Why did you skip the funeral?

 

Cary’s classic column from Monday, Aug 23, 2010

A tragic death among deeply close friends: Her burial was like a ghost town


Dear Cary,

I want to say, first of all, that I am so happy to hear of your recovery. I always look forward to reading your thoughtful responses to letters.

I have, perhaps, many things I’d like to ask for advice about but for now I will get to the most pressing and troublesome issue:

I hate my friends. Not all of them, just a certain group of my oldest friends — 10 girlfriends, most of whom have known each other since kindergarten, and all of whom went to elementary through high school together. These friends have been neighbors, classmates, teammates and confidantes — we have spent a great deal of time with each other’s families, gone on vacations and to summer camps together, and maintained a very close-knit group for the past 20 years or so (we are all now 24-26 years old).

I never had any reason to doubt that these people would be my core group of lifelong friends up until about a year ago, following the sudden, tragic death of a member of the group, who was also my closest friend within the group. She passed away unexpectedly at the age of 25 under ambiguous circumstances that we will never fully understand as the autopsy results were inconclusive and the acquaintances she was with at the time remain either unable or unwilling to disclose the exact events preceding her death.

I know that often people rave about the departed as though they were saints and eulogies often tend to be excessively laudatory, but for my friend who passed away all of those things would be 100 percent true. She was a beautiful, fun, bright and incredibly loving and open-minded person. It was no surprise when she chose a career as a social worker — she was so warm and generous with her time and her spirit, she was selfless in her work and did not let roadblocks set up by her jerk boss deter her from pursuing a career she loved where she had the opportunity to really make a difference for others. She was a realistic and practical person but also somehow managed to stay optimistic in difficult situations and no matter what was going on in her life she was always there for her friends. If I called her even when she was incredibly busy with something, she would stop everything and talk to me about my problems — she was one of those rare and precious friends who would tell you to call anytime, day or night, and really mean it … and anytime you spoke to her you were in for a good story. She had a gift for storytelling, a propensity for spontaneity and adventure, a great sense of humor and a lighthearted appreciation for all the little silly and absurd moments in life.

Before her death, I thought our group of friends was very structurally sound. We were just beginning, in the years during and after college, to transform our little group from childhood/adolescent friends to adult friends. The 10 of us went to 10 different colleges in eight different states and wound up in similarly far-flung places after college, but we did a very nice job of keeping in touch: made great efforts to spend time with each other whenever possible, often circulated update e-mails or letters, exchanged phone calls and Internet communication, etc. I felt we had strong, irreplaceable bonds to each other that did not seem to dissipate over time or through the distance between us. In many ways she was the leader of our group; she was the one to call when you went home for the holidays because she’d be most likely to know when everyone was getting in and where we would meet. I’ve thought since her death that perhaps she valued and nurtured our friendships more than we did for her in return. When she died, I assumed our other friends would step up and try to fill that caring, nurturing role for each other. I thought in our grief — when most of us were confronting mortality for the first time as adults — we would cling relentlessly to each other for support and kinship, that we would be present for each other and for her family and other friends — to hold each other, to cry together, to show our love to each other and to her, to share our many wonderful memories of her and mourn her death together.

But most of our “friends” were not present.

Not only did only three friends out of the group actually attend the funeral, many didn’t even bother to call or write, save for a text or a quick message on the Internet here and there. Most of our friends were completely emotionally/spiritually and physically absent from the whole terrible situation. It seemed the expectation of those who absented themselves was that we not share with each other the unfamiliar and overwhelming pain we were experiencing, or worse — that they didn’t feel the pain at all or chose to ignore it.

When I expressed to my parents and a few other friends how baffled, hurt and disgusted I was with the lack of support I received from some of those old friends, they assured me things would change with time — no one knew what to do or say right now, our wounds were too fresh, that I couldn’t cast them off yet, they were hurting too. But as time went on and I still didn’t hear from them — as my attempts to call or write either went unanswered or insufficiently answered — I began to sincerely hate them. They weren’t there for me, collectively or — with the exception of two still wonderfully supportive friends — individually. More important, they weren’t there for her family; most important, they weren’t there for her. Almost all of them had managed to make it to her wedding the year before. But weddings don’t require anything similar to the constitution needed to endure a young friend’s funeral. Where were they now? When will they say goodbye? Will they go on thinking and acting as though things are the same and that friend with whom they once shared a life is still here with us now instead of being gone forever?

Despite my hate for them, and it is real and palpable, I still desperately want them to reach out to me, nearly a year after her death (she died in September 2009). I could never forgive them for all the months of abandonment, but I also don’t know that I want to completely cut them out of my life and I think for the sake of our shared histories and the bonds that our families still share back in our hometown, I should make an effort. I still have a certain amount of faith that they will reach out to me on their own and I fear if I say something — even in a very gentle and neutral way — I will lose them completely too, because obviously they’re incredibly uncomfortable with the whole thing. I don’t want to lose them; I’ve lost enough.

One of the other supportive friends from the group and I have talked extensively about how to handle all of this and while we both want the others to know our true feelings we also kind of feel like we shouldn’t have to make that effort because if they cared, they would have reached out to us in some way by now.

So, how do we handle ourselves around them? We all hung out as usual when we were at home over the holidays and I tried to make things as pleasant as I possibly could. We avoided the topic of death. There has been scant communication on the Internet/by phone but still the topic of her death hasn’t been discussed to any considerable degree.

Maybe it’s important that I explain that in other facets of their lives, these old, neglectful friends are very decent people — they hold noble jobs (two whom I consider the worst offenders of grief/consolation avoidance are respectively a child advocate and a youth counselor), are close to their families and are mostly either married or in committed relationships. This is the first time I have ever seen them act in a way that shows they don’t care about others and it has been shocking and all the more distressing to me to see kind, intelligent and sensitive people be so horrible when it comes to dealing with death.

I just don’t know how much longer I can keep my feelings to myself and I know that despite the outcome of whether or not I share my feelings, I could never truly be friends with them again. I want to do something that would have pleased my friend who died. I think she would encourage me to forgive them and would want me to maintain ties with them; maybe she’d even want me to take over her role as the core/leader of the group, but as much as I don’t want to completely lose what were once strong bonds of friendship and as much as I want to do the right thing by our departed friend, I feel like I could explode at them at some point and I have so much anger and hurt, I don’t know how much longer I can act civil, let alone friendly, toward them.

Hurt

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Dear Hurt,

We assume we will behave well when tested. But we are tested when we least expect it — in the middle of the night, in an unfamiliar area, when we are weak or distracted or afraid. If we could study first, we might perform better. But we are never prepared for life’s biggest tests.

We know the right thing to do. Anybody could tell you: The right thing to do is to make the airline reservation, pack the suitcase and show up at the funeral. But in a crisis, a part of us resists.

In our weakest moments grow seeds of doubt and indecision and avoidance … in subtle ways our best intentions are betrayed; we make grievous errors of omission. We become shameful no-shows. We experience memorable failures of moral nerve.

But through such failures we can learn. We fail to show up and we learn: You don’t let things slide. Not again. Next time you show up. Forever after that, you always show up.

That is, you get to learn from this as long as your friends stick with you through your failures. If your friends give up on you because you fail one test, then you may never learn. You push it out of mind. You say screw this, screw them, whatever.

Because of that, you, my friend, have an opportunity here and I hope you take it.

This is a chance for you to do some good. You can turn this around.
I suggest you do the right thing: Open communication with these people.

Reach out. But how? The conversation needn’t be an accusation or an interrogation. You don’t need to air the dark feelings you’ve had. Rather, think of the other person.

What do you say? Well, what you say is not as important as how you listen. Say as little as possible. But here are some things to avoid saying: Do not say point blank that you are hurt by their failure to appear at the funeral. Rather, say that you are still getting over what happened, and would like to talk a little about it. Then just listen. Keep your mouth shut and listen.

If your friend asks you for your feelings, you might say something like, “I really missed you at the funeral. It was hard knowing that you could not be there.”

She might talk about her decision not to attend the funeral, or she might not. I wouldn’t press her. She may feel guilty and find herself becoming defensive. If anything, just ask open-ended questions — how she felt about not being able to attend the funeral, what she was doing while the funeral was happening, if she was thinking about it, how it felt to miss it. Maybe she was relieved that she didn’t have to go. That would be difficult to hear but courageous to say; truth is often difficult to hear. Whatever she has to say, I would just listen and let it sink in.

In this way, you can perhaps let go of some of your anger toward your friends, and take a step closer to them, and make progress toward living with this terrible loss.

Your departed friend was a social worker. She was in service. Being in service means, strangely enough, overcoming other people’s objections to being helped.

We might be inclined to say, well, shit, if you can’t fill out the paperwork, then maybe you don’t really want the food stamps. If you can’t make it to your appointment on time, then maybe you don’t really want the counseling.

But those are our standards and our assessments. We may be like a jury, eager to convict. But we don’t know what’s in someone else’s heart. We don’t know their fears and demons. We don’t know what barriers they face.

Likewise, it is ironic that the child advocate and the youth counselor did not show; you’d think they would be most likely to rise to the occasion. But perhaps their jobs leave them so emotionally taxed that they have nothing left over for moments such as these.

So your friends did not show up at the funeral. They did not rise to the occasion. Yes, that is bad form. Yes, it reveals some weakness in them. But that is what it is: It is weakness. It is human frailty made palpable.

But this was your group’s first experience of death, and you, collectively, had no tradition for such a thing.

So perhaps you may think of this as your group’s first failure, as a passage out of innocence into experience. It was a defining moment; how each person responded to this death becomes a permanent mark.

Maybe you can now rise to the occasion and make something good come of this.

Listen. Try to heal your relationship with each of these dear friends.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

Our person of the week: Eva Finn

First, I’d like to give a shout out to the other featured writers, some of whom I had the pleasure and privilege of meeting at Cary’s first Creative Getaway. It’s good to see their faces again and inspiring to witness the success they’ve achieved with their writing. Going to the Creative Getaway and meeting Cary and Norma changed my life. I knew I wanted to do more with my writing but I didn’t know what. Cary was very generous with his time and counseling. After asking me a few really good questions about what I wanted to write, because seriously, I had no idea, he suggested young adult fiction might be a good area of focus for me.

I didn’t know that that conversation would lead me, five years later, to writing a blog that gives advice to young women. But I always loved Cary’s Salon.com advice column, and his book, Since You Asked. I felt a very personal connection to him through his writing and always thought he was better than any psychologist I ever had.

Which brings me back to what I’m doing now. I made a lot of mistakes in my 20s and sometimes wish I had done things differently or had had more guidance. I started the blog, Wisebefore25.com so young women could avoid some of my misfortunes. The topics range from finances, to boyfriends, to roommates, to family, to sex, to entertaining and beauty tips. But most of all, the goal of the blog is to help young women feel better about themselves and know that they’re not alone.

I also hope to finish a young adult book I’ve been working on. Not surprisingly, it’s a coming of age story. I plan on enlisting Cary and Norma to help me self-publish it once I’m done. It will be great to have their passion, devotion and inspiration once again.

Jan Rosamond

Our person of the week: Jan Rosamond

Happy New Year! After slowing down for the holidays, Cary and I are back working at full speed. The “Featured Person of the Week” is back, as are more columns and creative writing from Cary.

A note: because many commenters have mentioned that they would like the ability to edit their comments after they post them, we’ve changed our method of posting comments. You now need to log in to our site to post a comment, as this is the only way out site will let you make edits after posting. I hope you won’t find this extra step too cumbersome. Please keep the comments coming!

Have a great week!

 

We first met Jan at our writing retreat at Marconi Conference Center. Since that time, Jan has embarked on a “self-funded, self-directed, multi-media inner research project” called Dharma Town. Dharma Town is intended as a sangha-building resource for practitioners of Insight, Mindfulness and Metta Meditation in the St. Louis area. For the past 2 years she’s been writing every weekday on Dharma Town Times, where she posts her reflections on all-things-dharma.

Below is Jan’s unique take on the Creative Getaway:

I’ve been to several of Cary’s Creative Getaways…the first one he ever held and then the second, and the third one, too, I think…and they were all wonderful, joyous, inspiring and quite amazingly productive…but the one I remember the most was the one where the Bear showed up. Not a real, live bear, of course. Not exactly.

Cary had given us a prompt which asked us to let that part of ourselves that is afraid to write—write. He said to let it say whatever it wanted to say. Which sounded a little too “woo-woo” for me, but then I got started and I found myself writing the words: “You don’t trust me, you don’t believe in me, you don’t feed me.” And then: “You put me on display—like a bear on a chain—and you expect me to dance for you, but you don’t own me.” And then it was like the power of whatever it was that I had been afraid of for so long took over and these words just poured out:

“I’m a bear. I’m a huge, smelly, filthy bear. I have sharp, yellow, slobbery teeth. Don’t try to pretty me up. I have wounds that oozed. I have festering sores. But my eyes are clear and my great, soft belly is the color of ripe peach. Let me be what I am. Let me breath and drool. Let me claw through the garbage and break things. Let me roam and let me stumble in the dark. Let me stink the place up.”

Then I wrote: “You’re scaring me.” And then: “I know. Let me scare you.”  

But the thing is, I wasn’t afraid. I was energized. And since then, I’ve never been afraid to write.

Cary Tennis writing retreat in Chester Connecticut

 



We stood at the turning point: Brian Herrera and the beauty of change

What our friend Brian Herrera wrote today about his experience at the Creative Getaway at Marconi spurred some thoughts of my own which I’d like to share — with people who’ve had this experience and with people who perhaps do not know about the Amherst Writers and Artists method or the creative getaways Norma and I have put on at Marconi Conference Center since 2008.

Actually, I have a lot to say so I’ll post this in two or three parts. The first part, for today, is this: Brian’s post reminded me how much the AWA process can work as a catalyst at a crucial turning point in someone’s life. People get spurred on to make courageous changes and then they write books. They get degrees. They get jobs at Princeton.

Which means that they move on.

So let me tell you about my own kind of mixed-up psychology, or my personal emotional baggage: I am always trying to reconstruct my family. So if you come within my field of gravity, I will assign you a part in my imaginary family, as a brother or sister or uncle or aunt or parental figure. And then when someone whom I have assigned a place in my imaginary family makes a sudden move toward growth and change, my impulse is to say, Wait, hold on, you have to stay in the family!

Also, as a business, we can get hung up on having “repeat customers.” It makes it easier for us financially if everybody just comes every time. As producers of the event, Norma and I are focused on repeating it as an event, making it happen again and again. Yet the essence of it is about change: people using the AWA method to speak their truth, making changes in their lives and moving on.

There are some words in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous that are relevant here: “Half-measures availed us nothing. We stood at the turning point.”

People come to the creative getaway because they are standing at the turning point. They have tried half-measures, acknowledging as portion of the writer self, for instance, feeding it enough to keep it from dying but mainly in life attending to what is practical and pressing and immediate, while continuously thinking that one day perhaps we’ll get around to seeing what this writing thing is all about, and this niggling, half-ignored voice of the writer will get its due. One day. Sometime.

Keep on like that and then suddenly you’re 80. So we say come, now, while the impulse is fresh, begin a dialog with the writer self in you, and make the changes you need to make.

But how does that relate to the production of story? One might ask, where is the craft in all this? Where is the practical application? How is this going to help me be a writer?

I say, paradoxically, that abandoning for the moment all concern about craft is the route to finding our true story, for story is about revelation. Story is not about craft. Craft is a vehicle. Story is about facing desperate moments. So in coming to Marconi, or Chester, or Melrose, or Santa Barbara, or Amsterdam, or Tuscany, one may be treating oneself, but one is also mining one’s own desperation for that kernel of truth that is the only story that matters.

Story comes from personal truth in conflict with the world. One recognizes what is real, what is right, what must be done, and sets about changing, upsetting the apple cart, creating tension. Poetry, too, comes of conflict — confronting the barriers of language itself, twisting it to fit what is otherwise inexpressible.

So coming to Marconi to explore one’s relationship to the writing self is also about finding the story that writing self is best suited to write. Conversely, when we are stuck we are not only avoiding the situation, we are avoiding the story. The story begins when we acknowledge the situation and start dealing with it — as Brian did.

Thanks Brian, for reminding me what is the essential function and goodness of the AWA method.

The point is that if you “stand at the turning point,” if you are at the fulcrum of change and ready to set a new angle of trajectory, this may be what you need. And then, if this is what you need, then our job is to make it possible for you to do it.

It takes a little trust — trust of oneself, and also trust in external things coming together. In Brian’s case, for instance, there was the long-agonized-over dissertation. There was also the fact that it was his birthday; and his partner was supporting him in the decision. And a little bit of money had come into his hands that made it make sense to do it. All those things came together.

In other cases it may be just the soul crying out, saying, It’s time to do this. This is what you need, even if it does not appear to be the practical thing. Life is like that sometimes. We have to make a leap of faith.

My job is to be there and make the event happen. If now, having read this, you recognize that you are at some kind of turning point, then please let me know and we will see what we can do to accommodate you.

Oh, and feel free to phone me on impulse. 415 308-5685. You don’t need to have your whole plan figured out. You don’t have to be sure you’re coming. Call if you just want to talk about the possibility of it. I love to talk. All this emailing makes me miss talking on the phone. I don’t have things all figured out so I don’t see why you should.

p.s. Say Hello to Brian on Facebook!

 

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Our featured person of the week: Brian Herrera

We first met Brian Herrera at our first-ever Creative Getaway. An exceptionally talented and inventive writer, he amazed us all during our evening reading sessions by one moment reading us the most deeply moving piece, and the next reading something that would leave the entire room in tears of laughter. Here’s what Brian has to say about himself, the Creative Getaway, and his new project, Storywork:

When I got the email announcing Cary’s first Creative Getaway, I knew immediately I had to go. Even though it made no sense. Such an extravagance. Terrible timing. School would be back in session and, dang, it would be the weekend immediately prior to the last-chance, do-or-die submission date for my long-overdue dissertation! But…it would also be my birthday weekend. And a perfectly-sized lump payment had finally landed in my account. So when my partner said he’d spring for the airfare as a birthday gift, I clicked the button. I was in.

It was a gift, I reminded myself. Not a reward exactly, but a tangible gift to confirm that promise I made to myself. That promise that I would finish the dissertation. That confirmation that finishing the dissertation was itself an act of healing. That reminder that finishing meant I could no longer pretend I was just a dissertator. That finishing meant I was a writer.

And what better way to make that promise real than to join a bunch of other writers on a mountain near Tomales Bay?

That first Getaway was indeed a life-changer. In maybe the first session, I wrote my first real amends to my writerly self (using only single-syllable words, naturally). Within twenty-four hours, I wrote my first words of fiction. And by the weekend’s end, I felt as if a new chapter of my life had begun.

Looking back, just five years later, I realize that Cary’s Getaway didn’t make me a writer, but the experience did goad me to embrace that I am a writer, because I am someone who writes. That simple turn of mind not only opened a new chapter in my life, but also a renewed sense of self. And, in the five years since, I have kept writing in all kinds of ways. And not only the scholarly nonfiction required for my job, but exploring other forms, including young adult fiction, children’s picture books, and creative nonfiction The practice I began at the Getaway also took me directly to the particular set of coincidences that launched my autobiographical one-man show, I Was The Voice of Democracy, which has since been seen scores of times in more than a dozen states (not to mention Beirut and Abu Dhabi). I now enjoy a thrilling sideline in what I call “storywork,” or a mode of autobiographical storymaking in which the processes of writing and performing are so twined that the one can never be fully untangled from the other. (My new Storywork website launches this week — check it out!) And just a month or so ago, my ecstatic editor sent back a set of glowing reader reports, so now I’m hunkering down for a few weeks of deep revision because… Well, you remember that old dissertation? It is now nearly a book, presently under advance contract with a major university press and with a likely release sometime (hopefully early) in 2015.

And it all tracks back to that gift of a promise that Cary’s Getaway made real for me: I am a writer, because I am one who writes. So I better get to writing!

Why the Creative Getaway is so great

Yesterday in my intro to the column I mentioned “how we need to fill the January getaway,” and that apparently set off some worries, like, it won’t be cancelled, will it?

Of course not. The Creative Getaway Jan. 17-20, 2014 at Marconi Conference Center is definitely happening. It’s just that some people who were hoping to make it found they couldn’t come, so there are some open slots.

Norma said to me, What will we do if there are only 5 people? And I said, Well, they’ll get a very good workshop! They’ll get a lot of attention and will have a lot of time to write! And what if there was only one person? Then we might lose money! It would never occur to me to cancel.

And then I thought, why is that? Why would it never even occur to me to cancel? Am I not thinking enough about the bottom line? And I realized: I’ve never been motivated by money — even when doing business. Business is just a way to make great things happen.

As I thought about it, I realized that’s what it comes down: I don’t do things for money. I do things for their social utility, or for their beauty, or for love. And then I try to figure out how to make the money work. Usually if something is socially useful or beautiful or if there is love involved the money part can be made to work.

It’s so funny what you think of as business expertise — the other night I was at a dinner in San Francisco with some experienced, cosmopolitan people from the world of business journalism — much more sophisticated in the world than I am — a speechwriter for the head of the Federal Reserve, a business editor for a major metropolitan daily newspaper and now for the Wall Street Journal, that kind of person.

You should have seen them trying to figure out the check.

Heck, I can do the arithmetic. But that’s not what the getaway is about. The getaway, if I may be so bold, is really a spiritual and aesthetic experience.

So why is Marconi so special?

Come to think of it, what happens at Marconi fulfills all three of my values mentioned above: It is socially useful, it is beautiful, and it is done with love. That’s why we do it.

It is also a response, a critical response, to contemporary American culture. It is a brief respite from life in America. Most of the time it is like we live in pressure cookers. We run around taking care of business and then we sleep. Underneath all this frenetic activity, our best and highest thoughts, our creative dreams, and our deep pains — the stuff of our souls, basically — simmer, shut off, made to wait. As what is delayed or put aside for later or repressed continues to press against us, at times will become a shadow, threatening and perverse. And that is how we live in America day to day: overworked, insecure, unloved, delaying the best parts of ourselves, hindered in our dreams. And yes, I say, unloved in a way. Unloved for that creative part: the part that dreams.

I feel this. I feel it intensely. But because of the unusual, countercultural way I grew up, because I always assumed I would be an artist, an outsider, mostly broke, because it never occurred to me that I might have a comfortable and secure life, because I never worried about that so much, I take material deprivations with good cheer, feeling essentially taken care of and lucky to live amidst so much luxury and splendor in the U.S. I always go for the risky but true aspiration, the dream that is underneath the daily grind. That seems the natural path. But it is a different path.

That path is what Marconi is about: It is about taking this chance, for just a few days, to live in the realm of the creative, the possible, and the true.

What we do at Marconi is provide a setting in which one can put one’s inchoate dreams first. When that happens energy is released. People make plans and change their lives.

Last year was amazing. Seven women — yes, it was economically perilous, like this one because there were only seven participants; I think we made a profit of $24 but that is the nature of the thing. Sometimes we do well; sometimes we make $24. But what made it socially useful, beautiful and full of love was how the seven women (and yes, it happened to be all women, but it is not by any means always women) bonded and shared their stories, which were amazing and inspiring and at times full of pain and doubt and longing. I won’t go into details but I am looking forward to the return of some of them, to try and shepherd along the stories that began to take shape last year. But not all seven can make it. One, on the strength of her experience last year, entered an MFA program in poetry and is taking up seriously her calling, so she is otherwise engaged this year. She’s very talented. But she found the courage to pursue it at Marconi, in our workshops and in our private conversations. She was clearly a person deeply literate, steeped in the American tradition of poetry. But it was sitting in McCargo Hall, with the freedom to improvise and let her voice rise naturally, like that voice of the baby in Sylvia Plath’s poem “Morning Song” — “And now you try/Your handful of notes;/The clear vowels rise like balloons.” So we’re happy that she is able to do that. People go back to their lives changed in fundamental ways, renewed, ready to be more authentic and to take some chances, awakened to the fragility and brevity of life and determined to be more alive.

People come and they bond with each other and then go on to do things in their lives with more passion and clarity. Like one of our “people of the week,” Amy Souza. Like Bill Kerr, who is organizing writers workshops in Baltimore to help Iraq and Afghanistan veterans speak their war-torn truths to power. Like Brian Herrera, who dazzled us with his voice and his performances and is now teaching drama at Princeton. Like Mary Burnham, who found her voice and style and is writing books about wine. Like Lisa Eldridge and Kathy Doran and Gil Schwartz and Gil Gallagher and many, many others. Something starts at Marconi and it echoes and ripples outward into the culture and that is why we do it.

Meanwhile, in the weeks running up to it, I belly-ache. I kvetch. I pace and worry and pace. So what if we make only $24 or even if we lose money? That’s not why we do it. We do it because it is one of the few things in this world that is socially useful, beautiful to behold, and full of love.

It is also a really enjoyable time for me personally. The people at the front desk who run Marconi — Margaret, Julie, Venta and James — are really sweet, kind and likable people, and we love to see them whenever we come up. And the food is outstanding. It is really, really good to eat.

Here’s one other interesting thing about Marconi, which I just realized it has in common with Burning Man: Basically, you don’t spend any money there. Everything is already paid for. It’s subtle, but I think there is something about being liberated from paying for things that releases one more strand of worry, one more little link to the everyday grind. We just go and eat breakfast and then write. Then we eat lunch and write. Then we eat dinner and gather to read and tell jokes or perform or sing, or just crawl into bed in the great, serene, quiet darkness of Tomales Bay, West Marin, the Point Reyes Peninsula a dark finger jutting north into the Pacific.

View from Marconi Conference Center of Tomales Bay

View from Marconi Conference Center of Tomales Bay

There might be a better place than Marconi to do these things, but for the price I haven’t seen it. And we looked around. I mean, when we started out in 2008 we looked around. And we looked around again last year when we thought we might not be getting the best deal, or that people might be tired of Marconi. We looked at retreat centers in Napa and up the coast and down the coast; we looked at a number of well-known and well-regarded centers. But nothing beat Marconi. We just love it. The serenity of the location. I mean, you just have to go there and walk about in the morning and you get it. Or at night, walk up Tower Hill — where the first trans-Pacific wireless receiving station stood in the early 20th century (yes, it’s named for that Marconi), and look up at the sky, or down at the few lights twinkling on the bay.

It is always memorable. So that’s why we do it. There’s no better way to start a new year, in my opinion.

And it’s easy. Whatever needs to be done payment-wise, we’ll do. We’re revamping our Internet store but meanwhile, if you want to go, and you’re not sure about the payment options or how to proceed, or how to get there from the airport, just email info@carytennis.com, or just phone. We’ll work it out. We can run your card, or we can take a check. There are no real barriers.

See you there.

CT

I want to strangle stupid people who say stupid things about Obamacare

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Dear Reader,

Right now I’m writing this column here on my own site on Tuesdays and Thursdays. You can bookmark http://carytennis.com to always find it. I’ll announce it on Facebook and Twitter whenever it goes up, and we’ll send out an email newsletter about it, too. Might miss a day or two here and there but that’s the schedule.

Since I left Salon some people have asked how they can contribute to see the column continue here on CaryTennis.com. Norma and I are trying to figure all that stuff out. Your patience is appreciated as we weigh the options. We have plans. They’re just taking some time to work out.

Also, let’s not forget, I’m a writer, for heaven’s sake, and also a musician, so I’m enjoying my relative unemployment even though I’m probably not supposed to. I am also working all the time on other stuff that doesn’t pay money, just like the old days. Plucking my guitar, messing around with poems, etc.

So here’s the letter, something we can probably all relate to in some fashion:

 

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Dear Cary,

I know that you overcame a health crisis of your own not long ago and I congratulate you on your valiant fight! Over the past decade, my husband Kevin and I have had several health issues including two back surgeries and a hip replacement for him and an emergency appendectomy and broken foot for me along with several smaller, but still costly illnesses. My husband lost his advertising job after Sept. 11 at 51 years old and we’ve been doing everything we can to right our ship. Unfortunately, between a significant loss of income and HUGE medical bills, we went through all of our retirement savings (~a quarter of a million dollars) before going through bankruptcy. We are down, but we are definitely not OUT!  We are regretful, but not full of self-pity. We are extremely focused on rebuilding.

My question for you is how can I keep from completely losing my shit when someone (usually at my office) makes a negative comment about Obamacare? It happened again last week and I blasted a coworker and shrieked, “DON’T YOU DARE BLAME IT ON OBAMACARE!!! I WENT THROUGH BANKRUPTCY ON GEORGE-BUSH-DOESN’T-GIVE-A-RAT’S-ASS-CARE.”

How can I either walk away or provide a cogent argument without sounding like an angry nut? I’d like to come up with something having to do with “What kind of a country do we want to be?” but I can’t stop seething long enough to sound reasonable.

Thank you, Cary.

Broke But Not Down

Dear Broke But Not Down,

Imagine somebody says something stupid and insulting and you’re about to scream but instead you say to the person, “Could I please have a minute of your time? In private.” And the person looks at you and goes, “Right now?” or maybe, “What for?” or just, “Whaaa?”

And you say, “Now would be fine. In private.”

I love to imagine this scene. It would play out all different ways for different groups. Like if it was a group of men, or a mixed group, or all women. If it was men it might be like asking a guy to step outside. But you just stick to the script. You just say, “Could I please have a minute of your time? In private.”

Now, maybe when the person says, “Why?” you say, “Once we are alone together and can talk in private, you will know why.” This introduces some mystery and suspense, making the person perhaps a tad curious. It’s less threatening than saying, “Because I want to beat your ass in private where there are no witnesses.”

In any case, if the person agrees, you go, together, to an empty conference room or outside on the street or to a cafe.

And while you are walking to this place you calm down just a little bit but you maintain your focus on the emotional energy that has been unleashed. And you maintain your focus on your own personal experience. For that is what is important here: to regain your equilibrium and some sense of personal validation by relating your personal experience and being heard. You’re not going to change any political opinions necessarily but you’re going to make a connection with another person. Now, this person may not like you. You can’t control that. But by taking this action, you have the upper hand, morally speaking. You get to do this. You get to be heard. You get your moment.

Or maybe instead of agreeing to meet with you in private the person says something insulting, like, “No, you cannot have a minute of my time,” or just something vaguely dismissive like, “Not now, maybe later.”

Now that would be a crucial moment, because people would be looking at you to see how you respond. Without preparation, you might not have anything to say back to that. But if you were prepared, you could say this:

“I will be in touch, and we will have some time together, and I am looking forward to our conversation.”

And then you walk away before the other person can say something to you that you would have no comeback for. You’ve stated that you and that person are going to meet in private and that’s that. You have the upper hand because you have stated a fact. And you’re out of there. And a question lingers in the air.

So, either right now, or eventually, you have a private chat with this person who said this thing.

In this private chat, you begin by saying that you were upset by this person’s words. You avoid saying that the person is a dumb shit or that her political beliefs are naive and uninformed. You just say that her words were hurtful to you because of your own personal experience, and then you ask if you can relate that personal experience. You tell what it was like to be forced into bankruptcy by medical bills.

You don’t ask the person to change her views. You just relate what it is like to be forced into bankruptcy by medical bills.

Because here is the thing about hearing a person’s story: If we are merely listening to someone’s story, we are not required to make political sense of it. We do not have to rebut it or try to fit it into our scheme. We can simply acknowledge the truth of it, and the truth of it is not about policy; the truth of it is emotional: Here is what happened to a person because of the lack of medical insurance.

Let’s think for a minute about why might it be so insulting to you that this person would say what she said. Can it be partly because what she touched on was not a matter of policy but a matter of personal hurt? Let’s say you’ve been through the Gulf War and you were wounded and I start going on about what a stupid, unjust war it was. You might agree with me in principle about the the war but still feel hurt and offended because it was your war; you went through that war and got blown up in it and that’s what’s real for you. So what I might say about it would feel like a transgression. It would feel like I don’t know what I’m talking about, because for you, that war is about your injury.

In the same way, the issue of health insurance is about what it feels like to be ruined financially. As with the person who went to a war he might not have believed in, you did what you thought was right. You didn’t shirk. You paid, just as a person who goes to war goes to war because that is the honorable action. So to hear others make political hay of it is personally offensive.

Perhaps in a private setting, if you tell your story, something like that might get across to this person. You did the right thing and were screwed, and scarred, and left with feelings of abandonment and betrayal.

There’s a larger picture here, too, in which all but the very richest of us have been abandoned and betrayed by our country. Our soldiers, our women, our working people, our minorities, our artists, our writers, our intellectuals, our students, all of us have been hoodwinked by a system of government and business geared to profit, not to the protection and care of its citizens. We all carry some anger and resentment and feelings of betrayal about this.

Still, sometimes you just want to hit a person who says something stupid about Obama and Obamacare. And why not? Is that such a terribly wrong thing to feel? Is it so terribly wrong to want to say, “You, motherfucker, just don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about!”? Is it so terrible to want to say, “You, motherfucker, are a fucking idiot!”?

Well, especially in a work environment, it’s preferable to count to ten. But not to just let it go unchallenged. Make an appointment in public to challenge it in private. Make time with the person where we can tell our story, so there is some understanding between us about why we feel as we do.

And by telling this person, you might have some influence on this person’s future political thinking. For our political attitudes are shaped by emotion. If you can touch someone with your own personal experience, you have a chance to change their political calculations regardless of what they may outwardly profess because, having once felt something, we cannot unfeel it. Some are better than others at shutting out feeling that conflict with their beliefs, but feelings are powerful. They can change lives. They can change opinions.

Then, having told your story, having thanked the person for hearing you out, you might also think to yourself, I can tell that story pretty well. I could put this story on the Internet. I could write an article about this. In that way you might indeed have some influence on policy.

And then, finally, after all this, you could always go to a martial arts class and beat and kick the shit out of some inanimate object and pretend it is this person.

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