I hate giving gifts. But …

It’s a terrible thing about me I guess but the truth is that the approach of the holiday season fills me with a mortal fear that I will have to give people gifts and I won’t know what to get them and so will get something stupid and it will ruin the relationship forever and cause me to spiral into a suicidal depression in which I will drive the car over a cliff but not actually kill myself only become hugely disfigured and then go through a lifetime of plastic surgeries that will only make me more gruesomely hideous.

It’s also possible that while trying to decide what gift to buy someone I will feel ever more frustrated at my inability to make a simple choice that regular people all over the world are making with apparent ease and this frustration will lead to anger and the anger will lead me to say something inappropriate to the person I am with who up till now thought I was a pretty decent person but will then decide on the basis of my sudden outburst that I am rather unstable and maybe made some bad life choices and henceforth that person will block my calls and unfriend me on Facebook.

Or I will spend way too much money on an inferior product. Or I will get something I think the person will like but which I personally find hideous and when the person opens it in my presence I will be seen to wince and that will telegraph something untrustworthy and suspicious about me, that I don’t really like the thing I claim to believe is really really cute and if I’m lying about that maybe I’m lying about many other things and this relationship, too, will spiral out of control and I will find myself blocked in numerous technological ways from further contact.

These are just a few of the bad things that could happen. This is why I hate giving gifts. But here is something. Here is the thing.

Finishing School Book CoverOur book Finishing School: The Happy Ending to That Writing Project You Can’t Seem to Get Done makes a great gift. I propose it as the solution to all gift-giving problems. And I have somewhat reliable proof, based on real people saying real things without prompting or cash prizes. When we talked about this idea, Danelle and I, when we wrote the proposal and showed it to people, especially but not only people in the worlds of journalism and book publishing but other people too, the thing they said, the overwhelmingly most common thing they said was, “I know somebody I want to give this to.”

So that was something we knew from the very beginning, that this would make a great gift-type book. So naturally we thought the smartest thing to do would be to publish just in time for the gift-giving season. Say, in October, just in time to get the advertising ready and everything geared up for a big push to market this book as a great gift book.
Instead, and surely they had their reasons, our publisher decided to release the book in January 2017. And the launch was kind of a bust for a number of reasons most of which totally having to do with me, which I hope to go into in subsequent posts …

Number One Reason the January 2017 Launch Was Kind of a Bust: I moved to Italy. It was a totally unrelated decision, unrelated to the book, which surprised the bejeezus out of Danelle, my co-writer, and probably caused her to think that she had teamed up with a person who was mildly unstable, a diagnosis that in subsequent interactions I must say has proven to be largely accurate, but be that as it may, the point here is that this is a great gift book that came out at the exact wrong time for a great gift book and I’m setting about to do what I can to rectify that totally innocent error by mounting a major push now, now that it is getting to be just about on the verge of gift-giving season. (Plus you don’t have to tell me how complicated the book business is, or how hard it is as an editor to get your favorite book slotted in the publication date slot you want it slotted in, especially if you are a brilliant but fairly new and young editor who has not yet acquired the superhuman clout and intra-business social capital you will later acquire, so I hold no grudge about this, I totally understand.)
Nonetheless, this is just by way of saying that for the next two months I’m going to be all over this trying to explain to people why this is a great gift book because I really am all about helping people and changing the world.

No gifts, just pay my bills

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, DEC 13, 2012

Instead of unwrapping new gizmos, I’d like help with my debts

Dear Mr. Tennis,

I have a fairly simple holiday question to ask you. But I fear that even though the question is simple the answer, or advice, may be much more complicated.

So here goes…

In all of your intuitive sagacity do you believe that it would be bad form to ask family members if they could contribute to helping pay outstanding debts (i.e., bills) instead of giving presents? A little clarification may be in order (I told you this would be sticky). Now this would not be the same as asking for money outright, which would be pretty ballsy and probably not welcomed warmly. No, this is more like saying, “I would really enjoy getting some new-fangled electronic gizmo or the entire set of Robogeek I-XII on Blu-ray… but this year what I really need is leg up to get back on my feet, so to speak.” Cash in hand says to me that it says to other people that I may take this to Vegas for partying and bail money or that groceries might not be the only bags I purchase with this money. Also, a check is usually something from grandparents or for an unrelated celebration from an entirely different sect. I am a decent person and I am fairly responsible but times are tough and the bestest gift I can think of is the gift of freedom. Clearing up that debt gives me the freedom to visit and do more of those things I had to politely decline so that I could spend more time at work slaving away to make more money to eventually have more time to do more things with family. Deep breath … OK. You can see how this could foul up a person’s “rasoodock” and lead to unwanted existential angst in the middle of a time of good will and good cheer. The holiday season is a time for charity but where the line should be drawn is kinda blurry. Or maybe it isn’t.

Thank you for your time and consideration, sir.

No Presents of Mind


Dear No Presents of Mind,

If it is bad form to admit to family members that you have money problems, then I’m all in favor of bad form. If swallowing your pride in order to try to pay off your debts is bad form, then I am all in favor of bad form.

So I actually got to thinking about how you would make it possible for people who want to give you gifts to help you pay off your debts instead. People might want to do it anonymously. They might not want you knowing the exact amount of money they sent. So could people send money to your creditors? Well, they could, but it would have to have the right account number on it. Do you want to give out your account numbers? Maybe not.

So it could get complicated. So I made some calls.

One guy I talked to, a press contact at the American Bankers Association, suggested that maybe people could write a check to the lending institution you wish to receive the money and send the check to you and then you could fill in the account number. So the check would be payable to, say, Chase, or American Express, or PG&E, and then you would put your own account number on it. Of course, that means you would know who was giving what, so it wouldn’t be totally anonymous. Or maybe, I thought, they could send it to an intermediary who would do this final step for you, so you would never really know who contributed what. Different lending institutions might have different policies. You might call your creditor and set up a way that people could send checks to them and identify your account.

I’m sure there are variations on this and other ways to go about it, like using a crowd-funding site such as Indiegogo or Kickstarter, or setting up a PayPal account that people could send money to. Have a party and collect cash in a hat and send it to Mastercard. There are lots of ways to go. You could easily over-complicate it. But basically I’m all for it. Especially if it’s in bad form! Let’s try to use this holiday for some rational economic improvement!

I am all in favor of being honest about your financial situation, and trying to do the thing that makes the most sense.

This could be a gift you would remember forever.

Good luck and happy holidays.


Let’s buy big, shiny things and act goofy!


Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from Thursday, Dec 16, 2010

The avalanche of presents leaves me cold, but I feel guilty for opting out

Dear Cary,

I know this is a trivial problem but I’m fretting about it. I am single and I usually see my sister and her family at Christmas. There are eight to 12 adults (depending on who comes from out of town) and one baby in her family and they all give each other multiple presents, then spend about three hours on Christmas morning unwrapping them. They have plenty of money so the presents are pretty extravagant.

When I used to join them on Christmas morning, they always had one present for me. I brought one present for each of them, usually something not so expensive, like a book or a pair of gloves — but those things added up to a substantial sum for me, because there are so many of them. Nobody particularly noticed what I brought — I couldn’t buy anything that would stand out amid the glitter.

I found myself simultaneously sneering at them (secretly) for their materialism and excess, and feeling hurt and envious because I only got one present and they each got a whole wagon load. So I stopped visiting on Christmas morning for the big unwrapping extravaganza, and I stop by on Christmas Eve. I give a big check to someone who helps poor families, or sometimes I just give a bundle of money to a struggling family, instead of buying all those scarves and socks for people who have way more than they need.

This works pretty well. But as the season comes round again, I find I’m still feeling some umbrage about their way of celebrating the holiday. I just want to stop feeling so out of joint about it, to relax and enjoy the visit when I go, and celebrate the joy of giving in my own way.

Do you have any cool ways for me to change my attitude?

Reluctant Scroogette



Dear Reluctant Scroogette,

There was this wonderful thing you used to do when you were a kid. You woke up and got presents.

It was magic.

Later you grow up and these people join your family and do this big exchange of gifts and it’s not at all like it used to be and it just feels hollow and stupid and I wouldn’t blame you if it made you feel left out and disappointed and even a little angry because it’s almost as though these people are trampling on something that was really wonderful and sweet and they’re sucking all the majesty out of it and completely missing the message of charity and love and really pretty much destroying the innocence and the magic of it with their big-wallet showoffiness.

But you have come up with a solution. You have changed your routine and found a way to make it mean something to you without disrupting the pleasure of everybody else. It must be a great relief to visit your sister on Christmas Eve and not have to do all that other stuff. It’s quite a victory!

And maybe it doesn’t have to be all sad. Sure, you can write checks to charities but Christmas is also supposed to be fun. Maybe there is a way for you to feed that part of yourself that really misses the childhood Christmas. See what you can do to regain some of that sacred feeling. That innocent feeling. Go have some fun. Get in the snow.

Have some happiness.

That’s really what it’s about. Have some happiness.

If nothing else, this is the one time in the year that Americans can act goofy and have fun. We don’t really know exactly what to do with this holiday anymore, but at least we know how to buy big shiny things at stores and act goofy. So let’s do that. Let’s have some happiness. Let’s buy big shiny things and act goofy.

We can all say to ourselves, OK, for once in the year, it’s my right to try to have some happiness. Let’s go out and find some, wherever we find it. Maybe it means sitting on a hill, or firing a gun, or blowing a horn, or rowing a boat.

Go find some happiness. It’s the season.


I’m already dreading Christmas with my family

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from

We’ll sit around with nothing to say, eating takeout food.

Dear Cary,

I know this is pretty early, but I’m already freaking out about hanging out with my family during Christmas. My family consists of my mother, my father, my brother and me, the daughter/sister. My brother isn’t married, but I am; I have a husband and two kids. My husband and the kids get along fine with my family; actually, my parents love my husband to pieces. The problem is with me.

Whenever I get together with my parents, which is only once a year or so, I get the feeling that they don’t really want to be with me. I mean, we drive six hours, they fly for four hours and my brother flies for four hours (don’t ask why we are all traveling…that is another long story) and then we spend the weekend together by doing a lot of nothing. My parents go to sleep at 7 or 8 p.m. and get up at 5 a.m., and by the time I get up at 7:30 a.m. or so, they have already left to go to doctors appointments, to fix the roof on a rental house, to go to the DMV. They don’t show up until noon or so. My brother stays in bed until 2 p.m. and parties with his friends until late. Our “quality time” together consists of eating from the same takeout places over and over again.

Now that I have toddlers, there is something to entertain us, but without the kids, there is nothing to say to each other. My parents are very private people; if you asked me what their biggest worry was, I would have no idea. When I ask about their work, I just get vague answers and sort of sarcastic replies. I know this is just par for the course because I have the same problem getting all defensive about choices I made and things that I do; when they ask me questions, I hedge as well. I’ve made some career choices that bother them and they let me know that they don’t like it, so I shut up about the details. My mother also recently told me that she would like to divorce my dad because he’s kind of a control freak and generally a rude man, except that she takes her wedding vows seriously and that she’s used to him and, heck, what else would she do? This was a shock to me (even though I think I could never live with my dad) as I thought that their marriage was fine, even stellar.

I just have this feeling that we are at an impasse, that all of us want to be closer but we don’t know how to be. Right now, I feel that hanging out with my parents is an obligation rather than something I enjoy. Is it to be that way always? If it is, I just want to know that and that I shouldn’t expect any more closeness from my family and I should look elsewhere. I’ve been reading a lot of Zen stuff recently and I’ve been trying to let go of my “attachment” to having a close family and have no expectations of ever having one, but I have to say, sometimes I read stories of people’s relationships with their parents changing on their deathbeds and their wishing it had happened earlier. My relationship with my parents isn’t terrible—it’s just not very much fun. What should I do?

Out of Sorts


Dear Out of Sorts,

You can change your eye color. You can change your sex. You can change the temperature of the planet. But you can’t change your family.

What you can do is introduce small variations in the activities you engage in while visiting with your family. These activities may have the effect of changing how you feel while you’re around them. One of the things you might try is just to be a positive, supportive witness. See if there are ways you can be helpful, without getting in the way. You might offer to drive your parents around on their early-morning errands, or to accompany them in their car to expedite the parking and waiting as they go in and out of places. As you accompany them, perhaps riding in the back seat, observe them. Look at them closely. Think about who they are. Consider them as individuals. Let your mind wander. Be Zen-like about it.

There will probably be a lot of stupid and boring stuff coming out of their mouths. Try not to get any on you. Let it pass. Be a supportive witness to their experience. Hold a place in line at the DMV. Hand your mother a magazine. Hold her purse while she looks for her other glasses. Be unobtrusively helpful, and observe. Observe your mother and observe yourself. What are you doing as you stand there, holding her purse for her? Are you resenting her for being so befuddled? Are you mad at her for telling you she’d like to divorce your dad but probably never will? Does it give you a sinking feeling? A feeling of rage? Are you wishing you were somewhere else, anywhere other than here? Where is it exactly that you would like to be? Make a mental note to go there, later, after Christmas. Then get back to what you are doing, holding your mother’s purse, glancing at the magazines in the waiting room.

The idea is to get your bearings. Get comfortable being around your parents. Lower your expectations until they touch reality.

You may wish to make some breakthrough by talking about the things that are on your mind—why doesn’t the family come together like a family, dammit?! But you must be careful. A family is a delicate thing, wrathful and sensitive to disturbance. If there are certain things that you feel need to be discussed, it might be best to approach them not as emotional or spiritual questions, but as tasks that need performing. It sounds like your parents are practical people who value getting things done in a timely manner. So if, for instance, there are questions of health, or life and death, that you feel your parents and your brother avoid talking about, you might approach them by attempting to square away financial concerns, powers of attorney, investments, the will.

For certain kinds of people, a troubling spiritual question is best addressed in its physical embodiment. For such people, the proper disposition of such an embodiment can, in itself, constitute a spiritual or emotional experience. I know that sounds rather arid to those of us who breathe deeply of the bracing air in the world of ideas, but in my experience it is often the case.

You must go slowly, respecting the depth and complexity of the family as an organism. To be realistic, in this first year of trying to make it better, you might only accomplish small variations in your own activities.

Because of your dissatisfaction with how the family performs, which you probably have not successfully hidden (we can hide little from our family), other family members may already fear that you are going to try to “bring the family together.” They may not want to be brought together. In fact, such enforced togetherness can be so excruciating for its victims that they find some pretext never to return.

Anything that smacks of trying to bring the family together may have the undesired effect of tearing it apart. It is, as I said, a fragile thing.

So I suggest you make such changes as you can in your own activities, quietly, meditatively, without attachment to result. Try to be a reliable, supportive witness to those around you. Hope for gradual improvement.

My 13-year-old still believes in Santa Claus

Dear reader,

Below is another of our favorite holiday columns. And, as always, if you would like advice, please write to advice@carytennis.com.  Norma and I wish you all a very Merry Christmas!




Should I tell her the truth — to save her from the derision of her friends, if nothing else?


Hi Cary,

I will be the first to admit that this may seem like a lame problem in the full scheme of things, but I would love for you to weigh in on this. My nearly 13-year-old stepdaughter believes in Santa Claus. Completely.

To give some background, her father was widowed when she was an infant, so we are her only living parents. I also have two small children from my first marriage who are still very much in the Santa target demographic. So you might assume she’s going along with the game for the younger kids, but it’s truly not the case.

Last Christmas, our first as a family, I was stunned when she asked me how Santa would know to find her at her new address. And just yesterday she admitted to wondering how Santa could truly go down everyone’s chimney at midnight. (“That would be impossible, even for Santa.”)

Her comments and questions have all come at times when the other children are not around. She’s not pretending.

This is an incredibly bright child — honor roll, advanced classes, very much a freethinker, with an amazing social consciousness. She’s not stunted in her emotional development. Tooth fairy, Easter Bunny — she gave those up years ago. But Santa’s legitimacy isn’t even on her radar.

So here’s the question my husband and I are pondering: Do we spill the beans?

I have very vivid memories from fourth grade when an insensitive teacher made a comment about Santa truly being our parents. My classmates and I were stunned when the one little girl in the class who was apparently still in the dark put her head on her desk and burst into tears. The rest of us had already known for some time. That was the early 1980s. And kids today are supposedly so much more advanced.

My husband is concerned she is going to embarrass herself around her peers. And he has a point — especially at this age where she’s so overwhelmingly self-conscious about fitting in and being part of a group.

But at the same time, a part of me thinks it’s kind of charming. I mean, she’s had to grow up faster than her peers in some ways, having no mother around for so much of her life. Why shouldn’t she be able to keep some aspects of childhood around a little longer?

Aside from preventing social embarrassment, the only other advantage I see to telling her the truth is that it would make it a little easier for her to understand why she won’t receive some of the excessive gifts her peers will find under the tree on Christmas morning (iPods, computers, video game systems). I do remember from my own experience that it was quite a relief to discover that my more modest Christmas gifts weren’t an indication that Santa didn’t like me as much as the other kids.

I wish we could afford to do more for all three of our wonderful kids, but our oldest, because teenagers’ “toys” are considerably more pricey, is the only one who is really noticing the discrepancy. Maybe it’s guilt that’s truly fueling this question?

I know in the full scheme of things this seems rather small and insignificant, but I would be very interested to get your opinion on this.

Wondering Mom


Dear Wondering Mom,

Insofar as possible we tell our kids the truth. But there is of course much leeway in what truths are told and how. There are for every truth a thousand ways of telling. Tell your stepdaughter the truth. But which truth, and how?

I think you tell her what can best be called the poetic truth. It’s possible that your stepdaughter possesses a very poetic soul, and that what she gets from her belief is the pleasure of beauty and magic. So it may not be terribly important to her whether it is literally true or not — what is important is that you be sensitive to what it means to her. The story of Santa is art; it is so captivating and beautiful that she may simply want to enjoy the music of it, the captivating happiness of it. That enjoyment could be shattered if too rudely explicated, but it need not be shattered at all, even as she awakens to the impossibility of Santa’s most vaunted feats.

“Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world,” wrote Francis P. Church in his famous 1897 New York Sun editorial, “Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus.”

He said pretty much what I would have said, only better.

For doubting, secular people, Christmas can still be an innocent time, a time of taking pleasure in innocent beauty. When I was a child it was the only time of the year when society seemed to recognize that there is beauty and joy in the world and it can be shared and there is a time to sit together by the fire and play music and sing songs and give each other gifts. What a wonderful time.

What you want to communicate to your stepdaughter is this: the willingness to both know and believe.

I would ask her what she believes. I would respect her beliefs.

And then I think I would warn her. I would warn her — as if she did not already know — that other children can be extremely cruel, and that while it is perfectly acceptable to believe things others do not believe, it is sometimes wise to keep one’s most cherished beliefs to oneself. People can trample one’s beliefs. They can destroy them with a careless word or gesture. So it is sometimes best to hold one’s beliefs close, to protect them from the corrosive derision of insensitive others who would trample on our dreams.

I would warn her, too, about the way people keep score with presents, and remind her that there are, in this realm too, a thousand different ways of keeping score. If she is bright, she can keep score with grades and achievement, and if she is inward-looking, she can keep score on how true she is to herself.

So encourage her to have dreams, to cultivate dreams, and to protect her dreams and her beliefs.

There are many truths. There are musical truths and sculptural truths and performance truths; there are baseball scores and mathematical theorems; there are poetic truths and observable truths and observable truths that are not true — for instance, the observable truth that the sun revolves around the Earth is an illusion. It depends on where you’re standing.

And there are many things that we believe which are as yet unprovable. We believe that pi, for instance, does not repeat its digits. Having calculated it out to 200 billion digits in which as yet no pattern has been found can we yet be certain that no pattern ever will be found? What about at 200 billion billion digits? That’s a lot of digits. Even 100,000 digits is a lot of digits.

So I would stand with Francis Church. Mysteries and miracles abound in the visible and invisible world. Santa is among them.

© Copyright Salon Media Group


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Cary’s weekend archival column: Dec. 24, 2004/Dec. 25, 2005

Dear reader,

If you would like advice, please write to advice@carytennis.com. And if you would like to help support this endeavor, feel free to make a donation.



I’ve asked my family to write but they say they’re too busy.


Dear Cary,

Happy holidays; hope this letter finds you well. I’ve been reading your column for a long time and respect your advice, so I’m seeking some of it here. The brass tacks of it: I’m deployed in Iraq and I’m depressed as all hell. I would love nothing more this holiday than a card from my family or loved ones, something, anything, and here it is late December, and nothing. I try and talk to my family about this, but every time I go to bring it up I feel like a selfish ass or am reminded how busy everyone is. Help me out, man, am I being a selfish ass? Trust me, I can certainly take a yes and any advice you may have to see another view.




Dear Benjamin,

I forwarded your note to your family. Their response was rather surprising:

“Dear Benjamin,

“How selfish of you!

“Sure, you are getting shot at, having bombs go off in your cafeteria, driving over explosive devices, having your deployment extended with no end in sight, blah blah blah. But don’t you realize that we, too, face dangers every day? Who knows when the Internet connection could go down and the whole family can’t log on! Who knows when the newspaper might not arrive, and somebody might have to drive to 7-Eleven and buy the paper — and then: Are you still expected to give the paperboy a tip, or what?

“There are phone calls to make, Benjamin — important phone calls to friends and not just to any friends either but to close friends — friends of a kind of closeness that you and your buddies, with your silly risking your lives for each other, wouldn’t know anything about! And there are gifts to wrap and give to each other — did you think all these gifts we’re giving to each other just wrap themselves? Cards and gifts. Stuff for each other. That’s what we’re busy with. Why haven’t you received any? Maybe because you’re way over there in Iraq. Do you know how far that is? Do you know how inconvenient it’s been for us to have to look on a map to see where you are — I mean a big map, the kind that goes beyond Rockaway Beach?

“Why did you have to go over there in the first place? Don’t you think the world’s problems would have worked themselves out eventually? But no. You had to go enlist, protect the country, be of service, live by a code of honor, blah blah blah yadda yadda yadda.

“Besides, Benjamin, how can we be thinking of you when you never drop by? Do you expect us to remember you exist when we don’t see you for week after week? Now, if you were living next door like our junior life and casualty underwriter for Northwestern Life (you think life and you think casualty but this is life and casualty!) or pursuing a graduate degree in the metaphysics of silicone breast implants or trying to start up your own reality TV show like some cousins we know, maybe you’d be a little more in touch.

“But don’t worry, we forgive you. Silly Benjamin, always trying to help. Anyway, we’ve heard it gets very hot there in the summer, but it’s winter now, isn’t it? Maybe they’ll give you an extra blanket but don’t make a pest of yourself. And for God’s sake, no matter what you do, don’t let them see you shivering in the cold the way you used to when you were a little boy!


“Your Family”

Well, Benjamin, I just made that up. I thought it might make you chuckle, and I figured you could use a chuckle. But seriously I wanted to tell you that most of us over here are awed by the sacrifices you are making on our behalf. We are capable of making the distinction between policies we disagree with and our countrymen and women who are carrying them out. I know that’s two ideas to hold in your head at one time, but we can handle it. So for you and all the other soldiers over there whose families are too busy this holiday season: We all love you and care about you back home, and we are deeply humbled by the fact that you’re laying your lives on the line so that we can go on watching television, talking on the phone and buying stuff that doesn’t make our butts look big.

We’ll never be able to thank you enough, so, frankly, we probably won’t. You’ll just have to know that it’s true: In our hearts, we appreciate it more than we can say.

© Copyright Salon Media Group




Update on the lonely soldier

Remember that soldier in Iraq sitting all by himself wishing the family would write? Response from readers was amazing.


Dear Cary,

Could you please give us an update on the poor soldier who was alone at Christmas with the family that was “too busy” to write? Did you get many responses from readers for him?


Dear Brenda,

Wow. Did I get many responses? Yes, it was amazing. All told, more than 400 readers were moved enough by that soldier’s letter to write to him. I’ve been meaning to update everybody on that. Here’s what happened:

I was on vacation on Friday, Dec. 24, the day the soldier’s column was on the cover. I happened to check my e-mail and saw this note: “Cary, why don’t you set up a Hotmail (or something) account for that soldier, give him the password, and then publish the address so this poor guy can get greetings from your readers? It might not happen in time for Christmas, but it probably could for New Year’s and he would love it, I’m sure.”

That seemed like a pretty good idea, I said to my wife. However, it would require getting in touch with the soldier, whose whereabouts I didn’t know, getting his OK, setting up the account, getting the password to him, then publishing it. As I considered all the steps involved, I decided to take a simpler, if more labor-intensive, route and just publish a notice in that day’s column inviting readers to send greetings to the soldier at the advice@salon e-mail address, and I would forward them. I published that notice on the column around midday Dec. 24.

Then my wife and I went about our business. We wrapped presents, we cooked some food, and then set off to see the “Nutcracker” with niece, nephew and in-laws, as we traditionally do on Xmas Eve. (Tradition also dictates that every year we forget to make reservations at any restaurant, preferring instead the holiday cheer of wandering chilly San Francisco with hungry children in tow, looking for a place to eat. It seemed that every place we might eat was either closed or full. Incredibly, both Max’s Opera Cafe and Chevy’s were closed! John’s Grill was full up. The Hayes Street Grill was full up. But wait! What’s this! Cafe Della Stelle has a corner table in the window! For six! There is a restaurant God after all!)

After dinner we came home and toasted marshmallows in the fireplace and opened presents. (I got a furry jacket, which I am now wearing all the time.) After Dom and Doris and the kids left, the fire was dying down, and it was quiet and warm in the house and I was alone with my wife, and it seemed like an ideal time to … check my e-mail!

That was our “It’s a Wonderful Life” moment: The letters had been pouring in all afternoon and evening! It was so sweet! It was so moving! There were hundreds of letters — thoughtful, kind, measured letters recognizing the simple fact that, policy differences be damned, this guy is family. So we spent the rest of Christmas Eve forwarding these letters to that soldier. Here are some of the things that people said:

“Gaaahhh, your letter in Salon was terrible! From at least the 15 people I told this to, Happy Freaking Holiday!! A thousand smooches from the pretty girls. A thousand pats on the back from the boys.”

“Aw, c’mon, Cary, give us saps out here a way to contact poor Benjamin and his guys there in Iraq so we can send them letters and cards and homemade body armor and stuff.”

“Thank you for laying your life on the line for the rest of us back home. Thank you for enduring life in Iraq.”

“I propose that your family is ultimately too distracted by the culture they live in to see past the crap that burdens their existence. It’s what we all do — define ourselves by the norms and expectations of our culture. So I cannot believe they don’t love you and wish you were with them, and maybe they’re also quietly terrified of having you where you are.”

“Mahalo, Mele Kalikimaka and Hauoli Makahiki Hou from Hilo, HI!”

“I was and am against the war, but I have tremendous respect for people like you who are willing to put your lives on the line for this country, regardless of my feelings (or yours) about the decisions made by the political leadership.”

Those are just a few quotes from the first few letters. Reading through them still gives me some kind of chill. I don’t know what it is. I guess it’s just plain old goodness and compassion and decency is what it is.

My wife and I sat there at the iMac and forwarded as many letters as we could by midnight, and then we went to bed.

I got a quick note from him the next morning, saying, “Merry Christmas, brother, and my most sincere thanks to everyone who has replied.”

Not too long afterward, I got another, longer note from him:


Dear Cary,

My wife is also a regular Salon reader, it didn’t take long after she read the letter for her to put two and two together and immediately hit me up. We talked for hours over I.M. and I think both of us were reduced to uncontrollable sobbing through it all. She apologized profusely and passed the word onto my family, who also in turn have responded in droves. Sometimes a kick in the pants is all that’s needed to remind us of the truly important things in life.

I don’t want anyone to get the wrong impression. This deployment has been extremely hard on my wife, who has had to deal with severe financial constraints; I’m in the National Guard, and we took a severe pay cut when I deployed, raising our son, trying to keep everything on the home front secure and all the things a spouse does when their partner heads off to foreign lands.

Thank you, Cary. Thank you for your words of advice and for all of your readers who have responded with all their love and support. It means the world to so many of us over here, so far away from those we love and care for.

All my love to you and your readers,


Pretty cool, huh?

© Copyright Salon Media Group


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Cary’s weekend archival column: Sept. 15, 2010


Visiting my family gets me down

Every time I see them I’m depressed for a week


Write for Advice

Dear Cary,

First, thank you for being persistent with your crazy wisdom, and for not giving up. I enjoy your column.
I need a new way to think about this situation, and I’m hoping you can help. Here is a bit of background, in case it helps.

I live in a separate state from my family, and visit about five or six times per year. My relationship with my parents was dicey for a long time, but it is now more even, as I started simultaneously sticking up for myself more, and caring about their approval less. I’m in my mid-30s now. After a wandering employment history (two different careers), I am now underemployed in some ways, but happy to have a job, and try to be useful. Married, have some pets that I adore. I have a history of depression but am managing for the most part. No children because I spent a long time not feeling good, and now that I feel more OK, I don’t want to ruin it (not that I dislike children, I just want some internal peace and am too old to have a bit of peace and then have children).

My problem is that every time I visit my family, I feel like shit for three to four days afterward. I don’t feel bad while I’m there (anymore). In fact, things are better than they’ve ever been. But this shitty feeling, it is on the inside, and it takes me days to shake it off, even when I try to talk myself into a better place. I try to get at exactly what this feeling is about, and the most I can tell is that I feel like a loser when I’m there. It’s kind of an extension of the more pervasive feeling I have that I somehow just don’t fit in, that there is something slightly “off” about me.

The strange thing is, my parents aren’t all that successful or well adjusted. If anything, I’m slightly more adjusted than they are, unless I just have no objectivity and am fooling myself. My sister and her husband are more successful in that they both have careers and a more standard life, by American standards. When I ask myself if I’m jealous, I am not so much envious of their standard lives as I am of their seeming feeling of “fitting in.” In other words, I don’t necessarily want what they have (my parents and my sibling), but I want to feel like they feel. This is true not only of my family, but of society in general—I don’t really admire the lifestyle I’m told I should want, but I want the part of the dream that has me feeling good about myself. It’s just, for some reason, that this part that I lack is more pronounced when I’m with my family.

Anyway, I do not want to stop seeing my family. They’re basically good people. But this does affect my willingness to visit for extended periods, since it is really inconvenient to feel shitty for a week afterward. I’m embarrassed that I still feel this way well into my 30s. Is there anything I can do about this, or is this just how it is?



Dear Confused,

Your family is never going to be the family you wish you had and they are never going to give you the feeling you wish they would give you and you are never going to fit in the way you wish you fit in and the sooner you realize this and get angry about it and shout it out and bang your fists on the floor and scream at the gods about it and grieve it and fully accept it and let it go the sooner you can be at peace with yourself and your gifts and the way you are loved now.

The way you are now is the way you are loved. Those who love you do not love this other person you wish you were. They do not even know who that person is. The way you are now is the way you are loved.

You think there is some other person you might be if you were only different but even if she showed up on your doorstep you wouldn’t know who she is because she would be lacking the full code of you. There is only one person who has the full code of you. There is only one person who can be loved as you and it is your job to keep being that person.
Why are you sad after being with your family? Because you start pretending to be somebody else because you think somebody else deserves their love. And then you lose your bearings. It takes days to put yourself back together. So remember:

It is you whom the people who love you love. They don’t need you to pretend. When you pretend they just wait for you to come back.

(Here is one reason I am a writer and not a therapist: If I were a therapist I would start making stuff up just to have something new to say. So I will not say for the umpteenth time to read Feeling Good by Dr. David Burns even though you probably should read it anyway because it seems to help with things like this.)

To sense that your family does not really love or approve of you hurts but it doesn’t mean you’re supposed to be somebody else. It means you’re supposed to bear that sadness with dignity; it means you’re supposed to bear that loss as a wise person would, knowing it’s just the tension between your capacity for dreaming and your capacity for acceptance.

Some people are fine because they don’t think about the infinite possibilities but some of us do think about the infinite possibilities which would be fine if that were all we did but then we also think about how much it sucks that these infinite possibilities do not all come to fruition although if you think about it there must be a natural cap on the number of infinite possibilities that are brought into being just as there must be a finite number of partners at Goldman Sachs.

You are here to do the one job no one else can do and that job is to fulfill the destiny written on your skin in a place you cannot read without turning inside out. Take several deep breaths. Stop what you are doing.

What is the source of your sadness?

© Copyright Salon Media Group


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Xmas_smallInterested in more holiday-related columns? Check out Cary’s collection of holiday columns, That Special Time of Year.

Cary’s archival column from Dec. 15, 2006


Should we go home for Christmas—

even if we can’t afford it?

We lost our house in Katrina. The family is scattered
but gathering. Should we go?

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Dear Cary,

So Christmas, the so-called happiest time of the year, fast approaches, and my little family is in a tough situation. Over the last year or so, my girlfriend and I have had many stressful, good and bad, life-changing events—we lost our home in New Orleans due to Katrina, had our first child, and eventually, after a few stops along the way, relocated to New York City.

We’re a pretty tough crew, and things are going well enough generally, but our Christmas plans are now a mangled mess and I am not sure how to handle it. We planned, months ago, to join my side of the family for Christmas for five days in the middle of the country. My family is scattered to the wind, so this is a big deal for everyone. The tickets are purchased, my folks, siblings, and other relatives are traveling long distances for the holiday, and our little girl is certainly a major reason everyone is getting together this year. But now my girlfriend believes it is a bad idea for us to go for financial reasons and wants us to cancel.

On a certain level, she’s right. She has just started waiting tables after staying at home with the baby for year, and we don’t have much money right now, so the extra bit helps. This visit would mean she would likely lose her job, so she’d have to find another one immediately upon return. My income covers most of our expenses, which are quite numerous here in New York, but we’ll soon need to start paying a babysitter or daycare, and we should probably start paying off some of our credit card debt. We could have Christmas with her family, who live nearby and we see often, and she could work extra holiday shifts.

On the other hand, we would survive if we were to keep our plans. She will begin a career track in February that will soon net her a much more sustainable wage than waiting tables, and combined with my full-time employment, we’ll be on solid ground later this year. There are a million waiting gigs around here, so she could start working almost immediately post-Christmas. We’re not broke, rent will get paid, and Christmas is an important holiday to us. I feel like we have an obligation to our family, as we were somewhat central in the planning of this, and the other parts of my family may have planned differently (like flying here or waiting until later to get together). I just feel like this is a no-win situation, and our communication around this sucks—we are both frustrated with each other and can’t find any common ground. I feel like if we don’t go, we’ve deprived our child from being with my seldom-seen relatives at an important juncture in her life. My girlfriend feels like if we do go, I am not accepting financial reality and pushing her to do something that means losing her job and us losing money. So I guess I have a few questions wrapped up in this dilemma. Should I keep pushing for us to go? Should I simply go by myself? Should I take the baby along and work through an unplanned weaning process over a holiday? Should I accept this makes some financial sense and cancel on my family? You have any other ideas for us to avoid a miserable holiday? Thanks so much.

Stuck in Indecision


Dear Stuck,

Go. Go because the tickets are bought. Go because everybody wants to see the little girl. You will be taken care of. Go. Go because no, you shouldn’t go. Go because no, it may not be so smart. Go. Go because your family is getting together. Go because you can’t choose the year your family gets together. Go.

Go because the holidays are not about sensible. Go because you belong there. Go because your family needs you and you need your family and this is how you’re supposed to do it. Go because this is what a family is: A family is a group that just goes. It doesn’t make the sensible decisions all the time. Go because people draw strength from each other. Go because it’s good to do the right thing when it’s difficult. Go because you’re setting a good example.

Go because it is an act of faith to do what you feel you ought to do and trust that things will work out. Go because you don’t want to show weakness and fear. Go because you want to act as if things are going to work out. Go because I just bought a dining room set and a pool table and I don’t want to be the only one stupid enough to get carried away with the holidays and just do what he probably can’t afford and shouldn’t do but what brings some joy into the world. Go because my truck needs some body work. Go because my uncle is dying. Go because I’m going to miss my family when they’re gone and so are you. Go because Katrina happened and you never know. Go because waitress jobs are a dime a dozen. Go because your family needs to see that you are OK.

Go because this is the land of freedom and open spaces and just going for it. Go because you want to. Go because string theory says there are probably 11 dimensions, and in at least one of those dimensions you would be going anyway. Go because if you don’t go the terrorists win. Go because I’m getting increasingly desperate. Go because I’m really grasping at straws now. Go because if you don’t go my writing is going to get worse and worse. Go because self-referentiality weakens the soul and is bad for the digestion. Go. Just go. Apologize to your wife. Say it’s my fault. Blame it on me. Just go.

Write for Advice


Interested in more holiday-related columns? Check out Cary’s collection of holiday columns, That Special Time of Year.

A letter to the alcoholic at Chrismastime


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Dear Cary,

I’m a recovering alcoholic, married with two teenagers and a mild in-law problem that really bothers me during the holidays. To some degree, what I am struggling with is naming why my holiday situation bothers me so much. May I bend your ear?

My in-laws are nice people and regularly invite my family to stay with them in their very rural home town for the Christmas holiday. The kids both love Christmas with their grandparents and cousins, and the event is the peak of my wife’s year. Generally, the whole week around Christmas is packed full with caroling parties, fancy meals, long sessions singing in groups, unwrapping presents — about as wholesome and Norman Rockwell as it gets.

Unfortunately, something about the overcrowded conditions, being surrounded by other people’s traditions, and unable to break away for even an hour of solo time becomes overwhelming for me. I have tried many times to find things to do to get away — the only criticism I would make of this group is their complete inability to understand why someone might need some alone time. In general, there is nothing else to do in the town we visit. If I manage to get away for a ski afternoon or something, invariably much is made over my absence and the unavailability of the car I use (even if it is my own rental). Clearly, it is a breach of their rules for someone to leave the group.

I feel that a normal person ought to be able to overlook and overcome this small inconvenience for the sake of my wife and kids, who truly love this annual outing. Still, here it is only December 3, and tonight I am sick to my stomach with dread, fearing Christmas as I never feared a final exam. In my inventory tonight, I have to acknowledge resentment of the fact that I am the outsider in this group, the only one with no musical talent, doomed to hold coats and mind the little kids while others sing and demonstrate their excellence on various instruments, the guy who gets ten sets of socks at the gift exchange. I’m sure there is also a link between these feelings and some truly miserable childhood Christmas memories, and with my near-total separation from my birth family. I wish none of this were so.

So, in general, sobriety is going well. It’s been a little more than seven years, and I feel like I’ve moved a long way from the bitter, scared person I was when I was drinking actively. As I went through the steps with my sponsor, who is someone I have known my entire life, I had to recognize that a particular kind of retributive anger was my main driver — what some of my friends call the “racing brain.” I was caught up often and simultaneously in revenge fantasies and unbearable self-doubt. I learned that the sad truth about me was that these fantasies were precious to me, and that to the same degree I drank to escape them, I also somehow was defined by them. My daily inventory was, for years, an exercise in recognizing and rejecting these thoughts by — I hope this does not sound too weird — offering them up to my higher power as the only sacrifice of value that I could make. I would visualize these feelings, which unfortunately were the most precious possession of my soul, being burned on an altar, and therefore no longer mine. It has generally worked.

Except, well, you know. The resentment I feel about being cooped up all through the holiday to celebrate someone else’s idea of Christmas, the feeling of being an outsider. I am powerless over this feeling tonight. Any thoughts?

Very truly yours,

Another Hill to Climb


Dear Another Hill,

Let me help you first with naming it. How about we call it deprivation disguised as plenitude? For you sit at a great banquet. Yet you feel empty. It seems to work for these other people. Yet it doesn’t work for you.

Does that mean there’s something wrong with you?

Well, yes, if you want to put it that way, there is something wrong with you. You’re an alcoholic. It may seem harsh or un-P.C. to say there’s something wrong with you but of course there’s something wrong with you! You wouldn’t be in recovery if you were fine. You’re not fine. You respond to things differently. Your psychology is warped. You have, heroically, and for your own survival, learned much about your own perversity. As I have. Have learned enough, one hopes, that you can say with equanimity, Yes, there’s something wrong with me. I’m alcoholic. I don’t respond to alcohol like others, nor do I respond to social situations like others. Nor do I respond to pain and discomfort like others. One could say that. I can certainly say that of myself: There is certainly something wrong with me!

Luckily we have found a way to live as alcoholics. So let’s ask, What would an alcoholic in recovery do?

What about service? Service does not mean just making coffee and straightening chairs. It means changing our entire posture toward the world, so that rather than self-seeking we are of service. Rather than thinking of our own delight we are looking for ways to be useful and in harmony. It is of course hard at this time of year to look on a happy, singing crowd, full of good cheer and possibly good scotch too, and not wish that we could have what they have.

But we have something else: We have been saved from an awful death and we know what to do. We make ourselves of service.

Forget yourself and your longing for the good cheer others find so easily. Accept the fact that you were put here for something else. You were put here to be of service. Being of service can be subtle. It can mean just being pleasant. It can mean letting everyone do what they do and not getting in the way and endeavoring to at least appear to enjoy it.

In the midst of all this frivolity, it’s easy to think, Aha, all this frivolity is just what I need!  Without quite realizing it, we start thinking, How can I get jolly and carefree like them? How can I have some of that good cheer? Once that thought takes root, it is hard to let go of. We start to feel like we can’t be OK unless we are in that state of frivolous good cheer which looks so attractive and beguiling. We start to feel like we can’t survive unless we get some of that good cheer!

Underlying this, however, is the belief that we cannot survive without what we think we need. That is an interesting proposition for an alcoholic, isn’t it? For what we think we need is not actually what we need. Strangely enough, we have demonstrably unnatural appetites. How many times in the past have we believed that we needed certain things or we could not function? How many times in the past did we think we simply could not function without at least a beer? How many times did we assume that life without alcohol was an impossibility?

On the flipside, how satisfying has it been to learn that we can at any time experience, in the absence of any mind-altering drug, the sheer, naked hum of being? To experience, unfiltered, the majesty of the moment, to quietly, while others are lost in frivolity, become aware of the holiness of the moment? And to contemplate the possibility of an ancient bond with the very living, breathing human historical beings whose stories and actions come alive this time of year? To imagine them in their robes, speaking their strange tongues and yet as tormented and full of doubt as we are. To make the leap from being trapped in the narrow now, looking at historic figures as mere symbols, to communing with them directly, through a kind of soul-melding or psychological identification on a deep level, so that the holiday and the spirit of the holiday comes alive for you.

It is a resonant myth, this notion of Christmas. I’m not a Christian but neither am I insensible to the awesome power of the story. To celebrate the idea that someone was born, a savior was born: What an awesome thing to contemplate; what nectar for the thirsty soul, even if we do not believe it, even if it conflicts with other things that we might believe, religion-wise: what an awesome and wonderful thing to imagine, that a savior might have been born who would transport us out of torment and death.

It’s not a bad thing to think about as the lights come on and the eggnog comes out. It certainly is not a bad thing for an alcoholic to think about. For anyone who has recovered from the torment of alcoholism has been literally given a new life. Most of us had reached a point where it was clear that no human power could have relieved us of our alcoholism. Yet it was relieved. So we have been touched by something beyond the rational; we have been saved from drowning; we have been pulled safely into the boat.

That alone is something to celebrate. You may celebrate it differently from the way Christians celebrate their union with God, and differently from the way pagans celebrate their union with the earth or indeed differently from the way any of the many major and minor religions celebrate. You may celebrate it quietly, away from the singing and the egg nog. But celebrate it. Celebrate your own birth and rescue. And then place yourself in the service of these people, these good, loving people who accept you into their house, who want the best for you, who bear you no ill will, who would clasp you to their bosoms and make you feel a part of their family if they knew how.

Most of all, listen. For you can be sure that just beyond the gaiety is a burning need to be heard. In fact, I have noticed that the salient fact about many such outwardly cheerful and brilliant families is that their members secretly feel unheard; in the rush to participate, something is sacrificed: perhaps that very interiority that you find so essential. The fact that this family does not recognize the human need for solitude indicates that at least some of its members probably bear an unexpressed need for the kind of full and generous hearing only a sympathetic sufferer like you could give.

Nor castigate them because they don’t know how to make you feel a part of their family. Accept the fact that you are the stranger. The stranger is a problem for a family. Its individuals may not want to, consciously, yet the very existence of the family requires that it exclude the stranger. To do otherwise is not easy, especially if the stranger is like you or I, a stranger vast in his interiority, inscrutable to others, possessed of manic, howling impulses of retribution and perversity!

We alcoholics are not easy people to love, my friend. So do not place too heavy a burden on those around you. They will love you in their way but it will not always be what you would wish it to be.

Instead, find a dish to wash. Find a porch to sweep. Lend a listening ear to anyone who seems bursting. Also, let them to teach you their songs. Or, assuming you can at least keep a beat: Play percussion. That is one thing such gatherings often lack: Someone to beat the tambourine steadily, humbly.