern of thinking that has overtaken you like a vine overtaking a healthy tree. You are wrapped in vines of dread, vines of grief. You are wrapped in vines. You have fed them and given them a home and now they are suffocating you. But you are not yet so completely entwined that you cannot reach out just far enough to gain the attention of a skilled cognitive therapist who can show you how to clip the vines back and get some air.

It is both the joy and the curse of this job that I cannot make you do this. If I could make you do this, my job would be unbearable; every time I failed to make someone do something I would be burdened; every time someone exercised their freedom of choice I would be a failure. Every time someone failed I would fail as well. Luckily, that is not the case. I can say what I say and that is that. We are just two living strangers inhabiting the same moment. It is as though you might overhear me in a cafe advising someone else to go get some cognitive therapy to clip back the vines of depression. I am speaking to the wind. That is fine. I am happy doing that. I am happy speaking to the wind.

But I speak hoping you will overhear me and take it to heart.

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Stolen words

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Cary’s classic column from

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


Dear Cary,

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

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

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

Accidental Ghostwriter

Cary Tennis Writing Retreat in France

Dear Ghostwriter,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WhatHappenedNextCall

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Panicked in Rome

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Cary’s classic column from

Should I give up my career and live the life of an Italian housewife?


Dear Cary,

I graduated from college nearly two years ago and moved to Italy, where I have fallen in love with a wonderful man I have known since April and dated seriously since June. On all fronts the relationship is sound: communication is clear and honest; sex is good, frequent, joyful; we have similar levels of education and opportunity and are both fluent in the other person’s mother tongue. I am happier than I ever have been and entertain thoughts on the bus and the elevator of marrying this guy, having children, and becoming an Italian housewife. I do like to cook. While living in Rome, I have been editing publications for the U.N., which sounds like an interesting job but is actually very boring and unsatisfying. It is also unstable. I ignore my problematic work life because everything else is so pleasurable.

Before I met him, I wanted to accumulate designer degrees and pursue an ambitious career at the United Nations or some international agency. I was also anxious and prone to panic attacks. In order to pursue the old dream, I need to go back to school, but there are no schools in Italy that interest me. Since being with this man I have been noticeably calmer, more energetic, and I don’t panic when I’m in the house alone or while waiting for the train. I wonder if this means I am too dependent on him, but my friends and family enthusiastically affirm that he is a great influence on me. I feel secure. In addition, I like my life here irrespective of him. Nice weather, good food, a handful of people I care about.

I find that my desire to apply to school is dwindling, and the housewife option looks snuggly, warm and happy. I have always defined myself as an avid student, a liberated woman, someone with ambition. Now I’m just turning into a oozy cuddly dwarf rabbit. I have discussed this with my boyfriend. who says I should apply for the degree as if I have no love story and decide after the results come. All the same, I am blocked when I sit down to fill out the forms. I just can’t do it. Organizing my sock drawer looks more interesting.

Do I sound like a shriveled woman from the 1950s, instead of the college-educated, active women I believe myself to be, if I decide to stay with him instead of going back to school? Or does it perhaps take more strength to chose contentment and satisfaction with simple things? I can’t tell how much my thinking is clouded by being in love and the general complacency of my surroundings, but I know that I am more relaxed than I was when living in New York, city of perpetual self-dissatisfaction.

It would be an easier decision if he wasn’t such a good boyfriend. The problem is, if I leave next year I feel I would be nipping the relationship in the bud, meaning, we wouldn’t have had enough time to know if this could really work out. I hate the thought of a long-distance relationship. Do they ever work out? Should I risk losing him anyway?

You see, I’m panicking again.

Dear Panicking,

You know, I have become fairly good at analyzing a situation where one choice is clearly better. But in other situations, such as yours, it seems that one has been very lucky, that one is in paradise, facing two equally wonderful opportunities, and that one is suffering not because the choices are unpleasant but because the act of thinking about them is fraught with fear and anxiety. In such cases, one wants to say something trite like “Just enjoy yourself!” But one knows that the person asking the question is far too intelligent to take such trite advice, that, in fact, it is her intelligence that is contributing to the problem — a dumb person would just lie in the sun, screw the boyfriend, cook veal and lord it over all her friends back in New York, sending them postcards from Tuscany and little notes scribbled in the stern of a gondola, with a little water stain from where you dragged your fingers in the cool water and thought of your dear friends riding the subway at rush hour in July.

You’re too smart to do that. But I sometimes think intelligence is misused out of perversity, that it becomes not a route to ever more intense and refined pleasure in this magnificent world but instead, because of some unacknowledged slight or long-held resentment, because of some fear that we will never measure up or never accomplish anything, some belief in an image of who it is we must become, that because of these things intelligence becomes instead a knife with which we tear ourselves open and watch ourselves bleed. We humans love to suffer — in different ways, quietly or loudly, through intricate subterfuge or broad physicality — just the same, we humans love to suffer. And one of the ways we suffer is by pretending that there is some cultural ideal we must worship and dedicate our lives to achieving.

Well, it simply isn’t true. Our lives belong to us. There is no cultural ideal you have to live up to. And the paradoxical thing is, those very people who have now become cultural ideals that you think you have to live up to were the ones who achieved what they achieved by flouting the very idea of living up to some received cultural ideal. You feel me, sister? The feminists whom you think you’re supposed to emulate got where they got by saying fuck you to whatever the world said they were supposed to do. And now you’re cowering before some received notion of how you’re supposed to be, which is not what they would have wanted. So I suggest you truly do as they did and say fuck you to these warmed-over notions of female heroism: If anything, their gift to you is that you get to live your life any way you want; the last thing your feminist heroes would want is for you to feel obligated to strive for some powerful position in government when what you really want to do is perfect your veal piccata and count the thousand different shades of a Roman dusk.

You are here to enjoy your life. If you don’t want to be a highly placed U.N. official in a smart black suit and chestnut hair taking Concorde to a top-level negotiation with Zambian rebels in a villa outside Paris, you don’t have to be. You don’t owe anything to anybody. All you have to do is be happy. Try looking around you. Cook a nice meal. Just live this one day.

And, hey, at the same time, don’t sell yourself short. Fill out the application. It can’t hurt. Your boyfriend sounds like a smart guy. You don’t have to do it, but it’s nice to have the option. Have a good life. Don’t panic. It’ll work out.

I got caught stealing money from work

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Cary’s classic column from


I was fired and I’m making restitution, but I’m dying of shame.


Dear Cary,

I stole a large sum of money over a period of time from my job and was appropriately fired. I agreed to work out a repayment plan for all the money that I owe.

Although I am extremely lucky with the outcome, I feel remorseful and ashamed of what I did. I even attempted to commit suicide for the pain and guilt I felt (because of this situation, coupled with other things going on in my life). My career is probably shot to hell, I probably lost the trust of many co-workers/friends and I can’t seem to move forward with my life.

I knew that what I did was wrong and I am deeply sorry for what I have done, but I can’t seem to get past this. How do I forgive myself for what has happened and move forward?

Ashamed and Lost in Chicago

Cary Tennis Writing Retreat in France

Dear Ashamed and Lost,

Self-forgiveness comes from a recognition that though we have done wrong things, we retain a core self that is worthy of love.

There is a paradox, or difficulty, at the heart of this, whether you believe in an external power of forgiveness or not. We face what we have done, no matter how awful, but we come to this action filled with self-love. How can this be? How can we not hate ourselves for what we have done? How can we not grind our teeth at night for how we have screwed up our lives and the lives of others? And if we still love ourselves, does that mean that we believe we are innocent?

No. We are not saying we are innocent of the crime we have committed. We are saying that no matter how great our crime, we retain some kernel of innocent humanity, and that we remain deserving of love.

We balance these seemingly contradictory truths and live with them: Yes, even after committing a crime, we retain an innocent core self; it may only exist as a ghost self, or a fragile impression, a faint tracing of past innocence; but it is there. We were born into innocence, and that fact remains. It is to that self that we direct our nurturance and love.

This is a matter of the heart. But that is not all there is to it. There is a worldly component. When we transgress, we are cast out. A firing is a casting out. Yet unlike a society or village that might cast you out and then welcome you back from the forest, or a penal system that might imprison you and then release you, a company may fire you and forget you. There is little hope of being welcomed back to this particular company. Yet you need, for your own resurrection, to enact some kind of return. So perhaps you will feel it necessary to return to this same field with a different company. Or you will embark on a similar field, in a way that is informed by what you have learned through your transgression. In this way, having been cast out, you reinvent yourself in order to make a kind of return.

The ritual of exile and return makes vivid our passage. It gives us the feeling of “moving on.” Lacking that ritual, you would naturally feel stuck. Look for ways to live in the world openly as a person who has committed a transgression and is making restitution. Perhaps you can be of help to others who are also struggling with feeling stuck and full of self-hatred. That will take your mind off your own problems and give you a way to be useful. Being useful in the world heals us and gives us back our place. It is one way of “returning.” Speaking openly of what we have done and how we are working to correct it empowers us, and it empowers others; it takes the sting of shame away.

Finally, let me just say, as a layperson with no religious or political standing, as somebody you might sit next to on the bus: You are a flawed human being just like the rest of us, deserving of love and respect just like the rest of us. You needn’t punish yourself any more. You’re doing your time.

 


In which Cary Tennis attempts to revive the spirit of the questing, searching essay form while maintaining token loyalty to the old, reliable advice column

 

Am I doing it right?

 

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Dear Reader,

When I was writing the Since You Asked advice column for Salon.com, I often would meander from the “given” form in ways that some readers found aesthetically displeasing. They were experiencing genre shock. (As though they had walked into a movie theater expecting Love Story and got Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Or, more contemporary, expecting Spiderman 2 and getting … Oh, take your pick, what do I know of modern movies anyway? I scarcely leave the house these days unless it is to walk to the mailbox and remark on the men building the brick wall around the new preschool to take the place of the old captain’s cottage at 48th and Pacheco.) I took some heat for my perambulations at the time, but now that I have been unceremoniously released from my 12-year stint of service I look back and wonder why I didn’t take even more liberties with the form.

This is the kind of digression I would try to avoid when I was drawing a salary from Salon.com—even though I did it often enough anyway! It seemed like bad form. It may still seem like bad form.

But I am free to do what I wish now! I would probably be fired for writing like this if I were employed but I’m not employed, and very few people read this anyway, a diminishing number if our observations are correct, so: I am free! I am free! 

Furthermore, my spirits have been enlivened by reading Philip Lopate’s thoughts on William Hazlitt and Montaigne. I am realizing now that some of my periodic odd thoughts and zig-zags were part of a hazily remembered tradition but one deeply planted in my bones, a tradition that my father also was a part of. His craziness was not just craziness but part of a certain literary tradition and cast of mind that allowed for the mind to wander where it would, kicking at this tin can and that old master and this tree limb and that dog and child and garden gate and snail and rabbit and lost locket of a mistress or a temptress or a goddess wherever such were encountered. That is . . . It was a tradition of making sentences go wherever they would go, trusting the net of syntax to hold us together even if the strands grew thin, testing the mind to hold it together too, testing the mind to hold together the sense of a sentence even as it meandered, as long as it held to certain rules and maintained its tensile strength.

I didn’t take things far enough. Though some thought I went too far, think I did not go nearly far enough! Sure, I occasionally would write a column in the form of an imagined scene, with dialog and setting. And I would occasionally rant on. But I was trying to remain within the bounds of the journalistic trade I had learned.

No longer. There is no longer any reason for me to try to remain within any journalistic boundaries, for I am no longer doing journalism. That is quite freeing to realize. I have been wondering, in fact, how to make the transition to the new frontier that I am facing as a writer. Nothing could be simpler: Just jump over the fence!

And it has been enlightening to read Lopate, actually, and also Gornick, and I’m going to read Burroway when I can get my hands on her, and also Hazlitt and Montaigne, to see what the roots of this current craze are, and I’m not going to worry about much. Like am I doing it right?

Say that you have a problem and you have written to me.

There are many scenes this can evoke. Say you have come to me trusting me to think carefully about your problem and I instead seem intent on my own. You write to me expecting that your letter will be read carefully and considered, that I will weigh your problem with the same gravity with which you yourself weigh it. You don’t expect me to say, Hey, that’s not a problem, you selfish, privileged person! You don’t expect me to malign your motives. That’s part of the bargain.

But breaking the bargain is interesting, too, as long as it happens in an interesting way. So for instance say you have a desire to be punished. How can I know that? I can’t. But I can guess, in the interests of drama—which immediately is breaking the presumed bond of my promise to be helpful and kind. But might the column fulfill your wishes in that way, if your wishes only were known? Why must the advice columnist always play the nurturing role? That is the role I play all the time. But it is simply a role, as I have insisted all these years, when people would ask me, how can you be so compassionate, so wise? Because I am playing a role! Because I am at heart a spinner of tales, a writer of fiction, a prevaricator of the first order! I play a good man on the Internet but I am not really a good man all the time any more than you are a good person all the time. So I have to fight through, in the moment, my various unsavory impulses, in order to fulfill my mandate. But my mandate is gone!

As my wife and I were sitting down to a lunch of delicious stuffed cabbage yesterday, I remarked to her, You know, the roots of civilization are in not saying the first thing that comes to mind, in having some restraint.

Now at the word “restraint” if you were of the guilty, masochistic type, you might think of physical restraint. In fact we might explore the extent to which the erotic interest in physical restraints is a speaking-out of civilization’s need for metaphysical and spiritual restraint: A way of acting out our need to develop a way of living within society; the restraints, or bonds, might be considered our superego, doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves.

Anyway, after long consideration, I have decided that if this new column on my site is going to have any value at all, its value will lie in my commitment to follow my mind where it may lead, and to attempt to bring some order and clarity to my flitting thoughts, while also answering your letter in some form or other. It will be far more interesting to me and perhaps to you as well. For after all the mind is a crazy and barely tamed thing, full of associations that are at first puzzling but which can be made clear once all their dimensions are sorted out and brought to light.

It will be rough going, there’s no doubt. I won’t be cleaning it up like I used to at Salon. (You should see the many thousands and thousands of words that I removed from my columns over the years. In fact, I may begin posting them just for the sheer strangeness of it, to say, this is the mind’s detritus, this is what is left over, these are all the stray thoughts that in a perfect world, would be loved as much as their well-groomed brothers and sisters who were allowed to go to the fair.)

For this style to work it must not seem random. There must be a hidden rigor to it. I must leap off the cliff and then improvise on the way down, making it look easy, making it look like I knew exactly what I was doing when I jumped off the cliff!  I must reveal my thoughts as they arise but also to make some sense of them, to string them together so that you can see that I am not just putting out random thoughts without any effort to connect them. You must see that I am struggling to do something that is hard—as I was when I was working at Salon, only now with fewer restraints. There’s that word “restraint” again. I do wish to be tied. I do wish to have my freedom taken from me. I do wish to meld into a oneness, to merge, to leave my separate self, and being restrained is a part of that, too. But, being a writer, I take the route of thinking. OK, so maybe I tie my hands together and try to type. That would be funny. Maybe I make a video of me typing with my hands tied together and blindfolded, with a gag in my mouth. That is the writer at work in some settings, is it not? And we think of writers in repressive regimes and wonder if in some way they did not welcome the silencing of their thoughts, for our thoughts are not angels; our thoughts are devils. Our thoughts are malevolent beings that attempt to take control of us. I remember my first visit to the Jung Institute in San Francisco, my interviewer asked me, do I hear voices? and I said of course I do, and he asked, do they tell you to do things? And that was a harder question. For if they told me to do things I still retained the dispassionate interest in them to regard their instructions with haughty disdain or contempt. But our thoughts do not have to be telling us to do things in order to be devils and distractions and sources of discomfort. Their mere presence, like the presence of a jack hammer outside the window, or a dog barking, or a Harley going up the street (p.s. how do they get to be so loud? How can anything be that loud? How is it legal?) is a distraction.

So we might say, too, that journalistic restraints are a way of recognizing the essential unruliness of our own minds, as well as of our society. I’m of at least two minds about this. (ha ha) Because I tell you, in a sober, adult voice, journalism—disciplined, traditional, “objective” journalism—is a wonderful thing. It’s super valuable! It’s how we can know something. It’s how we attain the meager certainty that we can attain, given the uncertainty of our universe. It’s like science. It’s a way of knowing something pretty surely, as surely as we can know, given the uncertainties of time and, to be sure, the uncertainties of knowing itself, of the universe itself as we conceive it. It’s the best we can do. And for that it is of immense value.

But the fact that we attain some degree of knowledge and certainty does not mean that we are civilized and in control. To the contrary, the sheer difficulty with which we attain even the most meager knowledge and certainty, the rarity of such certainty, the number of years and the training it takes to learn to do it—to learn to have several sources and to tease out the implications of a piece of reporting, to see it from all angles, to discuss it with other editors and reporters, to compare notes—all this only indicates how truly slippery reality is and how essentially crazy the world is.

If the world weren’t crazy, we wouldn’t have to work so hard to make sense of it. So maybe we are working too hard to make too much sense of it. Maybe, rather than remove all that is nonsensical—which is what we are up to when we are doing careful journalism—right now I prefer the model of admitting all that is nonsensical and random into the discourse, but then following each random and nonsensical item to its source, and searching out its relations, until it becomes clear in some kind of context. Like for instance why I am thinking about restraint and all its implications, both in the world of sadomasochism and in the world of journalism, and in our day-to-day attempts to live civilized, decent lives in which we do not bring harm to those around us.

I do not want to be reductive. I want to include everything. It will get exhausting but that is the price of occasional insight.

So on to the letter and we will see where this leads us.

(You see, it has taken a few months for me to find my footing.)

Here is the letter.

France_Ad_fix

Hi Cary,

For the past four years, I’ve enjoyed your advice column. I’ve always found something in your responses that I could take away and apply to my own life. Sometimes it was made me aware of how people affect me, sometimes how I have been affecting people.

Here is some context for myself – I am a creative practitioner in my late twenties. My field of work is a very… labour and hours intensive one. It is not uncommon for me to work into the night, and through weekends. This might sound anti-social, but I work as much as I do because it is what I love most. I’ve always found people really difficult to understand because of my childhood circumstances (hence why your column was so enlightening to me), so I feel like the solitary nature of my work is the perfect partner to my personality.

This is partly the reason why I quit my stable job 2 years ago and begin working for myself. That situation has been up and down, but I’ve been able to keep my head above water, and the massive upside is that I get to choose what I work on. I’m able to have an amount of passion for everything that I take on – and clients don’t mind if I’m crazy about work and socially awkward as long I’m pumping out the work they like. This whole venture has meant I have to drink cheap coffee, make my own food to last weeks, and not have new clothes, but it’s been worth it!

Late last year I entered a period of financial stability, which coincided with meeting someone I felt I connected with.

She’s an artist, older than me, works in a cafe, and has had a lot more experience in anything about everything. She is also up front about her past of substance abuse, even though she is clean now. A lot about her partying past scares me – the types of people, the types of things they did… I’ve been close to someone that was into that type of existence, and I still get painful feelings thinking about it. She was so completely different to me in every way, but I could stop myself from liking her.

We would have talks – she would come around to where I lived so we could work on a special creative project together. I gave her bits of work from my own jobs, because I knew that she was good. When her living situation imploded, she spent a month on my couch. I felt like I had found someone that was going to go on creative adventures with me.

The possibility of renting a cottage together came up – she needed a place to live, I needed a place to work. We applied and were successful, I moved my office into the place while she was away visiting her family. When she came back, we moved all her stuff in. Since then, a lot has happened. I could go on about lots of little things, but that would be a bit granular so I’ll try and summarise.

I have the habit of emotionally exploding. One time, I went around to the office to pick up something I’d left there and forgotten the day before. It was our arranged ‘day off’ where she has the house to herself, but I needed this item to do work. I knocked on the door, and she was very angry for almost a week. Her anger at this, really shook me. 3 months later, I am not allowed to be in the house at night-time. That in itself is really hard for me, since being separated from my equipment is painful and means I can’t work. She made a specific meeting to tell me that we should stop hanging out and having dinner together. Recently, I emotionally snapped, because I couldn’t take the tension of not being on speaking terms with someone I share a floor with.

After this, I tried to dial back, however I was told that she can’t have me in the house. A summary of her words were, she really likes the work and the jobs we do together, but she didn’t sign up to deal with all the emotions I’ve been exhibiting. I proposed that if we tried to talk more I wouldn’t be so uncomfortable around her – her response was that she’s not going to change anything to deal with my problems. So I moved out my equipment, and into a garage someone has kindly let me occupy. As I was packing up my stuff that afternoon, she told me it’s not like we aren’t going to communicate, after all we still have jobs to complete. Then her friend picked her up to drive her to her yoga class.

I had contracted her to work on some jobs that I had sourced, well before things got so bad. Within a few days I received some emails with one line sentences and phone pictures of sketches she had done. When I critiqued one and asked for further clarification of design details, I got a curt response with an exclamation point. Because she doesn’t have time to work on them any further, I have to pick up the remaining work and finish it in a couple of days.

This is really affecting me. I can’t get out of bed, I don’t want to answer the phone. This garage is horrible, and I’m still on the lease at the house even though I can’t go there anymore. I’ve been treated for depression before, and I thought I was doing well these past few years but now I don’t know what to do. I have no idea. All these work deadlines are hitting me and I can’t work. I feel like a fool, because if I’d just been able to control my emotional reactions maybe I wouldn’t be in this pain.

Sincerely,
Creatively dumped

Connecticut_SlightlySmaller

Dear Creatively Dumped,

There has been a breakdown in your work relationship with this person that is affecting your ability to deliver the work you’ve promised. For the time being, you need to put aside attempts to make the personal relationship work and just finish the jobs you’re doing with her.

If you can finish the work without her involvement, do so. If you can find another collaborator to finish the work with, do so. If you end up owing her a kill fee, pay her the kill fee and be done with it. If you must continue with her, then continue with her until the jobs you’ve currently agreed to perform together are concluded. Then end your relationship with this person.

Your mistake was to mix personal space with work space. It’s always risky. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Just recognize that you have to be careful mixing work and friendship.

Can I just say something, though? Why don’t you say you are a painter, or sculptor, or filmmaker, or clothing designer, or whatever you are? Why are you so circumspect about what it is you actually do? I have wondered this about letter writers for a long time and I’m finally going to just start asking: Why are people so vague about what they are actually doing? It would be extremely helpful to know exactly what kind of work you do.

I am curious, too, about what this reticence means culturally. What is the “social space” in which this reticence occurs? Is that social space in some way the problem? That is, we have a problem that is very much about material circumstances. Material circumstances are very concrete. Space, time, money, objects, equipment, contracts, labor, hours: These are all very concrete things about which agreements can be made that eliminate later confusion. Clearly, the reason you have a problem with this person is that you did not negotiate in enough detail, in a concrete enough way.

Perhaps it seemed silly or rude to talk about exact hours and spaces and times of day and so forth, in the context of your personal relationship. And yet now we see the problems that result. You are in a garage.

Here’s another thing. She has her share of problems. We don’t know what they are, precisely, but we know she has her share of problems. It’s possible that she has screwed you over. But you’ve let her screw you over. So we’re back to the question of restraint. If we let someone screw us over, are they to blame? Well, yes, of course they are. And are we to blame for letting them screw us over? Yes, of course we are. It takes two. Either party could prevent this. In the “real world,” people screw you over if they can.

So don’t get screwed over. Accept that people will screw you over if you let them. Don’t let them.

What does that mean?Here’s an idea that’s very concrete: Take some self-defense courses. Seriously. You may be able to get to the psychological thing you need through the body. Try it. Try getting into battle in a physical way and see if that doesn’t tell you something about your vulnerable posture in the world.

And that’s it from me.

So this has been rather rough and not at all the type of column I used to write for Salon. In a sense, I am reinventing my practice once again—now that the restraints are off. Increasingly, as the weeks go by, you will see a shift from a straight advice column to something else, whose outlines will remain fuzzy, but which will take more chances, be more rhetorical, more questioning, more immediate, and perhaps, on certain days, crazier. People will hate it or love it. That’s nothing new. What’s new is that I’m currying favor neither with readers nor with an employer. I’m back in the business of confronting my own soul, which has ever been the only business a writer can be in.

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I stood on principle and was harshly reprimanded

Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, JUN 16, 2008


I refuse to apologize for taking a stand that is in the best interests of the company.


Dear Cary,

I am having a little difficulty knowing where the line dividing personal assistant and administrative staff lies. I’ve been harshly reprimanded for questioning or challenging a principal on a matter that I felt was an abuse of company resources and the administrative staff.

After I utilized the open-door policy by questioning said principal regarding a particular task, I was promptly told that I was out of line and then reprimanded by the operations manager, who explicitly said never to question a principal.

That comment makes me very uncomfortable.

As a fellow employee of this company, I assume the best interest of the company should be my first priority. If I believe that a particular task is an abuse of the company or I have a few concerns about it, I should feel free to confront the person ordering that task and ask questions, I think. Am I wrong? They make it seem as if we’re a family in this office and the doors are always open, but that is clearly not the case.

Shouldn’t an administrative assistant, as well as every employee, have the right to question a superior without fear of wounding an ego, inevitably resulting in an H.R. violation — usually “insubordination,” the vague corporate offense that encompasses anything not pleasing to a superior.

Caste, caste, caste … it is everywhere we look. At the grocery store, on the playground and most obviously at work, where you can be reprimanded and even fired for not bending over and taking it with a smile.

I am not apologizing! Maybe it would save me from an H.R. report to do so but I refuse to compromise my integrity. Am I being just as irrational as this jerk with a title? Refuse to

Apologize

Connecticut_PatCary1

Dear Refuse to Apologize,

My answer to you is a simple thing but hard to grasp. It is abundant, ancient and commonplace but sighted at a distance more often than caught. It is the truth and it is like a fish. There are big fish and small fish, and there are big truths and small truths but there are more small ones than big ones. The biggest ones are mostly mirages sprung from the exhausted minds of seekers who have grown weary, hungry and full of wishes. They see things that aren’t there. If wishes were fishes, as they say … (or is that “if wishes were horses”?).

This is all by way of delaying a small, blunt truth: Companies are made of people trying to get what they want. Everyone you are working for is a person trying to get what he or she wants. You can either stand in their way, in which case they will treat you as an obstacle, or you can aid them in getting what they want, in which case they might treat you as an ally.

So put aside for a moment your thoughts about how the company should be and what the company should want, and ask yourself what each individual with whom you are in conflict wants. There is nothing in the company but that. There is no company God who is going to decide who is right and wrong. There is no company parent who is going to step in and, after hearing both sides, punish the wrongdoer. The people in H.R. are just more people trying to get what they want. If getting what they want means nodding in agreement about abstract principles and then sabotaging you behind your back, then they will do that.

This description of reality may be offensive to you. But I didn’t make this up. I observed it. Maybe you can benefit from my experience by seeing, now, what it took me years to learn.

So what do your co-workers and superiors want? One way to learn what people want is to look at what they have. If your boss has a shiny red sports car, she wants shiny red sports cars. If she has three children, she wants children. If she has a position of power she wants power.

If she wants power and you are challenging her, then you are threatening to deprive her of what she wants, and naturally she will do things to thwart you so she can continue to get what she wants.

In trying to determine what your co-workers want, you must also ask what they want from you. Have they asked you to keep a close eye on them so as to prevent them from going to excess? Have they asked you to police their actions lest they exceed the bounds of their authority? Have they asked you to notify them if you feel they are failing to live up to the company’s values? Ask yourself what they have actually asked you to do. Literally: What have they asked you to do? Then try just doing that. Try doing just what they have asked you to do.

Do they want you to be on time? Do they want you to lecture them on the company’s policies and ideals? What have they asked you to do? What they have asked you to do is what they are paying you to do.

No matter what you understood when you were hired, you are now being paid to do what certain individuals want you to do. If you do these things they will pay you. If you don’t, they will try to make you go away. So try just doing these things and see if you can live with that. It may be that you can’t live with that.

It may be that you want to run things. If you want to run things, then find a job running things. Not everyone is good at running things. Not everyone wants to run things. People are needed who want to run things and are good at it. You can surely find a job doing that if that is what you want. But that does not appear to be the job you have.

If you find a job running things then you will confront a host of subordinates, each of whom wants something. Some of them may want to also run things. If you let them run certain things they will work hard for you. If you hoard all the running of things for yourself, then they will work against you.

You have to figure out what people want. It isn’t complicated. Just look at what they have. Look at what they try to get. The things people have and the things people try to get are the things people want. If you help them get these things, they will be your allies. If you try to thwart them, they will be your enemies. This is a simple and commonplace truth, yet like a fish it can be slippery to grasp.

WhatHappenedNextCall

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