He owns me

Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, APR 8, 2004

My boss is a nasty, sexist, arrogant man. How can I defend myself against his unreasonable behavior?


Dear Cary,

I hate my boss. He’s a horrible, old, mean, vain, nasty, sexist, arrogant man who yells and berates me and the rest of his staff constantly. I have a stomachache all day long while I’m working and often fantasize that he will die.

There’s no use in trying to talk to him about his behavior. Our office is his fiefdom and he would only blame me for being too sensitive. Loudly.

In any other circumstance, I would, of course, quit. But I am a first-year graduate from law school, he is a judge, and right now he pretty much owns me. If I quit, I have no doubt he would do what he could to make my life very difficult. He has contacts at the law firm that I plan on working at next year and despite his reputation for being a horrible person, I think there’s a big chance they would renege on my offer.

His influence is, of course, limited. I could always move to another city and start over. But I’ve worked so hard. I went to a really good law school. I have a very bright future, and this job is a big part of that. After all my hard work, it would be such a disappointment to have this conspicuous blemish to work around.

On the other hand, I don’t know how long I can control myself. I’m proud and I have tremendous difficulty not defending myself when he berates me. If I talk back too much I may just cross that line.

I have only five months left on my contract. I know that I should harden myself to it as best I can, do what I can to preserve my dignity, and just finish the year off. But I want to quit more than anything I can imagine. I really think I’m getting an ulcer from all the anxiety and stress.

I’ve been thinking about saying that I need to leave to care for an ailing family member (which I do have). He would yell at me and be horrible, but I don’t think he’d sabotage me in that situation. I hate putting my co-workers in the situation and I hate lying. But I don’t know that I can go on. Can you give me some advice?

A Very Desperate Serf

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Dear Desperate,

The law, it seems to me, is a tool for justice and fairness. To determine what is just and fair, we first determine what is true — we determine the facts. To this end, the law is written with precision. For instance, the law does not say that it shall be punishable by a term in prison not exceeding 25 years if anyone shall be found by a jury of his peers to be a moronic, incompetent motherfucker. We recognize that there are indeed moronic, incompetent motherfuckers out there, but it’s a subjective call. It’s hard to prove.

For that reason, a good lawyer focuses on the facts.

If the fact is that he’s disappointed with your work, and angry with you because you did not meet his expectations, then certain actions might flow from that. There would be nothing wrong in his telling you that. That much could be regarded as a fact: He had certain expectations that were not met, and as a result he had certain feelings.

However, if he deduces from his feelings that you are a backward jackass, and further deduces that since you are a backward jackass he is justified in abusing you, he’s not being a very good lawyer. He’s acting on flawed assumptions. The assumption that you are a backward jackass is subjective and unprovable; it’s no basis on which to act.

Habitual criminals and habitually abusive people have in common their disregard for the suffering of others, and their disregard for the facts. They justify their abuses on erroneous, misleading, meaningless or unprovable notions — that the victim was a lowdown, deserving scoundrel, for instance. Or that the victim was an incompetent and overly sensitive law clerk. If your boss believes you are a backward jackass and therefore it’s permissible to call you names, he’s got more in common with the criminal element than he does with an officer of the court.

So I think you should stand up to him, either in person or in writing, and argue the point that verbal abuse runs counter to the spirit of the law. If he blames you for being too sensitive, you need a counterargument. Ask him if slaves were being too sensitive. Ask him if Rosa Parks was too sensitive about sitting in the back of the bus. Ask him who determines how sensitive one should be. It’s the law that determines that, right? Find cases in which employees fought abusive bosses and ask him if they were too sensitive. Find cases in which sexist, abusive language was used as the cause for damages for, say, intentional infliction of emotional distress.

As to your concerns about the practical consequences of fighting back: The law is more than a career, it’s a calling. As a lawyer, you have a duty to uphold not just the law but what it stands for — shielding the weak from the predations of the strong.

I’m not suggesting you act recklessly, only that you place principle above personal convenience. There are things you can do to shield yourself. If you have contacts at the law firm you intend to work for, see if you can’t have a confidential communication in which you describe the instances of abuse. Ask if it’s well known that he engages in such behavior. Ask if such behavior is tolerated at the firm you plan to work for. Ask what the possible repercussions would be if you were to have a principled falling out with this judge. And think hard about whether you can in good conscience work for a firm whose culture condones such behavior as this judge is known for.

A lawyer needs a fighting spirit. If you’re going to use your training for good in the world, you have to learn to fight tyranny. What better time to begin fighting tyranny than right now?

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How do I overcome the inertia?

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Cary’s classic column TUESDAY, MAR 21, 2006

I have so much potential I can’t decide what to do!


Dear Cary,

I’m 23 and panicking.

I’ve been working at a fairly small company in New York for about two years now. Immersed in my studies during my senior year at college, I hadn’t looked very hard for employment and landed this job a few weeks after graduation almost by accident. It has been good for me in some ways; I’ve learned new skills and improved others (both professional and social), and with the luxury of never having to take work home, I’ve been able to spend my limited free time pursuing numerous hobbies and projects. The pay could be better, but I’m living at home with minimal rent and other expenses and the salary is enough that I can afford to feed my book and movie habits and to travel when I can get the time off. However, I’ve long since hit the top of the learning curve here, there’s no opportunity for advancement, the hours are long, the work endless and repetitive with ever-decreasing time to do what I was hired for (writing) — and I’m restless to the point of desperation. I frequently feel burnt out but don’t want to stop what I do outside of work because that’s what really makes me feel alive.

My family, friends and even some co-workers are trying to convince me to quit. I know that’s the right thing to do. If any of them were in my position, I’d tell them in no uncertain terms that it was time to move on. But I can’t seem to do it, despite feeling overqualified and stagnating in my current position, if not decaying. I’ve started filling out grad school applications only to leave them half-finished. I’ve idly looked for jobs online, but the activities I do after hours to keep me sane (writing/presenting papers for conferences, for instance, and running a Web site) are convenient excuses preventing me from conducting an intensive search.

Part of the trouble of being stuck in this job (or seeming to be stuck, or self-defeatingly sticking) is that the number of possibilities once I leave are daunting. Although I’ve considered myself a writer for as long as I can remember and know that I will be writing for the rest of my life no matter what else I end up doing, I’m an intelligent young woman with varied interests and the potential to succeed in just about any field I choose. I was an excellent student (straight A’s, double major, Phi Beta Kappa, the works) with one of those ludicrous laundry lists of extracurricular activities, an itch to stay busy and intellectually stimulated that hasn’t left me (hence the aforementioned projects and hobbies). I can think of a dozen careers and academic disciplines that I might enjoy. So I ask myself: Should I apply to grad school? In what subject? Move somewhere new? Take a new job? What kind? Where? Quit for a set period of time and write? Travel? And so forth. For months I’ve been caught in circular thinking patterns and a paradox of atheistic mortality: I only have one life and want to choose carefully, so I’m putting (too much) thought into the next step — yet it’s only one life, so why am I wasting time at a job that has nothing left to offer me? I am terrified of death and recognize that refusing to move forward is like refusing to accept my mortality, but shouldn’t that very realization somehow enable me to overcome the problem?

It also doesn’t help that I feel under a good deal of pressure to achieve something significant. Like anyone, I want to make a difference, create something I’m proud of (a book, I’ve always assumed), leave a legacy. At school I was part of a community where expectations for our futures were discussed on national or even global scales. Such ambition is pretty new for me, and it’s very stressful to be fueled by this desire to achieve without knowing where to direct it.

Almost everyone I’ve asked for advice has said I should “just choose,” “just take action,” that things will work themselves out, that I’m young and have lots of time, that people go through multiple career changes nowadays and you never know where you’ll end up. One perceptive friend pointed out that I don’t have as many choices as I might like to think, and that by the time I narrow down all these possibilities to realistic opportunities (e.g., getting accepted to particular programs or landing specific job offers), the choice among them will be easy. I know there isn’t one “right” path and that a job or degree doesn’t define me as a person. I just don’t know where or how to start. How do I overcome the inertia?

Paralyzed by Potential

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Dear Paralyzed,

I could give you a to-do list and some deadlines. Would you like that? OK. Sketch out three possible book ideas — one or two paragraphs for each book idea — and send them to me by April 1.

Identify five graduate programs you are interested in and rank them, with explanations. Send that to me by April 15.

Also, on the work front: First, back up your contention that there is no upward mobility at your present company by explaining why that is. Are you sure that your company isn’t going to expand in some way that might accommodate you? Then identify five other jobs you might get. Send that to me by April 30.

There. That should justify your existence to God for six weeks or so. Oh, but you don’t believe in God. Well, I kind of don’t either. It’s complicated, no? But we’ll get to that.

I’m serious, by the way. I mean to see if this works. If it does, I can say to readers, here is something you can do with your own friends: Give each other deadlines. Help each other when you are stuck! This is the action approach — the part of the action approach that is crucial. It is not enough to simply say, do something! One has to find out a way to make something happen.

People who say, “Relax, just pick one, you’ve got plenty of time,” may not remember 23 — may not remember just how important the world is at 23, how limitless is the horizon, how fresh is the air, how ready the mind, how spirited the walk, how eager one is to begin. At 23 I rode the hippie bus from Manhattan to San Francisco and ended up in a falling-down Victorian on Fulton and Baker one floor up from a deadhead with bad teeth named Sunshine.

I thought I had it made.

I note with interest this sentence: “I am terrified of death and recognize that refusing to move forward is like refusing to accept my mortality, but shouldn’t that very realization somehow enable me to overcome the problem?” If you think about it for a minute, you will realize the limited effectiveness of such insight. Recognizing you have a broken leg doesn’t cure it. It’s just the beginning of a process of understanding.

But my guess is it’s not really mortality that terrifies you. At 23, I thought I was terrified by death, but the actual things that terrified me were less impressive: failure, weakness, shame, appearing to be mediocre. I romanticized my fears. What I actually feared was not death, but the risks one takes in living.

It was fear of failure, and fear of being judged. It was fear of being mediocre, of joining the human race and being a worker among workers, of not being special, of turning out to have all the same problems and limitations as everyone else. To avoid facing those things, I avoided doing many things. I chickened out. I walked off the ice (I am still lacing up my skates on the sidelines, slowly watching the action out of the corner of my eye.)

So, using my experience as a guide (even though we are different in many ways), I would try to locate some fears closer to home. These actual fears may be harder to accept, though they sound less powerful: fear of choosing the wrong occupation, fear of not living up to your “potential,” fear of wasting these precious years, fear of not being as happy as you are right now.

I did have one thing at 23: I knew without a doubt that I wanted to be a writer. So, it seems, do you.

So why not just write the book? Wouldn’t that be enough right there?

That brings to mind another danger of believing the whole “You’ve got so much potential” thing: Actual accomplishments are much harder than they look. Not only does the world itself seem to resist our efforts to accomplish even the smallest objectives, but you will resist yourself; right now, theoretically, you could do a million things. But in reality you can’t even quit your job. That’s what I mean. Even easy things are hard to do.

So send me your assignments. And if this works, I will recommend that readers do this with each other. I already know that it works in many settings where one gets stuck. I hope it will work here.

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I came home to a sleeping country

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Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, JAN 28, 2013

Back in the States after the Peace Corps, I feel lost, like it’s unreal


Dear Cary,

After graduating from college, I joined the Peace Corps. This whole growing up thing has been great, by the way! There are more interesting things to learn about and more important things to care about every day. And the older I get, the more I can do.

I was very close to my host family in my country of service. For two years, I lived in a hut in their compound. They were work partners, friends and parents to me. They introduced me to their culture, taught me the local language and showed me more about the meaning of family and community than I could ever hope to communicate with my words or works. As proud as I am of the work that I did there, my relationship with that family and the whole village community is what I’ll carry in my heart for the rest of my life.

The work was good, too. When it went well, anyway. Our projects were complicated sometimes, and they were always being carried out in low-resource settings. It could be frustrating. But seeing a village pull together, as I got to over and over again, was a delight. I could go to bed at night, dehydrated and exhausted, truly emptied out, and feel so much joy. I intend to chase that feeling for the rest of my life, and I will follow it anywhere.

This feeling is like having this whole other element in my life, like a color I had never been able to see before my Peace Corps service, or like an entirely new way of putting the same old words and thoughts together, an entirely new way of living. It came every day, but some days more than others. The best days were the days that were full of work and people. The best nights were the nights when I went to bed sunburned and sore, with a light heart, a full stomach, and the knowledge that I had done a good thing well. I remember thinking: This is all I want. Let me not live a day past my ability to feel this way. Not an hour.

After my return to the States, which was about six months ago, I started a program of education that will bring me to a career I am certain I will love. It’s a career path that will bring me back to that feeling I’m talking about. It’s thrilling, and I feel lucky to be in this program. I am exactly where I need to be, having taken every opportunity for adventure and madness and good work that has come my way. At least, I’m 95 percent sure of all that, and that remaining whisper of doubt doesn’t come anywhere close to disturbing me.

Here’s the thing. I haven’t felt anything since I’ve come back to the States. A friend’s sadness has moved me deeply on a couple of occasions, and I was moved to the point of mild irritation by the need to take midterms and final exams this semester. But I haven’t emotionally connected to anything or anyone in a way that felt real to me. Things happen, and they’re sometimes things that I should feel keenly. But I don’t. I even took a volunteer job that I thought would push me emotionally. Nothing.

I don’t feel like I’m disconnecting myself from the people and things around me on purpose, but I don’t know how to stop it from happening. Nothing here seems real. It’s what I feel when I look at old sepia-tinted photos: that it’s a real world, or it was, but it’s not mine. I can’t put my hands on it, I can’t live in it, I can’t respond to it.

I know some people have trouble coming back from overseas. They fall apart in grocery stores, shocked by the variety of foods and consumer goods. They lose it in restaurants and bars, appalled by others’ inability to understand their experiences, or angered by their ignorance of faraway places. I’ve seen all that happen, and it’s not what’s happening to me. At least, I think it’s not.

How do you reconnect? How do you wake back up? How do you come home?

Not All Here

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Dear Not All Here,

Your question is so interesting that I am going to take a speculative approach to it, almost as though it were a writing prompt. For it reads like a novel that opens after many important things have already happened. We begin with exhaustion. The hero returns and now what? In storytelling sense, it might not seem like the best place to start. But we’re at a point of decision-making, which should lead to a story. The protagonist is having flashbacks to his time overseas. He is concerned mostly about that world that he has left. That is what he is thinking about, day to day. We wouldn’t want to hang around with him if he’s just going to be unhappy and live in the past. But we’ll put up with it for a little bit because we like him and trust him. He’s done something good and he’s troubled but it’s not because there’s something wrong with him. It’s more like a new problem for him to solve.

He buys a peach at a corner store and the man who sells it to him reminds him of one of the villagers and it sets off a train of thought where we see that he loved these people and longs for return. We grow to like this character as he goes about his daily life and tells us about the life he left in the village.

Since we have grown to like the character, we want something to happen to him or for him. If he is simply exhausted then there is no story. To make a story, first we think the character must  insert himself into bland American culture and try to change it. He must hurl himself up against it. That will make it an interesting novel. He must identify the elements in American society that are lacking and he must identify the disease. Is it ennui? Is this a dying empire? Is that what happened? The son of a dying empire experiences a vital culture and then returns to his dying empire and realizes the truth?

He must watch television and listen to the current political debate and contrast it with his recent experience in the village. For instance maybe he is sitting in a cafe working on his thesis and there is an argument on the television about “the debt.” He starts to think about “the debt,” how it is an abstract cudgel everyone is beaten by, how it looms like the threat of the paddle used to loom in schools before paddles were outlawed.

He tries to analyze what is wrong with the society he has returned to, and he sees that it is full of fear, irrational fear, superstitious fear, religious fear. He sees that the promise of rational progress, the Enlightenment dream of the free individual, the lessons of existentialism and psychoanalysis, the promise of technology, the daily miracles occurring in software, that all these things are occurring and yet the populace seems weirdly drugged. He begins to wonder if Americans might not have been hypnotized in his absence. Or is he the one who has changed? Was it always this way? No one can tell him. He asks a professor he has come to like and trust and the professor tells him that yes, American society is diseased and drugged, and we must each find our personal salvation wherever we can — in heroin, in Buddhism, in study. His professor’s answer seems both sincere and deeply cynical and he cannot reconcile these conflicting impressions, and feels that the professor has not been entirely honest with him, but then he realizes it’s not the professor’s job to be honest with him, but to provoke him to thought.

He is angry. He asks what he is angry about. The answer that comes is that he is angry about loss. What he senses in the society to which he has returned is that it has lost a precious beauty, a burning faith. Part of this he chalks up to his youth. Of course the world is mostly tedium. Of course most people give up. As he works for a living he realizes why most people give up: Because to eat and pay rent one must get up every day and work at a job that takes all one’s energy, a job that requires one to focus on details that do not relate to any larger human project but seem to exist in a machine world all their own, and one wonders why so many millions of workers are spending their days hunched over in cubicles managing the details of this machine that is too huge to see or comprehend, a machine that does not speak to us or reveal itself but which nonetheless must be maintained. And then out of boredom he goes to the movies alone. He has heard of this movie “Zero Dark Thirty” and so he buys a ticket at a theater out in a quiet, foggy distract of the city (I wrote “distract” instead of “district” because just at that moment I was distracted; weird, huh? Such ticks might make this seem like a self-referential novel but that would not be good because a self-referential novel might be considered just one more symptom of a dying empire). He sits through “Zero Dark Thirty” and grows angry and sad. The movie strikes him as the bland recitation of an undigested trauma. This trauma, he realizes, this national trauma has not been transformed into wisdom but sits inert in the belly of the beast, and he realizes that the nature of a truly bad thing is that we cannot overcome it or comprehend it, that it makes us crazy or sterile or frozen, and this is how bad, boring art gets made as well — he has the thought that bad art is made by stuck analysands groping in blandness.

He walks out of the theater and for a moment he hates his country. He stops on a dark street corner and begins to weep for this country that only months before had seemed so bright with promise. He thinks about the men in the movie who got on the helicopters to go and murder America’s enemy and there is much about them that he likes but their mission had about it the bloodlessness of an execution. He seizes on that word “bloodless” and feels there is something bloodless in the land he has returned to.

But he goes on. He goes home. He breaks a vase in his apartment. He calls a woman he has been seeing and asks her if she would like to go to Turkey. He feels if he goes to Turkey he can wash out this anger and sense of betrayal. Why Turkey? she says. I haven’t been there yet, he says. I want to sit in a cafe and look at spires. She says that asking her to go to Turkey is impulsive and unreasonable. She’s got finals and he knows she’s got finals. It’s after 1 in the morning, why doesn’t he get some sleep. He needs to adjust, she says. He’s back in the States now and it’s time to adjust.

She hangs up. He sits in his chair looking out the window at the full moon. He’s not sure he wants to adjust. He fears that adjusting means sacrificing something sacred. It was a lot of work to find and cultivate that thing that is sacred. You don’t find that every day.

So he buys a ticket. He goes to Turkey to sit in a cafe and look at spires. He gets a little motorbike and starts riding out this road into the fields at sunset. He spends time wandering around the mosques. People tell him he’s missing his chance. He says the degree will have to wait. He’s got things to sort out.

Then something happens, or a series of things happen, and it’s 30 years later and he asks himself if he is happy, if he has done the right things, and realizes that his life has been rich because he heeded the calls when they came, and he resisted easy belief. He sacrificed some things. He parted tragically with his home. He left many things behind but he heeded the call.

That’s how your letter makes me feel. No matter how bland and disappointing our country is, there is always a shining call to answer. There may be another call for you to answer now. That may be why the country you have returned to seems unreal. Listen for the call. Listen for your next assignment. Trust the surprise.

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I’m an absent-minded engineer; my mind wanders and so does my wallet

I fear I lack common sense in life, and this affects my performance.

Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, JUL 24, 2008

Dear Cary,

How does one build common sense? I’m a 31-year-old who has been plagued for most of my adult life with this problem. I’m a software engineer by trade, but I really love the theoretical aspects more than the practical aspects: algorithms and design as opposed to debugging and being very, very careful.

Unfortunately, even though I work in a national lab that does research, most of my job is fairly mundane, building software, with occasional forays into the higher-level thinking I really enjoy. Also, I’m a fairly serious musician, and have been playing piano for 15 years, studying jazz and Latin music for the past six, practicing and gigging regularly and making a part-time living that way. I went to a top university, where I reveled in subjects in and out of my major, including chamber music, dance and drawing.

But this problem of common sense affects me in several ways. First, I tend to space out at work — often music is the culprit, or else ideas I happen to be thinking of at the time. I’ve become highly forgetful, from where did I put my wallet to the details of what was given at last week’s presentation at work, to the point of probably losing some professional standing. In a way, I feel like I’m living life as if insulated by some invisible suit, like there’s a layer between me and the rest of the world somehow. This layer goes away when there is an intense emotional experience, like when I’m really in the groove musically, or having a great conversation, or eating a great meal, or having my heart broken (i.e., pain).

I also have rather sporadic discipline; whereas in high school and early college I could be counted on to go above and beyond the call of duty in my own free time to prepare for some long-term goal, now my commitment wavers, whether it be regular daily music practice, regular exercise, keeping my apartment clean or reading science journals during spare time at work.

Overall, I’m doing fine, but I would like to increase my common sense and moment-to-moment awareness if I could. Or is it time to simply “accept who I am,” the absent-minded professor type with his head in the clouds? BTW, I do have friends whom I have a pretty good connection with and do not have much trouble with meeting women, but when out of my element I can be socially awkward, in case these are related.

Thanks!

Kind of Spacey

Dear Kind of Spacey,

Overall, you are fine. You really are. Common sense is overrated.

Now, I am no expert in software, but I know that software engineers seek elegant solutions. If a software program had 11 different places where one variable might be stored, and if every time this variable were needed the program had to look in 11 different places, you might seek a more elegant solution. You might say, well, let’s give that variable an address, or whatnot, and have it always stored in the same place.

Analyze the systems that are your own life. Analyze them as you would analyze a software-engineering problem. Define your wallet as a variable. Define your glasses as a variable. Look at all the places your wallet could be. Look at the system of where you put your glasses. You didn’t mention glasses, but that is probably because they are lost. We will help you find them.

As if from space, watch your movements through your house, through your town, through your office. Map your movements and see where the glasses go. Take notes for a week on where your glasses are. Where are the weak points in the system? When you stop to do the dishes, for instance, or when you answer the door? Or when you come in the house? Where do you put your glasses? Where do you put your wallet? Do you put them just anywhere? If you put them just anywhere, stop doing that. Put them someplace. Name the place. Name it: front table by the door, or kitchen counter. Name all the places.

Basically you have two stable areas, your home and your office. And then you have this phenomenon of travel, in which you are moving through space. You may be in a car or on a train or a bus or you may be walking. When you are traveling you are wearing clothes and you are carrying something. Your glasses are probably in a container and the container is either in your clothes or in what you are carrying. Your wallet is in the cargo area of your clothing.

Analyze the travel of the glasses and the wallet, their journey through space. Analyze your body’s proximity to the glasses and the wallet. Is there any way the glasses can always be attached to your body? If they were on a strap or string?

How many places can the glasses go? Eliminate most of those places. Do the same for your wallet. Stop when you are taking out your wallet and ask, Why am I taking out my wallet? Is it because it is jammed into my hip most unnaturally? Examine the architecture of pants. The back pocket attracts wallets. Naturally, the wallet seeks shade and warmth. So it gravitates toward the back pocket. But perhaps it does not belong there.

Today’s clothes are built with several cargo areas. Examine the cargo areas. As the status level of clothes changes, so the cargo area changes. High-status men carry no cargo.

Couldn’t there be just one system of wallet carrying? The left inside pocket of a blazer works. But then you take the blazer off. The wallet has cards and money. It has secrets. If you take the blazer off and hang it on a hook, you take the wallet. You might need it at the table to display your card status, your remaining strength, your devolving credits.

The wallet is inefficient. Soon electronics will solve that. It will all be in a device. Then where will we carry the device? The hip is no place for a device. It makes you look like maintenance. You are not maintenance. You are big-time. You are aerodynamic. You are not encumbered by key rings or pouches. The architecture of your ensemble forbids it. So where will it go?

The backpack or biker bag seems to be the way. The man purse or fanny pack is not the way. But a backpack or a biker bag can be manly. Strap it to you like a weapon. Keep things in it.

If you have a bag that is always with you, assign that bag as the place where the glasses always are. Practice putting them there. For a week, even though it may at times take more effort or time than you feel is efficient, always put the glasses in the bag. Carry the bag with you and always put the glasses in the bag.

Once you have mapped out a system for tracking your glasses, think of your attention as a pair of glasses. You always want to have your attention with you but sometimes it is not there. Where is it? Where did you leave it? Where did you put it down? Watch yourself as you go from the house to the mode of transit to the office: Where does your attention go as you travel? Watch it and see what it does.

The difficulty of this is that the attention is moving even when you are sitting still. It is hard to carefully observe the attention when the attention is in motion. So slow down the process by meditating. Sit for 15 minutes on the floor and breathe in and out. Watch your attention. See where it goes. After a few minutes you may see that your attention slows down. Like a bird, it settles somewhere. Take note of how long it settles and when it moves.

Scientists first observe. Then they hypothesize. In this case the instrument, or method, is the meditative pose. It is a duck blind from which you observe but are not seen. Observe where your attention wanders. Watch what it does.

After a while, you can learn to call to it. Call to it in a whisper. Say, Hey, attention. Over here.

It has, of course, its own devices. It is autonomous and wandering. It flits. It can be skittish. You will never control it completely. It has notions. But you can learn its habits and how to find it. You can learn to call it when it seems lost.

So to sum up, my suggestion is that you not worry too much about common sense because common sense is common. Instead, bring to these questions your unusual intelligence and your training. Analyze these phenomena as you would analyze something in your area of expertise. View them as systems. Become alert to the way they twist and turn, how they vary, how they wiggle. Elementary particles wiggle, don’t they? Wallets wiggle. Even time wiggles as it flows close to its opposite-flowing twin, does it not? Are we not in a tangle of strings? Is it not all music?

I work with a guy I don’t understand

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He’s a gay person of color, but he’s against the minimum wage!

Cary’s classic column from  Sunday, THURSDAY, JUL 21, 2005

Dear Cary,

I have been at my current position as an attorney at a law firm for less than a year. Although I work at a rather typical big law firm, I am a committed progressive with a strong background in grass-roots activism. After paying off a portion of my educational debt, I intend to return to the public interest world. Many of the views and values that I hold are diametrically opposed to those of my colleagues at the firm. I try not to talk about politics too much and keep to myself generally. However, despite the fact that I didn’t really try to develop a strong friendship with anyone at work, I have become quite close to a colleague at my law firm. He is a nice guy who seems to struggle with the same type of issues that I struggle with at work in balancing life and work, dealing with the stresses of being a litigator, etc.

But the more I get to know him, the more I realize that he and I disagree about pretty much everything when it comes to politics and social issues. For example, he believes that racism is not a problem and that people should just ignore any racial differences because human beings are ultimately the same. When I try to have a discussion with him about institutional racism or about the civil rights movement, he and I end up getting into an argument. We end these arguments by saying that we agree to disagree. He has also told me that he believes what the “Minutemen” are doing at the U.S. border is good. He believes that people should just move on from the Holocaust. Oh, and my colleague friend also does not go anywhere outside of the mainly white neighborhoods in the metropolitan area that we live in. I should also add that he recently moved from the Midwest and really believes in small-town living and values.

But what makes me not understand him at all is that he is a gay man of color. When it comes to gay rights issues, he becomes quite militant, but when it comes to issues about gender or race or class, he does not see what the big deal is. I have tried to have discussions with him about critical race theory or about issues of gender and class, but he just doesn’t seem to care. The other day, he told me that there should be no such thing as minimum wages or affordable housing.

And the more I get to know him, the more I’m troubled by some of the things that he does. For example, I have noticed that sometimes he can be very superficial. His conversations and interests really seem to lack depth. He likes to play tennis and work out, play video games and watch a lot of TV, and go shopping for clothes and electronics. He is also rather stingy about money and doesn’t seem like a generous person. He has told me that he befriends people oftentimes because they are good-looking. He pretty much always eats on the firm’s dime and does not seem to like to pay for lunch. What also really surprised me about him is that after a good friend of his at the firm left to go to another state, he didn’t really keep in touch with her or follow up with her or go out for a farewell meal (which we were planning), even though he often used to tell me how it made him sad that she was leaving. All of these things make me not want to be friends with him.

At the same time, though, he has told me that he cries a lot and sometimes wakes up at night crying. He has cried at the firm gym and in his office. I wonder why he cries so much, though I’ve only seen him cry once. And he kind of made it a point to show people that he was crying. I feel bad for him, since he is generally a nice guy, though not the most compassionate or open-minded person.

Also, he seems to cling to me, telling me that I am his best friend at work or telling other people how close we are. It makes me a tad uncomfortable when he does this because I am not sure how I feel about our friendship, though, at work, he is my closest friend.

Having these thoughts about him makes me feel awful, especially because he seems to think we are close friends. I am also confused about my friendship with him. Because I have never been close friends with someone who had such different views and values from mine, I am not sure how I’m supposed to continue in this friendship. I may be leaving the firm, in which case I will no longer have gripes about work — which is the glue that holds us together, I think. What’s more, I don’t like becoming friends with someone just out of convenience. If I’m going to be friends with him, I should be open-minded and listen to what he has to say and accept the fact that he is the way he is. Who says that only people with the same political views and values can be friends? Ideally, I’d like to be able to be friends with someone who has views that are diametrically opposed to my own. But is this friendship possible when I feel like he doesn’t share the fundamental values that I hold dear?

I appreciate that he is there to gripe with about work, but is that a sufficient basis for a friendship? If I am a true friend, shouldn’t I try to broaden his perspective? I fear this latter prospect might be patronizing to him.

I would really appreciate hearing your thoughts on this.

Trying to Be Open-Minded

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Dear Trying to Be Open-Minded,

You are describing what many of us would call a regular human being. With this human being you have a congenial but contingent relationship. Such relationships arise when people of contrasting ideologies are thrown together at the same workplace. As you have observed, they provide a rich opportunity for learning about other people. But it’s also just about getting through the day.

Here are some things about other people that I think you should know: People sometimes do things for no reason except they just want to. People sometimes think something and then just say it right out loud just like that. Occasionally a person will do what he feels like doing without considering whether it is consistent with his past actions and stated beliefs. For instance, a person will want an ice-cream cone, and next thing you know he’s walking down the street toward the place where they have the big cardboard barrels of many different flavors and the people behind the counter in aprons. If you ask him if he believes in ice cream, he might claim to have no particular passion or belief in ice cream itself. Nonetheless, he wants an ice-cream cone and so off he goes, jingling the change in his pocket. One day in the future, when sufficient computing power exists, we may be able to say with some certainty why a particular person arose from a desk at a particular time of day to go get ice cream. But until then, we just say, “Oh, Hank? He went to get an ice-cream cone.”

Hear me now: People do stuff. People say stuff. They have feelings and thoughts about things, and not all those feelings and thoughts make sense even to them, much less to anyone else.

While you describe the interaction between you and this other person in considerable detail, you still are standing apart from it, as though it weren’t you at all who was having this relationship, but some laboratory representation of yourself. I would suggest that what you are doing is just what it is: You’re hanging out with a person from work.

While his motives and ideas remain a mystery to you, consider how he might feel about one particular thing. It’s possible, this guy being a gay person of color, that he may be a little bit annoyed that people expect him to prominently display the latest up-to-date set of approved gay-person-of-color ideas and values. He may not even subscribe to the approved set of values — or he may have been a subscriber but let the subscription lapse.

People do sometimes hold political views that are contrary to their own interests. But can you imagine what it must be like to have all the “normal” people around you assuming who you are based on your skin color and your sexual preference and then getting all out of joint when you don’t live up to their assumptions? Wouldn’t that be a little annoying? Might you not even find yourself adopting certain beliefs just to confound people? Not that I’m saying he does — but it would be tempting, would it not?

Anyway, here is one helpful suggestion for trying to fit this relationship into your life. Consider what it is about him that you really like. Do you like his smile, for instance, or his cologne? Do you like the tone of his voice or the way his eyes look, or the way he walks, or the way he dresses? Sometimes we just like people. They make us feel good. We like being around them. It’s not always their ideas we like. Sometimes it’s their money or their nose or their books. Sometimes we just like people. Sometimes that’s enough.

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I’m infatuated at work

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Cary’s classic column from  Sunday, Oct 10, 2010

Drawn to a younger woman, I fear I’ll make a fool of myself


Dear Cary,

I am a man in my late 50s. I’ve been married for over 30 years and still love my wife deeply, although our marriage is largely sexless. However, recently I’ve become infatuated with a woman who works where I do. I am a member of a group that meets for lunch daily in the break room in our building. This younger woman (she is in her early 40s) was recently hired and started coming to lunch there.

I’m not sure why, but I find myself constantly thinking about her. This includes some fairly colorful fantasies about her coming to my office and having sexual relations. (My office is private enough that this could be an option.) She is very attractive and pleasant. She has made occasional eye contact at lunch and waved at me one time when I passed her office. She has certainly done nothing beyond the bounds of friendly and appropriate behavior.

I realize that my infatuation is my problem, not hers. However, do I stop attending the lunch group? There is no other public microwave or refrigerator in the building, so I would be confined to cold lunches. Also, I was there first! I’d really like to keep this situation from becoming too creepy.

Infatuated and Conflicted

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Dear Infatuated,

Instead of calling this an infatuation, let’s call it an awakening. Let’s call it a moment of grace, a parting of a curtain, a ray of sunshine, an unexpected gift. Let’s say that like some creature in a fairy tale you have been imprisoned in a cold and gray castle, enduring day after day of drear, monotonous drizzle and shiver, chained to a desk that dwarfs you in size and fills you with fear when you behold it towering over you.

Let’s say that things did not start out this way. You were a boy just yesterday. Life came brightly like a spray of flowers then. It was nothing. Nothing was anything. Nothing was hard. You were green and supple and birds flitted about your head in admiration. The necessities were easy to procure and ample in supply. It never occurred to you that the years would grow long and tiresome and that all the fun would end. But slowly the love drained away from your marriage and what had been merely a way to procure the necessities became the sole focus of your energy. Life was not terrible, but it was not the shining gift of light that it once was.

In youth, you relished everything and tolerated only a little. Then you relished not everything but most things. Then you relished a few things. Bit by bit, you tolerated everything and relished nothing.

I’m just making this up. I don’t know you. I’m just imagining. But say you had reached a point now, in your late 50s, where it’s been this way for a while and you’ve got a routine. You eat in the same lunchroom every day and you have an office where you feel safe and secure. Your life is orderly and sexless. You have made an accommodation to this. It seems that this is the way it’s going to be. This must be the way things get. This must be how adults feel. This must be how they were living when we were kids and looked at them and wondered whether there was any life at all inside them. This must be what happens. You get to this point and there’s no point in sex or adventure anymore; it’s enough to have the same lunch table and a quiet office.

Your mantra when you were a youth was, “What’s next!?”

For a while now, your mantra has been, “This must be enough.”

Again, not saying I know you personally. I’m just imagining what it might be like, to get at how it must feel.

So having resigned yourself to this and gotten comfortable in it, you notice one day a pretty yellow bird fly in the window of the gray-walled castle and alight on your shoulder. And the bird begins talking to you. The bird talks to you of bubbling brooks and sun-dappled shade, of wood nymphs who swim naked in the river and swing from trees, of a meadow where you once ran green and hot as a boy, a meadow where you tumbled in the grass and lay face up immersed in the sky, a meadow that to your young boy’s mind seemed never to end. The yellow bird sits on your shoulder and reminds you.

So let’s just say that this woman who has come into your life is like that yellow bird that sits on your shoulder, reminding you that you are alive, you are a man, you have a drive in you, you want to connect, you want to feel the warm flesh of a stranger against you, you want to find out what she says if you speak to her in Russian or French, you want to fling back the covers and exhaust yourselves in the afternoon, within hearing of traffic and crowds on holiday.

Say that this is all a gift to you, or a kind of reminder. Say that it is a reminder that all the sacrifices you have made to have the regular lunchroom and the safe, quiet office were made at a dear cost. The well-regulated life has its costs. We have to wipe the mud off our shoes. We have to shake the grass out of our hair. We settle in for the long haul, and we haul and haul and haul without complaint because we’ve seen what happens to those who tire and stumble or begin to complain. We’ve seen their bodies on the side of the road. So we do this year after year.

Then that yellow bird comes and sits on your shoulder and says you’ve done enough hauling. You’ve proved yourself. Your wife is beautiful. The new woman at work is beautiful. This yellow bird is beautiful.

So you leave the castle. You leave work and the sun is shining. You notice how automatically you have been living and how long your habits of taking the closest parking space and the quickest route home have run your daily life, and you decide today to take the long way home through the woods. There is a newsstand near the edge of your village and since you are taking the long way you stop and buy a paper. There is a movie advertised in the paper. If you take the long way home through the woods there will still be plenty of time to get home and change clothes and invite your wife to the movies. There will still be time to look at her and remember how beautiful she is. There will still be time to remember why you married her.

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My boyfriend is my boss

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Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, NOV 23, 2009

I’m getting sick of being “the editor’s girlfriend”


Dear Cary,

I’m a college student and a reporter for my university’s paper. I’m a good writer — my work has shown up in publications beyond the university, and since arriving here I’ve established myself as “one to watch” in the English department. I really don’t intend to sound cocky, but I’m not affected with false modesty. I have a lot to learn, but I know I have a knack for this.

I’m in a fairly new relationship of about three months, with a boyfriend who so far has been entirely wonderful. We’re both ambitious types with busy schedules and social lives, but we make the time. I think it has been a revelation to both of us just how extraordinary it is to have another person who is truly in your corner.

Here’s the problem — he’s my boss. He’s two years older and is the editor of the school newspaper, while I’m a staff writer. We met outside of the newspaper, and other people are in charge of how much I get paid and where my articles run. We’ve had several serious discussions about ethics, during which we emphasized that I’d never, ever ask him to do me any professional favors, and he would never give me any sort of special treatment. The relationship is more public than I’d like at such an early stage — we’ve both gotten long personal lectures on ethics from the head of the journalism department, and how he heard about us is anyone’s guess.

The thing that bothers me is not the ethical question — I feel like we’re managing that. It’s that I’m entirely fed up with being “the editor’s girlfriend” and not defined as a reporter in my own right. I have never, ever been the kind of woman who would be defined by a relationship — it is extremely important to me that I be defined by my own actions and my own work.

I’ve been doing good work at the paper, and I’m likely to be getting a promotion in the next couple of semesters. But I’m so, so sick of having to hear jokes about my sex life every time one of my stories runs in a prominent place in the paper or I pick up a particularly coveted assignment.

These aren’t serious allegations — the newspaper staff knows that it is not my boyfriend who makes these decisions, and people from outside the staff are only kidding. My friends say to laugh it off, but the fact is that those small successes are things that I earned through a lot of hard work, and the suggestion that I’m somehow trading sexual favors for good assignments truly offends me. I worry that the staff will take me less seriously and that this could endanger my future at the paper.

I know that having a happy relationship and a successful career are not mutually exclusive, but I feel like I’m too young to be dealing with such a minefield. I don’t even know whom to talk to about this — my boyfriend and I are handling it as best we can, but I don’t know how to tell him that although I’m pretty attached to being his girlfriend, I’m getting damn tired of being “the editor’s girlfriend.” I’m not giving up on my work, or on my relationship, I just need to figure out how to reconcile the two.

Her Own Girl Friday

Dear Girl Friday,

I suggest you try to be a little lighthearted about this. Imagine strutting around campus wearing a T-shirt that says, “I’m sleeping with my boss and enjoying it. You got a problem with that?”
Picture yourself walking amid these yahoos with your head held high. Imagine striking them down with wit and glamour and sophistication. Imagine shutting them up and putting them in their place.

Do you feel better?

Keep going with this. Conjure up an image that makes you feel powerful and proud. Make it vivid and real. Draw some cartoons or make a collage. Create the image of the superhero you are. Inhabit her skin. Name this woman. Give her special powers. Keep her image close to you. Appeal to her for strength and guidance.

And know this: Sexism pervades our culture. The assumption that a woman’s achievements stem from her value as a domestic, sexual and romantic companion rather than as a skilled worker is evidence of that sexism.

You know what else exists in our society? Morons. The world beyond your college gates is a nightmare of hulking, mouth-breathing morons. Morons even run newspapers. So be ready. You’re going to be encountering a lot of sexist morons.

So that’s the sociological part of this.

The other part is psychological: By mixing creativity, sexuality and power, you run the risk of incurring deep psychological wounds if things go wrong. By hooking up with your boss, however much you trust him, you have placed your fate in the hands of someone who may damage you, even if he doesn’t mean to.

That is my opinion, but I assume that it is also a fear of yours. If you sense that you are in dangerous territory emotionally, I would agree that you are.

Stuff can happen in such a relationship to shape the rest of your life. Sometimes people make decisions in such circumstances that last for decades. “Oh, he told me I’d be happier if I wasn’t writing, so I quit.” You know, crazy stuff.

How power, sexuality and creativity combine to damage the psyche is complicated. Let’s assume that our emotional responses are rooted in invisible structures formed very early. As a baby, you must be loved unconditionally. You are helpless. You have no vocational skills. You are just a cute, wiggling bundle that eats and shits and throws up and makes noise. You are not a cowboy or a princess. You must be loved and cared for unconditionally. We get older and develop skills, but underneath, our need to be loved unconditionally persists even after we develop great skills and charm and form adult relationships. One area where this need for unconditional acceptance seems to persist most deeply is in the area of creativity. Why is this so?

Could it be because creativity is our one way back to that primal state?

That would be my guess. Betrayal of this creative self reaches beyond personality self into some realm of existential pain and fear that is difficult to find access to. So if you are exposing this fragile, unprotected, raw creative pre-verbal self — the one that cannot protect itself but must be cared for unconditionally — to the upheavals of romantic and sexual relationship, you are in frightening territory. If for instance you were to break up you might feel unconsciously it was because you were not a good reporter. That may sound stupid. But these decisions, we do not make consciously. They are made by this pre-verbal, emotional self that reacts to rejection as if it were an existential threat. So I assume you feel concerned and confused for good reason. You are exposing your psyche to risks that you might not consciously understand.

What can you do? For one thing, you can begin getting assignments outside the school. You can strike out on your own so that there is no question in anyone’s mind how you did it. And  I would suggest, if possible, that you find some ally, a therapist or counselor or older friend, and go through this with that person, checking in frequently, discussing this, asking for protection, watching for ways that you have placed your fragile creativity in danger. If you are in self-doubt, ask yourself why. If you feel like quitting, interrogate your feelings. Honor them but interrogate them. It might be this frightened child who wants to quit. Beware. It’s complex. Keep moving forward.

p.s. You know that Yeats poems that ends, “I have spread my dreams under your feet; Tread softly because you tread on my dreams”? What a lovely and moving poem that is.

Help! I’m committing professional suicide!

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


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

Dear Cary,

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

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

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

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

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

Any advice?

Stuck and panicking

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Dear Stuck,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ha ha.

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

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

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

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A fellow attorney thinks I’m crazy

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Cary’s classic column from Sunday, Jun 5, 2011

Sure, I’m crazy — for him! But I botched my approach! Now how do I wriggle out?


Dear Cary:

I have been following your column for years. I hope you can help me — I need concrete advice, almost like a to-do list on what to do next. I have ruined a wonderful friendship, and I want to repair it.

I am an attorney. My workspace, and all others who are similarly situated, is a cubicle, so there is no privacy. I really like one of my co-workers. He is close friends with our boss and is one of the most respected attorneys here. I wanted to have a physical relationship with him. He said that he found me attractive but did not want a physical relationship for a number of reasons. He repeatedly said that women are crazy. He has absolutely no patience for “out of control.” We managed to develop a fairly close friendship. I started to get too deep. Yesterday I left him a voicemail message saying that I needed to dial back, that he would meet the woman he has been looking for, maybe even this weekend, and that I didn’t want to be in a position of missing my friend when he started spending all his time with that woman, so I was dialing back. He got upset. He said that we were never dating, that the message was the type of message one would get from a girlfriend. I thought I was being honest and self-protective. But instead I revealed myself as being in too deep and like another one of the crazy women in his life (his term, crazy women). I called him on the telephone as we drove to our homes. He said that it was a crazy message. My voice rose. I asked how it was crazy. He said, “Well, you’re the one who left it.” I truly value our friendship. I feel as though I have lost all dignity and revealed my worst (to him), most emotional side. I need concrete and specific advice on what to do. How do I repair the friendship?

Please do not reveal my name.

Emotional Attorney

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Dear Emotional Attorney,

Here is some clear, practical advice. Stick your head in his cubicle at your very next opportunity and say, “About that phone message. Just wanted to say. Sorry. I was a little wound up.”

Then he will probably say, “No problem. Don’t give it a second thought.” Or, “That’s OK.”

After he says that, be very careful. You are on your way out now. You are already done. Do not open up another line of argument.

He might say one or two more things. But you are already done. You’ve delivered the message. No matter what else he says, just say something like “Thanks. Just wanted you to know.” Or, “No problem,” and get out of there.

The next thing is the exit. Make your exit swift but not sudden. Make it even. Don’t rush out, but don’t linger. Try to get a rhythm into it, like, in terms of beats, it’s: One, pop your head in; Two, deliver your message; Three, acknowledge whatever he says; Four, turn lightly, in rhythm with your shrug, or your acknowledgment, and walk away with a light, relaxed step.Then settle into your cubicle and start reading a brief. Visualize a soundproof plexiglass wall between you, reaching up to the ceiling. He is not there. You are alone in your cubicle.

This should reassure him. The matter will promptly leave his mind.
Of course, the fact that it will promptly leave his mind is part of the problem. There is a huge issue remaining. It is an issue that, if you talk about it with him, will not settle things but make them more complicated. It would probably be a losing argument. At the same time, it would be intellectually dishonest not to mention it. Feminist advances in pay and freedom were won in hard-fought battles house by house, bed by bed and cubicle by cubicle. So while you may want to keep this huge issue out of the air for professional workplace reasons, let’s just state it for the record: He thinks women who express their emotions are crazy. He’s friends with the boss. So your long-term prospects for professional advancement may well be in the hands of men who think women who express their emotions are crazy.

Maybe you can change their minds. Or maybe you can find another law firm. There are lots of  law firms.

‘Nuff said, OK?

As far as maintaining your friendship with him over the coming months, do indeed “dial it back.” But telling him you’re dialing it back does not dial it back. It ramps it up. That’s what happened with that phone call. It’s one of those paradoxes. The way you actually dial it back is by changing the way you act around him. Visualize detachment. Look at him as though he were far away and tiny, like at the wrong end of a telescope. Speak with him in a controlled and deliberate way. Don’t share your feelings. Don’t ask about his romantic life. Keep your friendship professional.

And one more thing: Don’t call him on the phone from your car. If you find yourself having erotic thoughts about him, transfer them to someone else outside the office — a waiter, or a judge, or an attorney on the other coast you met at a conference.

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Homeless, with diamonds

 

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from Friday, Feb 6, 2004

I’m married to a wonderful man, but he doesn’t seem to share my fear of financial humiliation.


Dear Cary,

I have been spoiled with a very happy life. I am 26, married to a wonderful 34-year-old man whom I love more than anyone in the world. He is strong, supportive, smart, funny and affectionate. We are happy together. We are healthy. We live in a nice apartment in a beautiful neighborhood of an exciting city. We are overeducated. We are both from well-off families who funded our very expensive educations so we didn’t have to go into debt. We want to have lots of babies and live happily ever after.

That hasn’t been easy for us, so we are seeing lots of doctors who hopefully will be able to help us make that dream come true. Even our brush with infertility, while upsetting, has been something we are working through together.

I am writing because I am afraid, terrified, petrified really, that we are falling, diving, into a cycle of failure and debt. I am unemployed. Two years ago, we moved back to my husband’s hometown. I still don’t speak the language here very well, although I am taking classes and improving rapidly. While I am generally happy here — I’ve managed to make friends, find activities to keep busy — I have not found a job. I am a clinical social worker, so language is obviously important and jobs are very scarce here. My husband started his own business when we moved. I feel guilty even writing this, but it is a total failure. His income doesn’t come close to covering our rent, and forget our lifestyle. Our savings are gone. The project my husband spent the last six months working day and night on just went to another firm. For the last year, my husband has been looking for a job at the same time as running his ailing business but nothing has come through.

The worst thing is that my husband doesn’t seem to recognize the reality of any of this. Although he is very discouraged by his business venture, he is in total denial about the fact that we won’t be able to pay our rent next month. He just bought me a diamond anniversary band. He wants to keep trying to make the business work. Maybe he isn’t worried because in his heart, he believes his family will give us money. Maybe they will. In fact, they probably will, and so my fears of being thrown on the street are probably unfounded. I see being bailed out by his family as totally humiliating. I don’t know if he would mind.

I’m not sure what to do, or what I really expect my husband to do. Part of me blames him for his failing business, even though I know how hard he is working. Part of me is asking what is wrong with him, that he just can’t make it happen. The other part of me hates myself because I know that he wants his business to work even more than I do and, in reality, I am just as much of a failure in my work life as he is.

Should I encourage him to keep working at his business, to make his dream come true, and just suck it up and consider myself lucky if the in-laws are willing to pay the bills? Should I tell him to find a job, any job, and by the same standard, forget my own failed career goals and take whatever job is out there (McDonald’s if need be)?

Should I just be happy with what we have and not worry if we drift through our lives never reaching some mythical point of career fulfillment?

Spoiled Girl Looking for Direction

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Dear Spoiled,

I suggest that you turn to your family for help. Don’t ask for money. Ask for expertise. You need an outside opinion. If your family is successful and well-off, there must be people in it who are knowledgeable about business, no? Or are you royalty? Don’t tell me your family is the kind that just spends money and doesn’t earn it.

You need a sober assessment of your husband’s business plan, so you can form a clear picture of his chances for success. Only then can you decide if the struggle makes sense. Even if your family is royalty, they must have somebody on retainer to balance the books. You need a person like that.

If you went directly to your husband and said you wanted to have an expert look over his business plan, he might feel that you don’t have much faith in his business ability and that you are trying to meddle. Which would be true. So you can try to arrange an assessment on the up-and-up. But you might have to arrange for someone to approach your husband as a potential investor. He could assess the cash flow potential, the competition (who was it who ate his lunch on that last big deal?), and so forth. If he becomes satisfied that your husband has a good business model, he might go ahead and invest. If not, you might want to start looking for a job.

Look, I too have been on the brink of financial disaster, and I know how humiliating it is, and how fear of the future can weigh on you, how you just want to lash out at anyone, find a victim, find a cause, find something you can pinpoint as the source of your anxiety. So I know what that’s like. I also know it doesn’t last. Usually — especially if, as you say, you have resources and an education — you find a way out of it. It might mean taking a stupid job for a while. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, the humble regularity of a stupid job can be strangely liberating.

The subterfuge of having your husband’s business analyzed by an outsider may bother you. For all I know, it may be ethically wrong. But I don’t think so. I think you are at a disadvantage because you have no facts; you are vulnerable; there is a lot at stake here, and you need to take steps to protect yourself. If you’re able to figure out what the problem is with the business, you will be protecting your husband as well. He truly may not know what he’s doing. If he’s not a good businessman, the sooner he learns that, the sooner he can get out of business.

The truth is, you’ll probably be fine. One way or another, you’ll get through this. You’ll find a job in your field, your families may help you over the hump, things will work out. But business is not about dreams. It’s about columns of numbers. The sooner your husband realizes that, the better.

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