Alt-Ac Forever

I just graduated from a PhD program in the humanities (woohoo!) and I actually have a job, but I really don’t want it. Before you roll your eyes, since I know no one has a job in this economy, let me tell you that it’s a 1-year appointment in the department I just graduated from, it pays a scant $14k for two semesters, and it requires developing a new course. The new course I’m kinda ok with, since I like learning new things. But the rest of it feels like I’m right back in grad school. And I took this job on the condition that I apply for academic jobs, but I don’t want to be in academia, I don’t have publications, I’ve never been to a national conference, and holy hell I’m 35 and I care more about getting out of poverty than I do about getting an academic gig. I feel stuck.

The rational person in me says to keep the job while looking for a new one, so to offset the crappy wages I’m starting a small business (I design sewing patterns), and I teach dance lessons for some extra cash too, but it’s not much. But am I shooting myself in the foot here? How can I start a full-time gig in, say, October when I still have to finish out the semester? And, again, I just don’t want anything to do with academia anymore.

I think I need some help working through the pros and cons of what to do with the next few months.

Whoa!! This is such an interesting question (to me). You don’t expand on it in your letter, but I’m going to assume that you got the PhD basically for fun–either that, or you went into it thinking you wanted to be a professor and then during the grueling course of things you changed your mind but went ahead and finished it out, which is a common trajectory. Either way, there’s no reason you should stay in your current teaching position OR apply for any other academic jobs, since that’s not what you want to do with your life! Your current teaching position is totally a stop-gap, as you know–it’s to your department’s credit that they are able to make temporary gigs like this available to their recent graduates; my Ph.D. institution does the same thing and it’s really humane and also helpful to recent Ph.D.s who DO want to go on to full-time careers in academia, because it gives them teaching experience etc. But you don’t want an academic career, so what’s the point killing yourself teaching for a measly below-poverty-line wage?? The fact that so many adjunct faculty slave away for these kinds of wages is of course immoral and everyone who works in academic administration ought to be thrown into prison (perhaps a slight overstatement; I mostly mean provosts, assistant vice provosts, executive liaisons to the deputy executive vice chair committee on provost management, and everyone at the business school), but leaving that aside, even in the best case scenario, teaching for 14k a year should best be thought of as an unpaid internship that gets you into an industry. An industry you don’t want to enter!

So, in my opinion, you can make 14k a year doing WAY less work than you are currently doing, which would in turn open up more time in your life for seeking out jobs you do actually want. And that is what I would spend the next couple of months doing, if I were you: wrapping my head around the idea of quitting and patching together some other, easier, funner gigs. Get some dumb part time job doing data entry or yard work, and then in your free time, instead of planning a syllabus (!!!! LORD), you can work on your small business plan!

As for leaving a teaching job in media res, as it were, I have a few thoughts/options (not sure if this is part of what you’re worrying about, but just in case):
– the school year hasn’t started yet! Is this a 1/1 appointment for fall/spring of next year? If so, they still have AMPLE time to fill those slots if you quit now, no big deal!
– even if you’d already started teaching, you can still quit mid-semester. A friend of mine just did this and it was fine! People have lives that change abruptly! I think it is weirder if you are, like, tenured or tenure-track, with a full-time load, and you suddenly quit in November or something, but even so, this is America, and you can quit a job whenever the hell you want!
– you could also split the difference, teach the fall semester, collect your cold hard 7k, and give notice at christmas, working hard all fall to get yourself set up for your transition out of academia.

I’m wondering if maybe you are just looking for some spiritual encouragement, in which case, consider yourself encouraged! Academia is so fucking brutal. SO BRUTAL. It is so epically hard to get a “real” job (lol we all know adjuncts work like dogs but those aren’t “real” jobs), and then even if you do land a real job, this whole second level of horror starts involving the desperate and even humiliating scramble to get tenure. And all this heartache and flop sweat for what?? Like, best case scenario in the humanities, if you’re at a swanky private school, like 80k maybe? Unless you win a MacArthur, which, who are we kidding? And sure, I realize even so that that is a lot of money, but these people work tech bro hours and are compensated at a fraction of the rate! WHAT is the point of doing it half-heartedly?? The only reason to even dip your toe in the whole mess is that you love it, you love the teaching, or you love pontificating in academic essay form, or you for some reason love attending national conferences and playing drinking games around how many times someone uses the word “praxis.”

You don’t want this job, and you don’t want the kinds of jobs that it MIGHT one day lead to IF YOU ARE FANTASTICALLY LUCKY. So fuck it! You should quit and go do something else that you enjoy more, like building up your sewing pattern business, or picking up more dance lessons (that sounds FUN AS HELL to me, but my body doesn’t really work that well anymore so I might be romanticizing physical labor). Even if you spent your time doing something you DIDN’T enjoy more, I still think it would be preferable, just because of how much mental space teaching takes up. When I try to imagine what I would even do with my time if I weren’t teaching or writing constantly, I literally can’t. LITERALLY. That seems crazy to me. So, imagine the kind of previously unheard-of mental rooms that will open up when those tasks are simply ended, for you! It sounds exciting and liberating. My old man just quit academia, officially, and immediately got really into birding. He’s been getting up at 4:30 a.m. and going on birding walks with old retired forestry rangers. He’s getting back into sound design. He’s been cooking elaborate soups, and sleeping like a baby. It seems great to me–and that’s just from quitting his dissertation! he’s still teaching! Imagine if he quit BOTH?! You’ll be a queen!!!!!!!!!!!! A queen with a Ph.D., which they can never take away from you!

I know we live in a brutal neoliberal hellscape but still, an educated reasonably privileged person ought to be able to scrape together enough cash to live, right? It’s been awhile since I was in this position so I apologize if I am out of touch but here are some things I romanticize in my mind when I imagine not getting tenure and having to start a new life:
– learn to bartend and get a bartending job at some Ye Olde Local Watering Hole; become a great favorite of the regulars there and they will reward you with gifts and affection. My brother is a bartender at a total shithole on the beach in Santa Monica and one of his regulars gave him a CAR. He also met Bob Odenkirk
– put up fliers around town offering general yard work for 12 bucks an hour or something. Weeding, watering, turning over compost, mowing, nothing fancy. A friend of mine did this and within a year she was weirdly making a living wage. It was the 90s, but still, this seems amazing to me.
– if you are in the right kind of field, you can make a killing tutoring little rich assholes, for the SAT or even just in middle school; their parents will pay you handsomely, give you snacks, and treat you with respect, at least in the experience of this one friend of mine who did this for awhile
– do you have a wealthy patron who could do something like pay for you to get yoga certified? I say this only because you’re a dance instructor so this seems up your alley. I imagine teaching yoga classes to be fun and lucrative but again I have no personal knowledge of this field.
– Do you live in a place that has an organization to help local small business owners get off the ground? I live in a tiny economically troubled town in rural new england and there is a place like that here, and it seems great. Recently a local pickle maker won an award and it turned out the business model had been developed with the help of this organization. Anyway you might see if there are organizations that can help you design a business model and shit like that!
– go on an adventure and teach english in a foreign country for a year. Everyone I know who has done this has said it’s a brutal slog but also a wild adventure. Write a blog while you are there
– try to get in at the post office! one of my ultimate fantasies, except I can’t walk long distances anymore. They have a brutal entrance policy–it’s like you have to just be on call for a year before you can even apply to be full time or something–but man, doesn’t mailman seem like such a great job? I love walking around neighborhoods, meeting all the weirdos. This is probably a way too unrealistic and overly personal-to-me suggestion, I’m sorry
– or similar!

These are also primarily suggestions from the late 90s/early 2000s, which was the last time I was on the market for weird part-time jobs, but I have to believe that, depending on where you live, there are still viable ways to put together a part-time situation that will barely cover your expenses while you get your business off the ground OR open yourself up to the universe to see if another job comes along that you like more. Obviously this entails living very cheaply, but you are already doing that! I guess my ultimate point is–it’s not like in quitting this job you’re walking away from 100k a year and a company car. You know? You’re already below the poverty line; might as well quit and find some other way to make poverty-level wages but without having to put in as many hours.

Was this helpful? Do any readers have a better idea?

Good luck!! Think of it as exciting! Your life is about to head off on a new path and that is thrilling.

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Gaslighting Part 2

I have a scenario in which I am involved with someone who is housemates with 4 other people….one of which as I found out some time after dating him is an ex lover. I found this out because there was a situation that occurred with this ex and a very close friend of mine before meeting my boyfriend and his housemates. We have all become friends to some extent and they have friended me on FB etc. Keeping track? yes…it has the makings of a drama series. My boyfriend discloses that they were lovers during a time where I invited his housemates over for dinner. During dinner, a conversation about my close friend comes up and it is revealed by the girl(his ex) that she had a traumatizing experience with my friend. It was of a sexual nature. After hearing what she had to say, I naturally felt shocked and upset by it. Not having heard my friend’s side of the story yet, my boyfriend then after everyone went home, told me about him and her. ,
He presented it in such a way to suggest that it would shed some perspective of her possible inappropriate behavior as well. This upset me even more.

It’s worth to note that during the time I didn’t know about my boyfriend and her, I picked up on subtle vibes and noticed certain boundaries that didn’t exist between them during my visits to their household from time to time. Also I have noticed her own behavior there and how she interacted with her boyfriend that influences my opinion of her. She also moved from her room (which was next to her boyfriends)from the top part of the house to a room close to my boyfriends room in the bottom portion of the house. She shared with me her reason for this and that was so she can express herself sexually without fear of being heard by the members of the top part of the household.
Trying to be enlightened and forgiving of myself, I attributed my hackles to this girl to be natural jealousy that can come up and tried my best to let the wave come and go and deal with what I was feeling or perceiving for that matter. But this has proved difficult with my boyfriends behavior and attitude. It should be noted that her boyfriend (also their housemate) works with and is essentially my boyfriends primary employer. They have also been good friends it seems but I do not know the extent of his knowledge about their relationship past.

I have since talked with my friend and heard his side of the story which he presented as taking some responsibility for what occurred between them, however also giving his opinion on her demonstration of possible promiscuity. She was involved with her current boyfriend at the time.

After coming back from a really nice road trip to meet my boyfriend’s family, he discloses that he intends to get a massage from her. I am taken aback by this. I initiate a request for space because to me I find that unacceptable and inappropriate and after hearing him try to justify it with talk about respecting her as a professional we did not see eye to eye, so I stated what I wanted which was a break. A couple of days later my boyfriend attempts to reconcile with me by stating that he has cancelled the appointment. I thought that he realized the importance of why, but he stated that he was stressed out about us and would not have been relaxed enough to receive the massage. Say what?

No…it gets better..

After trying to be reasonable and tired of the rollercoaster wtf doses I experience ,things settle yet I’m not feeling 100% resolved with this . A couple of days later ,I get a text from HER stating that she doesn’t appreciate the assumptions I’ve made about their relationship and that I was not to come over to their household until I speak with her. I contemplate answering this woman. I thought to send a quick Fb message to let her know to call me instead of texting (so that there are no misunderstandings) but found that she was no longer listed as one of my friends. I do not feel I have to answer to her, nor am I inclined to based on my opinion of her.

First thing that comes to my mind is why is he talking with her about our situation? These things for me do not add up: the fact that he on some level does not respect her character yet is talking with her about what affects me instead of just politely declining the massage – asking for a good referral – and leaving it at that.

I understand that there are subtle nuances that could paint an accurate picture of the dynamics at play. But I feel like I am basing my strong opinion on this by what I have witnessed and experienced with him as well. Including prior to any of this happening, we had issues related to what I feel was him not prioritizing me. First time it happened was about 3 months into dating and he called on a Fri night and stated that he thought to ask me to go to a party that evening, but discovered that an ex(unknown-didn’t ask) was going to be there and so he wanted to be mindful of her feelings.Hmmm. That was the first time I really wanted to end it with him. This happened after a couple of issues with him not being able to commit to setting some time aside for an event or something else a week in advance. I find that our situation seems like a broken record, revisiting the same core issue.

I think that I struggle also with trust but in all fairness I think that behavior demonstrates whether something can be trusted. Another example would be –during the first couple of months we were sitting in a restaurant , and supposedly by coincidence a “friend” of his was there . She happened to be sitting in the table next to us. I’m not sure when she came in, but there she was .He introduced us , and when it was time to go, he and I were headed out he leaned over to her and kissed her in the mouth. I was second guessing what I saw and chose not to make a deal of it then, but it kept coming up for me and I finally asked him and found out that she was another ex-lover.

So with all my dis-ease in this .. the fact that it is easy to label someone as jealous bothers me. It’s so much more than that. To me it’s about two people who want to be together safeguarding their relationship from destructive choices or influences. There is appropriate and inappropriate. The fact that he and his housemate have talked and collaborate on an issue that I feel he should have handled appropriately doesn’t sit well with me. I think we both want different things within a relationship.

I think I know where this is heading but just wanted to put it out there to see what other thoughts come up about this based on what I’ve shared- understanding that it can’t cover all of the nuances involved. Thanks!

So often, when reading letters written to an advice column, it seems like the person writing the letter actually does understand the situation completely, and knows what they ought to do. But there is still a barrier between that knowledge and some sort of full realization. I’ve been thinking a lot about what constitutes this barrier, and I guess it must be different for everyone.

I think sometimes the barrier is made of our belief that we are supposed to “work” on relationships; that they are supposed to be “hard work.” So, even when something feels really bad, we might think that that’s just the feeling of “work,” of needing to put a lot of effort and thought into the relationship.

We’ve also been taught that “no one is perfect” and that “no relationship is perfect.” And this is true! But it is also so confusing! If no relationship is perfect, then maybe this really bad relationship I’m in is actually a normal relationship. It’s certainly not perfect, but I’ve been taught not to expect perfection, so maybe this is just what a relationship feels like, and I should stick it out, and put all that “work” into it I’ve also been taught I ought to do.

There is also a barrier that is made of the fear of being alone. This is really common and no one should be ashamed of feeling this fear. Sometimes we stay in a relationship that doesn’t make us happy because we are afraid of being even more unhappy if we leave. This is such a common fear that Shakespeare literally wrote an entire play about it (Hamlet says we would “rather bear those ills we have than fly to others we know not of,” or something, which is very wise). This is a hard fear to overcome. If you are afraid of being alone, then any relationship will seem preferable to you.

And finally, of course, the barrier can be made of love. We feel like we love this other person. What is “love?” No one really knows. Where does it reside? What controls it? What brings it into being? Why do we love people who don’t love us back? Why do we love people who bring us misery? Sometimes, is what we’re experiencing as “love” really something else, some strange unnameable mixture of other feelings, like “obligation” and “habit” and “sexual attraction” and whatever else? How on earth can we separate all these things?

My bottom line, when reading your letter is twofold:

1. Your second to last paragraph contains everything you need to know! You already know the score; you already know what you should do. What you say about relationships is exactly right. They are supposed to be about two people safeguarding one another. And your boyfriend does not safeguard you. And so that means this relationship isn’t working, isn’t going to work, no matter how much “work” you put into it.

2. And, moving forward in your life, just really try to accept and keep in mind that relationships are supposed to make your life easier and happier. Full stop. If they don’t, then they aren’t working. It’s true that “easy” and “happy” are subjective, and that of course even in the world’s greatest relationship there will always be moments of anger and frustration, of helping each other through really hard times, and even of just being sick of the sound of the other person’s voice. But in a good relationship, there is never any question that your life is enriched by this other person. Even when you are mad at them, you are still feeling safe in the knowledge that the other person truly wants what is best for you, truly wants you to be happy. That knowledge makes it obvious that the “work” you’re doing on the relationship is worth it and awesome and helps you become a better person. When you don’t have that trust, that knowledge, that absolute certainty that your partner truly has your best interest in mind at all times, then it’s just not worth it to “work” on the relationship. That “work” is only worth it if you both take part equally in it. A relationship doesn’t get better if only one of you is willing to “work.” Your letter makes it pretty clear that your boyfriend–while he might like and even love you, in his way–actually does not have your happiness, your safety, in the front of his mind. He is thinking of other people before he thinks of you. He pursues his own fleeting pleasures without caring or even understanding how his actions might affect you. He doesn’t listen when you explain these feelings of fear and unhappiness to him. He entrusts secrets to others and not to you. He lays bare your privacy in front of people who you have told him make you uncomfortable.

He doesn’t want to do the work of safeguarding the relationship, of making a safe space for the two of you to be in together. Maybe he is not the kind of person who can ever do this–lots of people never figure out how to have a real relationship, and that is very sad but what can you do?–or maybe he just doesn’t want to do that work with YOU. Either way, it sounds like he is not the guy for you, and all the energy you are putting into trying to work with him, communicate with him, and stay with him, is like energy you are putting into a void. You’ll never get that same kind of energy back.

You aren’t happy; he doesn’t make you happy. He makes you feel stressed out and nervous and confused. A good relationship doesn’t make you feel any of those things, honestly. And it’s not a “failure” for you to acknowledge that and move on from this guy. Reflect on what you’ve learned, and on how you might look for different characteristics in the next person you date. It’s okay! You will be okay.

Posted in Opinion | 1 Comment

Truth to Power

Dear Advice
I am grappling with the misbehavior of one person, and how that one person’s behavior issues are rippling in a community. The big problem here is that this community is essentially built around this woman, and the worship of her.

But hey, why do I care? Why not just navigate away from this woman?

She is a health practitioner with the utmost trust of this community, a radical caregiver that frequently gives unorthodox and perhaps untested advice. Her unchecked, and mostly secretive, behavioral issues indicate to me that she is not worthy of her position, and could be dangerous to others. But the problem is, most don’t see this side of her, and those who do, are afraid to out her, or even to approach the subject because there is so little critical thinking about her in general.

The woman I speak of is called a “rock star” practitioner by some. Even me, as I got to know her, wondered aloud to her, “How are you not on ‘Oprah?'” She is a practitioner in an Eastern alternative medical field, as well as a teacher of these foreign practices. I came to her with some training in this field. Though some of her teachings were pretty different from most of my previous teachers, I was refreshed by her confidence to stray from the popular theories. I attended her school because I was inspired by her build-out of a very large health care center, and because of her unique style and cult-like following.

I also decided to take her guided trip to a foreign country in order to study this medicine in its spiritual home. I was halfway through my 11-month program with this teacher when we embarked on this trip. The country we went to is quite poor and inexpensive for Westerners, but we paid a very hefty sum for what we thought was a very well-planned trip full of educational opportunities.

Just several days into our trip, it became apparent that things weren’t as awesome as we 16 students had hoped. Our teacher was so burned out by the difficulties in maintaining her not-yet-1-year-old center that she and her wife, who was also on the trip, hadn’t even been sleeping before we left.

Turns out, our whole trip was not planned by our teacher, but mostly by a man in this country that she had business interests with. This man immediately put us on a whirlwind adventure, with no room for the grueling jet lag. We were in a bus 12- even 16-plus hours per day, often skipping the meals we paid in advance for, getting little exposure to culture outside of the bus. We spent a lot of time in factories, weirdly. We didn’t follow the itinerary that was advertised when we signed up for this trip.

People on the trip started getting edema from lack of exercise. We were shocked that our trip left no room at all for self-care, as that is our teacher’s No. 1 teaching. We started feeling disappointed by our trip as a group, and meditated on how to speak to our teacher about it.

When we did approach our teacher, we were beside ourselves by her reaction. She stomped her foot, cried, accused us of ganging up on her, stormed out and refused to talk to us for 24 hours. Maybe this was a fluke? No, it happened time and time again. She ratcheted her control, saying that we had to obey the man who planned our trip because it would offend him if we didn’t. She forbade anyone in the group from taking a day off of programming.

The trip became a blur of yelling matches, power struggles, silent treatments, as well as our teacher starting to look psychotic while she would deliver us her daily “teachings,” which often revolved around how we are privleged and ungrateful people. People were chronically sick from food poisoning—immune systems were faltering due to the drama.

We started doing the math and realizing that the trip barely cost a quarter of what we paid for it—these equations started when our teacher put us on trains that were not for tourists. We were so intimidated by men on the train that clergy surrounded us to protect us, and English-speaking travelers admonished us for traveling so irresponsibly. An adequate train ticket would have cost something like $5 more; we had a daily budget of around $150/day in a country where a medium-class hotel is about $15 per person. We confronted our teacher’s wife looking for answers because we could not speak to our teacher without being screamed at, and she confessed that our teacher is abusive to her also. The drama was truly sickening; the group became divided into those who would follow the teacher no matter what, those who were willing to struggle against her misbehavior, and those who just checked out in order to be free of the drama.

I was lucky; I only signed up for half of the trip but most in the group had 8 total weeks of her abuse and it continued. When I returned home, I was 10-15 pounds lighter and looked like shit. I felt horrible. I went to my teacher’s health care center in order to volunteer and fulfill my internship hours while the others were still on the trip, and people wanted to know: “How was the trip? Was it amazing??” But I could not tell the truth.

I slowly told a few people some of the truth because it was killing me. My teacher returned eventually and I decided to continue with the 11-month program because I had already put so much money into it. It was nauseating to watch my teacher weave her web with students, lying about the success of the trip. The few people that I did confess the truth to just cocked an eyebrow and acted like I never said anything.

I finally graduated, in a ceremony that deepened the madness for me. Students fell to the ground, literally kissing her feet. It was disgusting. I have never really witnessed that kind of prostration, and it was dizzying to reconcile that image with the image of my teacher having a daily tantrum like a 2 year old on our trip. “Two faced” doesn’t even begin to touch on the extent of the deception.

Fast forward some months. I am now working to make a living with my studies, but the outrage about my teacher won’t loosen. It feels like it’s holding me back, but I need to do something productive with this energy. My conscience also implores me to warn others of the teacher’s deceptions. This is where I need advice.

I want to start with a personal letter to the teacher, but judging from my experiences since we returned from the educational trip, my teacher will most likely be very resistant to my message. As a matter of fact, since we’ve returned, the administrators of my teacher’s little school have seemingly singled us “trouble-makers” out for especially negligent treatment, avoiding us even if we still have legitimate business with the school. For instance, a simple email about tuition was not answered for five weeks in my case, and when it was answered, I was lectured that “you aren’t the only student in our school,” just for wanting a more prompt answer! I was in a class of 20 people!

Some of the other travelers speak of suing her, as we have plenty of grounds, but I doubt that will happen because it will bankrupt her and her center. That’s just too much to take on.

But what will do in this case? Yelp review? Contacting the oversight board of our profession, which the teacher is a member of? Contact our teacher’s very famous teacher, who would be quite dismayed to hear of her behavior, and that she touts his lineage while misbehaving? I have even considered interrupting one of her regular community classes to express myself, though that would be drama-laden and I would probably blush to the point of exploding. I just can’t stand by and watch her continue this madness. She is a public face of my cherished profession and I can’t stand by and witness her tarnish its integrity by behaving like a brat.

Advice, I love your sense of justice, and your higher education background might illuminate the standards and protocol of professionalism in educational settings. Any insight on this issue is greatly appreciated!

Thank you

Holy crap! This is truly an epic tale of woe. It’s complicated and there are so many different facets to it. It also engages with the culture and practices of a very specific, insular profession, and so it may be hard for me to know exactly how to navigate within the bounded rules and traditions of that profession. I know that the more fully entrenched in academia I get, the more like a separate culture it seems, with its own bizarre, arcane hierarchies and power dynamics and ways of saying certain things–I can imagine having a similar issue within my own field, and my non-academic friends not really understanding how the chains of command work and how certain language would need to be used as I built my case. I say that just to say: take my advice as the advice of an outsider, and try to see how it might apply to your own specific cultural/professional milieu, which you understand far better than I do.

Lets explore some ideas and options. First, though, I just want to say that I’m proud of you for having ethical beliefs surrounding your profession and the idea of mentorship. I think it’s to your credit (obviously) that you are trying to find a way to actually help fix this situation, without hurting innocents in the process. People like this get so much power over others only because enough individuals over time have decided not to rock the boat. It’s hard to rock the boat, but I do think you’re right in feeling like you must.

There are issues both grand and small in your problem. Your letter makes me think about power and how fucked up it is; how even when we don’t want power sometimes we get it and have to figure out what to do with it; how knowledge can be power, and controlling knowledge can also be power; how there are so many ways to be a power-hungry asshole. It’s dangerous to assume only a soulless Wall Street jagoff can be a power-hungry asshole; there are many ways to exercise power over others, and one way of doing that is to hold a given group’s ideals against them, in a way. You’re describing a non-western tradition of healing that engages with spiritual practices based on peacefulness, acceptance, non-judgmentalism, etc. All these beautiful practices and beliefs, and yet all it takes is one power-hungry asshole to use it all for her own gain, knowing that those very practices and beliefs will inhibit everyone from taking action against her. It seems like you’re in much more than simply a professional bind or even an ethical bind–your bind is a spiritual one. I imagine ideas of vengeance and destruction probably rub uncomfortably against some of the peaceful practices you’ve worked so hard to cultivate. You’re having to carefully ponder, pick apart, and identify so many different strands of desire and belief–how much of your desire to expose her is based on the desire for personal vengeance, a desire that probably doesn’t gibe with your spiritual beliefs? Or is it only care for others driving you, in which case it DOES gibe, it gibes powerfully? How can you show your care for others while doing something (exposing this fraud) that will be perceived by so many of them as harmful and even selfish, when your goal is so totally the opposite of that? It truly is assholes like this that ruin everything for everyone.

What you are describing sounds like a cult. Cults come in many shapes and sizes, of course, but at bottom they are always about one charismatic leader having an unhealthy degree of control over the lives AND MINDS of the group. I actually don’t know if that is true, as I did not google it, so that’s just my personal understanding of what a cult is. It’s being held hostage by someone, but not physically. Your MIND is in bondage to them. These are really hard chains to break. It’s hard enough to come to consciousness yourself, and break those chains–how do you teach others to come to similar realizations about their own enslavement? What you describe, about the students kissing her feet, is really upsetting. And, I think, it’s telling–a true spiritual leader, who leads from a place of sincere belief rather than power-hunger, doesn’t encourage that sort of worship of themselves. Do they? Even Jesus Christ is always raising people UP from kissing his feet, being like, hey, don’t do that, we’re brothers or whatever. I’m sure people kissed Gandhi’s feet but I bet he didn’t like it.

Exposing a fraud like Bernie Madoff can in many ways be straightforward. Somebody just says “hey, this guy took my money and now the money’s gone,” and everyone freaks out and he goes to jail. Exposing a fraud of the spiritual kind is much harder. “Hey, this person taught me certain things, but their behavior doesn’t uphold those things,” ugh, you’re in such muddy territory already. How can you prove what her behavior was/is, when even other people on the trip turned a blind eye to it? How can you confront someone who has a strong, spiritually-enforced wish to believe the opposite of what you’re saying? Welcome to religious wars! It’s really hard to do!

I think you’re lucky in the sense that there IS some cold hard data at work here. There is the issue of the money spent on the trip. You have that data; you’ve done that math. I think one prong of your plan should be exposing her misuse of funds, which frankly sounds like embezzlement but what do I know.

People wholly in thrall to someone they consider spiritually higher than them will probably not find this kind of financial skullduggery compelling. But higher-ups might. The governing board of your profession might, if you could get this data to them without her knowing, at first (so that they could chew it over without her skewing the facts). Perhaps most importantly, future potential students might find it compelling. If I were researching where to go to study this profession, and I saw enough of a hoo-ra about the shady financial dealings on this trip, it might taint my perception of this teacher enough to not want to give her my money. These would all be good things, I think.

In breaking the chains in which your colleagues’ MINDS are wrapped, you’ll have to be less straightforward. It will be harder. They won’t care about the money; they’ll find ways to excuse it or explain it. They’ll accuse you of being a capitalist pig or something–how could you care about money, when you were supposed to be having a transcendent experience traveling around that country, learning at your amazing teacher’s feet? Money doesn’t matter; we’re not supposed to care about money. Your motivations will be suspect; your commitment to the practice will be questioned. No one will believe your descriptions of her behavior. This is how it works.

And many people have been in your shoes before you–perhaps it will be helpful to think of yourself in the grand tradition of whistle blowers. It’s fucking awful to be a whistle blower. Look at Edward Snowden! Dude has to live in Moscow in a secret location, never seeing his family again in his life, knowing full well that the minute the American press stops paying attention to him, the CIA is going to murder him. Straight-up. At least this won’t be your fate, no matter WHAT happens. Is that comforting?? That you don’t have to have Edward Snowden’s life? That no matter what you do to unmask your teacher, the government won’t murder you? At least there is that! I find comparisons like this helpful, honestly, I’m not just being flip. The stakes are high for you, but they aren’t THAT high. You’re facing some spiritual anguish, some social discomfort, perhaps the loss of a few friends. I know that is bad, and scary, but it’s not THAT bad. You can do it.

You need to think about the people involved in this situation who are like you. I think there are two kinds of people, in a situation like this, regardless of what type of community it arises in: weak-minded people who yearn for authority, for a leader to cede all their personal responsibility to, so they don’t have to think for themselves; and people like you, who are just sincerely trying to find someone to teach them stuff they want to know in this very particular area. The latter type of person is the kind you can reach; I wouldn’t worry about the former, if I were you. The only thing that can break their chains is a new leader, a different authority.

So, with everything you do, think about what kinds of evidence and what kinds of arguments would have worked on YOU, had you heard them back before you’d seen this teacher’s actions for yourself.

Also, I think you need to know what your objectives are, very clearly. I think you have the primary objective of removing this person from her position of power over others. You’re also worried, though, about destroying the school she has built, which you think is a positive force in the world in spite of this teacher’s bullshit. Is there a way to envision her losing her job without it destroying the school? You need to figure out what that would look like, so you can methodically direct your attack toward accomplishing it. I think having clear goals will be very helpful–I think you can’t simply “expose her as a fraud” and have that be enough. WHO do you need to expose her to, in order to accomplish WHAT objective(s)?

With this in mind, my advice I think begins with two suggestions, both of which are actually just taken from your letter:

ONE: I do feel that contacting the board that oversees your profession is something that needs to happen. I wonder if you could make contact with a member of the board you have any reason to trust, and feel it out, before submitting a full report. I think the more professional and evidence-based you can be as you do this, the better. Every single thing you utter or commit to paper needs to be thoroughly vetted by your highest intellectual self, not your emotional one. Does this sentence come off as vindictive? Does this word connote personal anger? You are wise to realize you don’t want to go the route of just wildly writing emotional comments on random blog entries about this teacher or something; you want to be careful, calm, rational, and go through appropriate channels, so that you won’t be perceived as a loose cannon. Can you craft a very clear, very evidence-based report (one very similar to the letter you sent me, which I think is extremely calm and gives a lot of good hard data) to submit to this board–and are there other people who would be willing to sign this report? In my experience, a bunch of signatures makes a much bigger impact on a governing body than just one signature. Is there anyone who has your back on this? Put out feelers, and start coalition-building. You CAN’T be the only person who feels this way. There MUST be others who have had your same realizations about this teacher. I think you need to find them and build that community, so you aren’t going this alone. If you write up a good report–ideally with the input of other people–and get as many other people in your field to sign it as you can, then I would send it to just one or two members of the overseeing committee who you have some reason to trust. This could backfire; your trust could be misplaced. Who knows what these other people are like? They may be just like your teacher. But I can’t think of how else to accomplish your goals and do what your conscience knows to be right. You are supposed to report bullying to your supervisor; you are supposed to report shit to higher-ups. All these professions have these power hierarchies that you’re supposed to negotiate; it’s impossible for you to take this woman’s job away, so what else can you do but appeal to those in charge, and at the very least make your reservations known in a somewhat public fashion? You have to try this tactic, I think. I think the multiple signatures would help, as would the hard evidence–as much as you can get together. The financial stuff, the actual details of what happened on the trip–where you went, what you did–vs. the amount of money you paid. Then personal testimonies from as many people as you can find who are willing to give them to you. What was witnessed, what happened, what the daily schedule did to people. Clear and direct examples of her behavior being the opposite of her teachings. Multiple testimonies about the story of the train ride. etc. Carefully and without undue emotion, REPORT IT.

– this might work. I bet many potential instances of whistle-blowing were headed off at the pass by decent governing boards who received a report of malfeasance and actually acted on it. I could give you an example of a type of situation that was handled in two very different ways by the two very different schools I have recently been involved with, and how one of those ways was successful because the people in charge actually took a situation seriously and handled it in a quick, un-ambiguous, and transparent way, while the other school ended up getting embroiled in a very embarrassing and snowballing public relations brouhaha because the people in charge did not engage in this way. People in charge CAN SOMETIMES do the right thing, as much as it seems like that will never happen (ahem, the police system, the entire American government, etc.).

– it might not work. They might be in her thrall too; they might have similar power-hungry asshole personalities; they might all have their own former students complaining about them, acting as thorns in their side. They might see you as a threat to their power. But this is out of your control.

TWO: I think you should deliver a similar report to this teacher’s teacher. In fact, when you got to the part about the teacher’s teacher, I was filled with relief–it seems like a very good way to go. This person has more authority and respect in the profession than you do; if they are appalled by your report (meaning: if they are a decent person and not another power-hungry asshole), they will at the very least investigate it or contact their student/your shitty teacher about it. At the VERY LEAST, it could be a wakeup call to your teacher, and at the very most it could result in the kind of action at the higher level you aren’t able to enact for yourself. If this fancypants teacher decided to take action, to expose the fraud, to get her disbarred or whatever, they are in a better position to accomplish this than you are. And I think you’re right–I think there is a good chance that at the very least, this teacher won’t want their name associated with these kinds of shenanigans. That desire can be a powerful ally for you.

– again, this might work. The teacher might be a rad, wise mentor who cares about the profession and about other people. The teacher might even harbor their own niggling doubts about this former student, who perhaps always gave them a bit of a gross feeling they could never put into words. Who knows? If this teacher is wise and good, and if your report is clear, evidence-based, and includes more signatures/perspectives than just your own, I would imagine this would be a very effective thing to do.

– and again, it might not work. The teacher might be a power-hungry asshole. The teacher might be so devoted to their students that they simply won’t believe you. The teacher might be a coward, and unwilling to rock the boat. The teacher might have reached such a place of unattachment that they just don’t care. Again, you can’t control this. All you can do is try your best.

I have other ideas, like, is there a publication that everyone in your field reads? Could you submit your report to them, in hopes that they might publish it? But I don’t know…if the first two tactics failed, it’s hard to believe you could get your report published, and furthermore, that kind of thing always just devolves into a dumb letter-to-the-editor he said/she said war. I just wonder if there are some serious people involved with such a publication who might investigate your claims further. It might be worth a shot, but I don’t know if such a publication exists or what your vibe is regarding it. Could you start a blog where you publish this report, in the hopes that potential future students of this teacher might find it while googling and have second thoughts? It could also serve as a community-building device, for other people who feel isolated and powerless after being misused and betrayed by this teacher. And also, honestly, maybe Yelp reviews aren’t such a bad idea? Yelp is pretty powerful. I recently chose a person to cut my hair based solely on Yelp. Are there already lots of Yelp reviews of this school/teacher? A well-written, clear, unemotional, data-filled Yelp review might at least plant a seed of doubt in potential future students’ minds. I don’t know if this is a bad suggestion, because I also know that Yelp is incredibly stupid. I am interested to see what other commenters think–I hope people will leave suggestions in the comments.

If these tactics don’t work, then I’m not sure there is anything else you can do, except continue building your community of people who feel as you do, if for no other reason than that it will make you feel better. Also, I think you have to be prepared to tell your story whenever you get the opportunity to make a difference in someone’s life. I am sure that as you continue practicing your profession, you’ll run across people who are considering going to this school/studying with this teacher. Or even people who want to talk to you about how amazing this teacher is. I think you need to find a method of unmasking her as a fraud even just in personal conversations of this nature. A way of calmly, clearly, succinctly explaining that this teacher is not worthy of her position. Without gossiping, without “talking shit,” without getting wrapped up in your tale and starting to sound overwrought or like you are embellishing. I think you should prepare yourself to deliver a calm, clear, fact-based, short report on this situation whenever the teacher comes up in conversation, as you continue your life. Maybe some people will think you’re crazy, or that you just have sour grapes. But others will listen. And that’s all you can do.

Am I missing some grand tactic? I am trying to imagine myself in a similar situation, but in academia, and these are the things I would do. Carefully report to someone higher up who I had some reason to hope would help me. Document EVERYTHING, with data and evidence and specifics. What time, what day, how much money. Print out emails and texts. Etc. Reach out to others who might share my experience; try to come up with tactics as a group. Reach out to the shitty person’s mentor or direct supervisor, and request a meeting if possible, and send my report to them if not. Calmly and rationally warn future students away from studying with the person. Make myself available to support anyone else currently being brutalized by the person, and help THEM document and report.

If there is any other hot idea someone has, please let us know!

And to you, writer, I say: STAY STRONG, know you are doing what is right, and that you want to do what is right because you truly care about other people. Know that you aren’t alone in these thoughts–go out and find the others. Build a community that will be more powerful in its statements than any individual voice. Reach out to authority figures you think might feel similarly, and ask for their help and guidance. Don’t hide what you know.

But also, don’t become obsessed and unhealthy about it. Work for change, do whatever you can, but also know that you are your own person, and so is everyone else. There is only so much you can do to change the world. You should never stop trying, you should never stop believing in change, but you also have to find ways of living in the present without being haunted by other people’s bullshit. Try to find that good middle ground between working for these changes / not letting your thoughts about this person eat you up inside.

GOOD LUCK. Please follow up with us if you have additional thoughts, ideas, responses, and to those reading this blog, please let us know if you have more advice! Have you been in a similar situation? How did you resolve it?

DOWN WITH POWER-HUNGRY ASSHOLES

Posted in Opinion | 1 Comment

When Your Boyfriend Pretends It’s All On You

Dear Yours Truly,

My boyfriend and I are monogamous and we have lived together for a
year. I love him and our life together so much, but there is one
recurring problem: his ex.

Since the beginning of our relationship, his ex has made it clear to
me that she claims him as her “territory.” What I mean by this is that
she has a stake in who he dates (she’s hated / disapproved of everyone
he’s dated after their breakup–she told me this the single time we
had an actual conversation and she was VERRRRY drunk), she constantly
finds ways to involve herself in his projects and events in his life
and, likewise, finds ways to involve him in her life.

At the beginning of our relationship, I gave her the benefit of the
doubt, I thought perhaps it was ME who felt intimidated by her
presence, that maybe they did have a healthy, close friendship and the
three of us could coexist (and she and I would be friends) in some
way. I also thought thought that as our relationship progressed, she
would eventually begin to consider our love a “legitimate thing” that
was maybe not going to go away and then she would back off.

Instead, she’s gotten increasingly worse and attempts to become even
more territorial. I imagine she thinks she might be losing her footing
and feels threatened that she cannot keep him on a string for whenever
she might need him. My instinct is that since their breakup, she has
felt that her psychological or emotional relationship to him was
superior to any romantic relationships that might exist on his end.
Even though she’s been in a relationship with someone else for the
last two years (and, for your context, it’s someone who isn’t known
for being emotionally or mentally stable), she still sees the two of
them (herself and my boyfriend) existing as some kind of non-sexual
Unit. She might not come out and say it, but she wants to be the Most
Important Person In His Mind, In His Life.

For context: They were together for three years, hated each other for
one year, and have resumed a strange, dramatic, co-dependent
relationship for the last 2+ years, which I will now attempt to
describe.

What my boyfriend said to me about her when he and I first met was
that she was toxic, possessive, and manipulative. But that she was
also the closest, most important friend in his life. As a new person
to him, I witnessed a handful of their dramatic fights over relatively
nothing, followed by equally disproportionately large gestures of
sweetness and kindness. I also heard about many instances that took
place before my time in which she acted out in an attempt to gain some
kind of reassurance that she had his attention, that she could control
his emotions, or see that he would indeed continue to be there for her
in some way.

Now that I’m expressing frustration because I don’t think this kind of
behavior (or person) should have a presence in our life together
(especially after we’ve lived together for a year), he is insisting
that she is a “good person” with “good intentions.” And, when she
defines my discomfort as being “controlling,” he more or less agrees
with her. This makes me feel like he doesn’t have my back (acting as
if I am the bad cop and he is the nice guy with his hands tied) and
that he doesn’t exactly see where I’m coming from. That the root of
the problem is my discomfort rather than anything else that exists.

Even though she and I see each other on a near-daily basis (they work
together at a coffee shop that I like to buy coffee from), she’s never
made an effort to engage in conversation with me. Yet, she sends me
facebook invites to events she’s hosting and then tells him that she’s
making an effort to befriend me and that I’m rude for neither
responding nor attending. She’s also sent mutual friends my way to let
me know that she’s sad that I don’t like her and to persuade me that
she is a good person and that I should be friends with her. Perhaps I
am paranoid, but I see this as manipulative–an attempt to gain my
permission for her to have access to his life–rather than taking a
genuine interest in who I am.

I think he is either somehow oblivious to what she’s doing or fails to
recognize it while it’s taking place in real time. Or perhaps he’s so
used to having her play this role in his life that he doesn’t see it
as problematic. For a while, he was mistaking my problem with her as
my own jealousy, or as a distrust in him. Now, because we’ve had to
talk about this so many times (because she won’t stop!), I think he
MIGHT start seeing where I’m coming from, but I’m not sure.

Right now my boyfriend wants to keep everyone happy. He thinks the
solution to the problem is that she and I become close friends. I try
to be polite and friendly when I see her, but I don’t think I should
feel pressured or obligated to be friends with anyone, much less his
ex-girlfriend, especially when she displays possessive, manipulative
behavior. Especially when she doesn’t let up despite the fact that he
has a new life with someone else.

I haven’t had a problem befriending other women who he’s dated (or
even, in my previous long-term relationship, the long-term ex my
then-boyfriend–this woman is now a very close friend), so I am less
inclined to believe that the problem is me. In my mind, the problem is
that she fails to recognize my position in his life and that she
insists on maintaining a level of invasive “ownership” (sorry for the
unfortunate word, but this is how her actions appear to me) on his
emotional, psychological, and daily life.

However, it also makes me wonder: Why does he want me to change my
mind so badly? When I pretend to be cool with her (or with them), why
does he jump at the chance to build something with her? Why does he
insist that I be her friend? Why can’t he cut her off on certain
levels? Why is he complicit in her keeping him on a string? Why
doesn’t he see a problem with any of this? Am I crazy?

We live in a small town. They work together and share a wide circle of
friends. She’s not going to disappear completely, and it would be
childish for me to demand or expect that. Instead, I do think it would
be healthy for him to reestablish new boundaries with her, to break
old patterns, and form new ones. That is what I’ve asked him to do,
but it seems to be too vague of a request for anything to change.

Because she insists on being an ongoing presence and playing the
too-close, everpresent role she’s always played, he and I have had so
many conversations about this that I’m exhausted. I’m exhausted to the
point where I wonder if it would be easier if I just checked out
completely, despite the fact that I am deeply in love with him and the
life we share together. It’s just like every time she pops up (which
is all the time), I can feel myself at the end of my rope. Which might
be what she wants, I don’t know.

I don’t want this to turn into a bigger deal than it already is, so I
haven’t talked about this with many people. But one of my boyfriend’s
closest, most trustworthy friends (someone has been around a long time
and is observant and level headed) recently said that my instincts are
legitimate, that I’m not inventing or misreading anything.

I guess my questions are: Is it unreasonable for me to expect them to
redraw the psychological or emotional boundaries of their relationship
or was this part of the deal when I decided to build a life with him?
How would he even do that? What should I do if he continues to
misunderstand the situation (either my feelings or her actions?) And,
maybe most importantly, in the meantime and in the future, how the
hell do I deal with a person like her?

Signed,
I Don’t Want To Be Controlling

My dear girl. I am so sorry this is happening to you! It sounds so frustrating and exhausting. I also want to state at the outset that it sounds from your letter like you are very good at staying calm, trying to see things clearly, and attempting to respect the perspectives of others, and that is great and to your credit as a human being.

However, I want to put a bug in your ear about something. You write this whole letter about this girl, in which you present HER as the problem. Her behavior, her possessiveness, her treatment of you, her obsession with your boyfriend. You want to know how to deal with her. But what is crystal clear from reading your letter is that your problem isn’t this girl, your problem is YOUR BOYFRIEND.

If this situation were JUST that there is a crazy girl who is obsessed with your boyfriend and who consequently treats you in a weird shitty way, and if your boyfriend were just as stressed out and annoyed by it as you are, then maybe yes, we could talk about productive ways of dealing with her. But your letter makes it very clear that the situation isn’t just the girl–it’s that your boyfriend continues prioritizing the girl, liking the girl, ganging up on you with the girl in a variety of ways. Thus, the issue in this case is not the girl but the boy. Stop thinking of it as a challenge YOU have to figure out how to deal with her; it’s actually a challenge YOUR BOYFRIEND has to figure out how to deal with her. Your only challenge is how to make that absolutely clear to him. No more bullshit about you needing to befriend her or change your attitude or whatever. He needs to understand that this is on him, and that he has NOT handled it well.

I see in your letter that you are partially aware of the fact that he is complicit in this, and that his behavior is sketchy, but I want you to go all the way with that, and stop even considering the girl herself as a problem for you to figure out. I think this is such a common thing. I’ve done it too. We love our boyfriend and so we bend over backwards trying to make problems he is causing somehow not totally his fault. The classic example would be where your boyfriend cheats on you and instead of getting mad at him you put all your anger on the girl, like it’s her fault. When really, it’s his! How could it be anyone’s fault but his?? But we manage to contort our minds into displacing that blame. “She got him drunk!” etc. (LOL, something I literally said when my college boyfriend cheated on me with some poor girl).

But your boyfriend is not helpless. Nobody is forcing him to have this melodramatic, obsessive, codependent, embarrassing “friendship” with this person he ostensibly broke up with. It isn’t this girl’s fault that she is ruining your happiness, IT’S YOUR BOYFRIEND’S FAULT.

It took me a long time to start realizing that, for the most part, people do things because they want to do them. Barring, like, actually brainwashed or abused people or people who are afraid to leave their partners because of physical violence or something, people stay in relationships because they want to, in some way, for some reason. We’ve all had that friend who only dates assholes, right? And we get upset. “Why won’t these assholes leave my poor friend alone??” But after awhile, you are forced to realize that your friend just LIKES DATING ASSHOLES. Even when she complains or cries, she’s choosing the asshole; she likes that dynamic. And that’s sad, and dark, and I’m not saying it’s healthy, but I am saying that she’s choosing assholes because she wants to. It’s not the assholes’ fault–they’re not forcing her to date them, they’re not Darth Vader, they’re just assholes! And furthermore, YOU (the friend) don’t have any control over it either; you can’t make her not want to date assholes.

This girl isn’t forcing your boyfriend to have this relationship with her; he is choosing to have it, because on some level he likes it and wants it. And that should be a red flag to you, for several reasons.

I believe you when you say you love your boyfriend and you love your life together. I bet he’s awesome in a lot of ways. However, I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that your boyfriend is, at least in a couple key ways, VERY immature. The friendship between them that you’re describing is that kind of high-octane, super melodramatic thing where kids act out what they see in movies because they think that’s what “passion” is. It’s the juvenile “coke addiction” version of relationships, whereas solid adult relationships are more like sipping a fine wine. These two probably think they have such a fucked-up, abusive, dysfunctional dynamic because they are “passionate” about each other, when really, it’s just that neither of them has woken up yet to what grownup reality ought to be like, and how much better and more satisfying that grownup reality is than fighting and screaming and cyber-stalking and icing out the new girlfriend and whatever other dumb stuff we did to one another when we hadn’t gotten our shit together yet. And he’s doing all this with someone he’s not even dating anymore! I can not imagine anything more boring/embarrassing.

The slightly more generous take on it, I suppose, is just that your boyfriend is so habituated to being codependent and dysfunctional with her that he doesn’t realize it’s happening. Still, the only solution here is for HIM TO REALIZE.

Immature people can still be good, decent people. Immature isn’t a value judgement, it’s just a statement about where someone is able to be at, in some facet of their lives. I’m super immature in a couple areas and it sucks but I am a good person (I think). It is totally possible your boyfriend is a good person and in many respects even a good boyfriend. But he is SERIOUSLY dropping the ball in this area. Not only in the fact that he’s actively taking part in a relationship dynamic I associate with teenagers, but also, in the way he relates to you I see a lot of immaturity. I see someone who hasn’t yet learned how to communicate truly and honestly with another person. The way we tend to relate to our partners when we are immature is: whenever they bring up anything critical we go immediately on the defensive; we try to turn it around and make it all about the other person being “jealous” or “imagining things”; we deny deny deny. We are secretly terrified of just listening to this person we love and care about, and fully respecting their fully-actualized humanity, instead of making everything about us protecting ourselves and refusing to ever confront anything we might be doing wrong. The fact that your boyfriend essentially dismisses your concerns, encourages you to believe that you’re just jealous, and doesn’t do anything to remedy the situation or put you at ease or reassure you: IMMATURE

(believing that someone “toxic and manipulative” is “the most important friend in [his] life” is also pretty immature, or at the very least incredibly fucking sad)

I am also disturbed by the whiffs of gaslighting I detect in your tale of woe. He’s colluding with her in bringing you messages from her, in acting like you’re the one with the problem, in letting you know that he’s talking about you with her behind your back (!). He’s colluding with her in keeping you disoriented and doubting your own perceptions, and that’s bullshit.

So I don’t know what advice to give you. It sounds like you have tried communicating honestly and calmly with him, and he’s reacted by denying and making you doubt yourself (and making you fear that YOU’RE being “controlling”??? GIRL). Here is what I think, and you’re not going to like it because it’s really hard and sad: I think that eventually your relationship with him is going to end because of this issue, unless he is able to honestly engage with you about it in a spirit of productiveness and change. I think if he can’t do that, then over time you are going to get so worn down that you’ll finally bail; or, you’ll start getting sort of disgusted by him and embarrassed for him, which is not sexy, and you’ll bail; or, at some point you’ll be like “why am I dating someone who prioritizes someone else over me? That’s crazy” and you’ll bail; etc. If this is the case (and I feel like it probably is) then the only thing left to do is THE ULTIMATUM.

We make ultimatums all the time–us staying in relationships is always contingent on myriad choices the other person makes and if these choices start feeling like a dealbreaker, I feel we have not only a right but a DUTY to let the other person know. They should have the chance to decide whether or not the relationship is important enough to them to make whatever change is being demanded. Whatever the issue is, if it’s big enough to you that you could see it causing the end of a relationship, then it’s worth just putting that on the table. You don’t have to be hateful and controlling about it, nor should you. You can couch an ultimatum like: “You have this friendship with this person that sincerely impinges on my own life in a way that I find intolerable. Thus, your friendship with this person is causing harm to our relationship. Additionally, the fact that you aren’t able to talk honestly with me about this friendship is also causing harm to our relationship because it’s making me feel that I can’t trust you to be open with me. If you aren’t able to communicate with me in a real and non-defensive way, and if you aren’t able to truly emotionally detach from her in a way that allows her to stop affecting our life together, I don’t think I’m going to be able to stay with you for much longer.” This lets him know that the ball is in his court and it’s up to him to have an epiphany about his behavior or not. He might not! But he also might! People do have epiphanies!

The only thing about saying this to him though is that it has to be true; you have to know in your heart that you’re going to leave him if this situation–the friendship with the girl AND the way he communicates with you about it–doesn’t dramatically change, and immediately. If you don’t feel ready to leave him over this, then don’t deliver that ultimatum. An ultimatum that doesn’t get followed through on leaves you with less power and self-respect than you had before, as any parent of a poorly-behaved child could tell you if they were able to be honest with themselves about how they should have followed through on all those ultimatums. But know that if you stay with him while continuing to try to solve this problem all on your own–by modifying YOUR behavior, YOUR expectations, YOUR way of relating to the girl–the situation is really not going to change in a satisfying way, I don’t think. Because, to reiterate, this situation is not within your control, and has really nothing to do with you. It’s all on him. I guess you could just decide to take second place in this dude’s life and just accept that, but that seems lame.

You ask some questions at the end of your letter that maybe I haven’t specifically addressed:

Is it unreasonable for me to expect them to redraw the psychological or emotional boundaries of their relationship or was this part of the deal when I decided to build a life with him?

Maybe this was part of the deal at first–you knew about it, and chose to get together with him anyway, sure–but it’s not part of the deal anymore. People constantly renegotiate relationships and what they’re willing to put up with in them. People change their minds about the terms of the relationship all the time–people decide they do want a baby after saying they were fine with not having one; people become religious; people go vegan or stop being vegan. Getting together with someone doesn’t mean you have to forever accept every single thing that was true about them at the moment you frenched for the first time. And also no, it’s not unreasonable for you to expect THEM to renegotiate THEIR relationship. They are BROKEN UP. That is automatically a renegotiation. She no longer gets to act like she’s his mean girlfriend. REASONABLE.

How would he even do that?

The only way he can redraw his boundaries with her is by WANTING to. Once he no longer enjoys their dynamic, it will automatically and instantly change with almost no effort on his part. The only way he can have a different relationship with her is if he decides he’s not into the current one. I do think asking him to artificially take this friendship down eleven notches when he actually clearly doesn’t want to probably won’t work. He has to NOT BE INTO IT ANYMORE, and you can’t make that happen, except maybe–MAYBE–by saying “fuck this, I’m out of here” and shocking him into rethinking his bad life choices.

What should I do if he continues to misunderstand the situation (either my feelings or her actions?)

Break up with him. He can’t be a good long-term boyfriend for you if he puts someone else above you like this, if he can’t communicate with you honestly, and if he keeps remaining so emotionally entangled with/obsessed with someone he is supposed to have broken up with. If he continues to misunderstand the situation (or pretend to misunderstand the situation) then he’s someone that ultimately you’re not going to be able to have good communication with.

And,maybe most importantly, in the meantime and in the future, how the hell do I deal with a person like her?

Again, I think your main problem is that you are thinking of this as an issue of you dealing with her or someone like her, when really this is all about your boyfriend. I think your goal in the future is NOT figuring out a better way of dealing with a girl like this (there is no good way of dealing with someone like this, except to simply not care about them, which is impossible when your boyfriend is essentially dating them), but actually figuring out how to avoid boyfriends who choose to have girls like this in their lives.

I’m so sorry dude. This sounds raw and terrible. But I really think the only way forward is to deal squarely with HIM, between just the two of you, and to forget about her. This is an issue that he has–it really is like a drug addiction; something he is doing, to himself, that you don’t want to be a part of. And you have the right to say that–your desire to not be a part of it is 100% valid, and your desire for him to cut the crap and acknowledge the validity of this desire is 100% valid. FULL STOP.

Posted in Opinion | 5 Comments

To Teach Or Not To Teach

Yours Truly,
I am working on a graduate degree in elementary education. It’s a year long intensive program that is a special kind of hell and I keep fantasizing about quitting, but I can’t make a decision.
I am 27. I finally decided to go to graduate school because I was sick of working really hard for very little money as an educator for non-profit organizations. I had a lot of enthusiasm and I love teaching, but I was worn out. With some credentials, I would have summers off, a regular paycheck and some health insurance. Security! Also, time to do other things that I like!
The problem is, I think I would rather be doing the other things all the time instead. The more I learn about being a public school teacher of young children, the less I feel up to the immense challenge. I am afraid that teaching will take all my energy and put out the little light inside me. I have a recurring dream where someone offers me a different job and I take it on the spot and never teach again.
So why don’t I just quit school and do whatever else I would rather be doing? Because I want to write, and I don’t know how to support myself writing. Can freelance writers pay their bills? I want to be able to do that. Security is important to me. My parents were both artists, we were always poor. They told me never to be an artist because it would be a hard life, and I have always held that advice close while I made decisions about jobs and school. Now I regret not taking more risks and trying to write professionally.
So, my main questions are: Should I quit graduate school, eat the student loan debt and write like hell? Or is writing one of those careers like being an NBA basketball player–lots of people want to do it but they should probably get a degree in PE just in case? Is it good to “follow your dreams”?
Maybe I just need some good writer role models, maybe I need to stop romanticizing being a writer, maybe I should just get through school and the first few years of teaching and everything will make sense and I can write too.
Maybe you can help!
Sincerely,
J

I’m someone who usually feels like you might as well finish something you’ve started, and then make a decision about it once all your options are fully on the table. Unless you’ve got, like, 7 years left in some crazy med school program, in which case quitting might be the better, cheaper, life-saving option. In your case though, you have a year left and then you’ll have this credential that qualifies you for significantly better gigs than the ones you’ve had up to this point, and so, even if you end up never using that credential, I feel like having the option is a good thing. Options, in this world of suffering, are something we can’t have too many of.

Just from your letter, it sounds possible that what is happening here is that you are freaking out because grad school is crazy and hard, which is a universal response to grad school and is normal. From what you’ve said, I’m not sure I see why the teaching-light has been extinguished in you. It sounds like you were teaching, you loved it, but you wanted a bit of an easier life while doing it, so you went to grad school, and now all of a sudden you’re worried that any future job you might get will actually not be as awesome as you had imagined it would be. This seems a bit abstract, to me…this seems maybe like normal grad school night-terrors about your future. Everyone in grad school goes through a period of hating the thing they went to grad school to study. It’s classic! Even now I find myself thinking things like “what even is music.” It’s an existential nightmare, grad school, and from your letter it seems possible this is all that’s happening, in which case you should ignore it and push on through. Not knowing you personally, I can’t speculate further than this! It is very possible that I am wrong, and that you truly have lost your passion for this goal–but that’s something you need to meditate on and figure out.

I’m also kind of on the fence about “following your dreams.” Yes, it’s important not to be complacent. It’s important to identify who you really are and what you’d really like to do, and then try to do that. But, it seems like this is what you already did, by going to grad school. Didn’t you have the dream to teach–this job you felt enthusiasm for, and found rewarding–and so in following that dream didn’t you go to a grad program, which is an awesome and serious thing to do in the process of dream-following? So, you’ve already done this once. How long has writing been your dream? From your letter it sounds like it just recently popped up. Is this perhaps an escapist fantasy, born of grad school being really hard and existentially brutal, and born of the uncertainty of actually learning more about the thing you went to grad school to learn more about? Of course being a public school teacher is brutally difficult, especially in this shitty country and this shitty era. And yet, people are still doing it, and loving it, and devoting themselves passionately to it. Now more than ever! Because now it really is fighting the good fight! If you were teaching for a non-profit I have to think there is already a political aspect to your feelings about teaching–you aren’t a teacher because it’s easy, or you can’t think of anything better to do, but rather because you care about it, you think it matters, you see the ways a teacher can make a difference in a child’s life and you want to be that difference, even as you face the overwhelming challenge of trying to do your job while hindered by neoliberal business ideologies that have filtered into the administration of our schools, etc. etc. Sure it’s hard. It’s heartbreaking work. But as my father says: “If it were easy, everyone would do it.” It’s an intense job. The lows are so low, because they force you to confront dark stuff about your world that you don’t have a lot of control over. But accordingly, the highs must be so high. Making a difference in a child’s life–even just one child, every once in awhile–what could be better than that? In spite of all the bullshit, I still feel that nothing makes me happier or feel more validated in my decisions than when a student has an epiphany in my class, or changes their thinking in a powerful way, or tells me my class made them enjoy reading for the first time, or whatever. My first year teaching I had a kid win a huge award for the paper he wrote in my class and I actually cried when I watched him accept it. I felt in that moment that it had all been worth it, all the uncertainty and the bullshit and the rejection and the not being able to afford the fancy pizza place. Does this resonate with you? Do you feel this? If so, then maybe you truly are meant to be a teacher. If it doesn’t resonate with you, then I do think maybe you should quit, and find something that does make you feel this way. Whatever you do, it should not feel like a grinding waste of time.

But remember, in the midst of all this struggle and uncertainty, that “following your dreams” actually also takes an ass-ton of hard work, struggle, heartache, etc. It doesn’t sound like you fully know, yet, what is actually entailed in the word “freelancing.” I think before you drop everything and follow that dream, you should do some focused research and get some questions answered, and have a reasonably followable game-plan, and have a reasonably secure way of paying your bills while you’re following your dream, because it is highly unlikely your dream is going to be financially rewarding right away. So I’m all for following dreams, but I think it needs to be done pragmatically, which then kind of defuses the Romantic idealism of the dream-following, I realize. Yes, there are these crazy stories where an 18 year old Brad Pitt just suddenly jumps in his car in Missouri or wherever the hell he was, like a month before graduating from high school, because he realized that “the world was out there, and you could go to it,” which is a fucking amazing thing to say and still one of my all-time favorite life mottos which I read in Vanity Fair in the waiting room while my old man was getting his braces taken off, and so he did that, Brad Pitt did, he hopped in his car and drove to LA and became an A-list movie star, and that is an amazing inspiring tale. And we hear that story and our takeaway is that one should always instantly follow one’s dreams without really thinking about it–that what is special about Brad Pitt is that he followed his dreams and didn’t listen to any pragmatic advice whatsoever. And in a way I do think that’s true. I do think you could never drop out of high school and drive to LA on a whim to try to become a movie star based solely on the fact that you are very handsome, if you were at all receptive to pragmatism. And there’s something very compelling about that character, that story, that rejection of the pragmatic. BUT we forget two things: One, we are not all Brad Pitt, whatever that means and all that it entails. The Brad Pitts of the world are UNBELIEVABLY RARE. There are like 10 A-list celebrities, and like 6 billion of the rest of us. Those are BAD, BAD ODDS. And two, even Brad Pitt leaves out the part of the story where he spends 10 years living in an apartment with 15 other dudes, waiting in line for hours to audition for non-speaking commercial roles or something. It’s not like he drove into Los Angeles, got out of his car, and then Ridley Scott walked by and was like “Kid, you’ve got the perfect face for this sexy cowboy I need to cast in my sure-to-be-Oscar-winning upcoming film THELMA AND LOUISE, here is a million dollars plus you get to make out with Geena Davis”

I don’t actually know Brad Pitt’s origin story after arriving in LA but I refuse to believe it did not involve at least a few years of struggle and self-doubt and living off burritos from a garbage can. My brother is in LA trying to become a screenwriter, and after 3 years he’s starting to have some success, but in the meantime he is doing things like literally stacking up bags of peat moss for $10 an hour and being so broke he has to sell his car.

On the other hand, in a completely different advice-vein, I’m also someone who believes very fervently in the significance of recurring dreams. I can think of at least three recurring dreams from various points in my life that I wish I’d listened to the messages of. Like I had one involving my then-boyfriend and drinking orange juice that turned out to be live shrimp. But I didn’t listen to this dream’s obvious message and I stayed with the dude for like 3 years and that was 3 wasted years I could have spent slutting it up in the prime of my youth. And honestly, I sincerely regret that! So I also understand the oppressive fear of the wasted year of one’s life, especially since you’re hovering in that dread Saturn Returns-y zone around 27-29 where everything falls to fucking pieces and you don’t even know who you are anymore and everything seems desperate and fraught and every decision seems horribly weighted with significance. Remember, though, it’s just a planet! It will go away! Soon you’ll be 30 and all this will be behind you. But yeah. If you’re having recurring dreams about not being a teacher, about getting offered any other job and taking it and feeling great, then I do think that’s significant. All my anxiety dreams about teaching involve being a BAD TEACHER, they don’t involve anxiety about the career of teaching itself. I do think it’s worth exploring the possibility of quitting, if these dreams feel heavy and real to you.

I have some questions that might make the right decision clearer:

What was it that you loved about your work, back when you had all those grinding yet rewarding jobs? You had a lot of enthusiasm and you loved teaching…has that changed? Are you teaching now, as part of your grad program, and does the nature of that teaching feel like it’s changed for you? And if you’re NOT teaching right now, do you think it’s possible that the weird specific hell of grad school has warped your feelings about teaching and about your future as a teacher, and that maybe that warping is like a funhouse mirror and it’s not actually how you really feel about teaching itself? I am not saying this is definitely what’s going on, but it could be. I know from experience that grad school kind of pulls apart your self-identity and your conception of your own future and you are left having to put the pieces back together again. So there is a sense in which intensely studying to do the thing you really want to do and are good at kind of tears you down. Because it’s like Socrates said–the wiser you get, the more you realize what an idiot you are. And that can be very sobering. Indeed, they literally killed Socrates just for saying that to a bunch of people, that’s how upsetting a concept it is.

But if your feelings about the work of teaching truly have changed–which is also completely possible! Our feelings change all the time. For example, I now find Channing Tatum charming–then that is fine. You don’t have to teach! You can do whatever you want. I still wonder though if sticking it out for one year and getting that credential might still be worth it. Because you never know–you might change your mind again later. You might try to strike out on your own as a freelance writer, and it might not work out, and then you might be like, damn, I wish I had gone ahead and gotten that stupid certificate that would now allow me to apply for cushy jobs!

So maybe transform your thinking and your ‘tude?

1. You have a passion you’re wanting to follow (writing): this is great. A lot of people have no passion and are boring and sad.
2. You are one year of struggle away from having a pretty legit backup plan, in the event that writing doesn’t pan out. Maybe one year of struggle is worth it, for a decent backup plan, in these troubled times?

Is this, like, the most staid and mom-like advice on earth? I feel bad because I feel like you probably wanted me to say “throw caution to the wind! Move to Brooklyn and start freelancing up a storm!” but I think I have gotten too old to believe that dream is as easy as that, or even as desirable as it may seem. I know people who freelance for a living and it took them like 10 years of epic hard work to get to the point where they could even pay their bills doing it. I just don’t think you can decide to start freelancing and then it is like a job where the regular money starts coming in right away. I think you have to spend a lot of time making contacts, building your reputation as a reliable writer, figuring out your strengths and how to market them, etc. And this is great, and could be 100% worth it, but you should just realize that you’ll be trading one kind of struggle for another.

Here is my concrete actual advice:
– Meditate on it. Get a tarot reading. Go to a yoga retreat. Go out into nature alone with a notebook and make some pro/con lists. Truly try to vividly imagine your two choices, how they would play out, how you would feel in each scenario. Try to find a place of calmness where you can envision yourself teaching at an actual job with vacations and benefits; and then envision yourself not teaching at all, but hustling to construct a freelancing gig for yourself. Which one makes you feel happier? Which one, when imagined fully and truly, makes you feel like you’d be on the path to the truer version of yourself?

If it’s teaching, then stay the course. You can do it. A year is nothing!

If it’s freelancing, then you need to devote the same amount of energy and hard work and focus you’ve been using in grad school to figuring out what freelancing even entails. So:

– RESEARCH THAT. How to freelance? Which writers do you admire and how did they build up their careers? Make concrete to-do lists. Make concrete lists of the kinds of publications you think your style would be a good fit for. Find out what those publications’ submissions policies are. And WRITE WRITE WRITE. Build up a portfolio of all kinds of different writing. And submit it all over the place! And propose stories to publications if you have a cool “in.” Like, is your cousin Banksy? Propose an insider profile on him to the New Yorker! Do you know someone who sailed around the world on a homemade boat? Can your Dad’s business associate get you an interview with Mark Zuckerberg? Also, what topics are Hot Sellers right now, in the mainstream media? Off the top of my head, I’d say if you can put together a story about insanely wealthy privileged white women deciding to be housewives and now they’re happier than ever, then you are in for a great career at the New York Times. Okay that was just me making a rude joke, but seriously, get a feel for publications and what kinds of stories they want, and get a feel for yourself and what kinds of stories you’re good at writing! Now, I am not a freelance writer, so I can’t give you concrete advice in this regard. I frankly don’t really get how it works–do you just submit stuff cold, or do you propose stuff first, or what? This is the kind of thing you need to find out and put on your list!

HOWEVER, I do know that this would be something you could not half-ass. So if this is the choice that feels right to you after you meditate seriously and sincerely upon it, get ready to work hard and have a laser-like focus on your goals. Be prepared to write and write and write and write and have it all be rejected. I just read a thing by a successful fiction writer where he says he still to this day gets 200 rejections a year. But he keeps on plugging. I think that if you really truly do want to drop teaching and become a freelance writer, it will make you feel a lot more grounded if you fully embrace doing a ton of research into that career, so you’ll know what steps you need to take, and you’ll know what’s awaiting you, and what a reasonable timeline is before you might become financially solvent. Right now it seems like it’s a hazy fantasy that you don’t actually know much about the realization of, and that makes it harder for you to decide.

I don’t think I answered your question. But maybe through trying to look at it from different angles, and from somebody else’s perspective, you can come to some new insights. This is why tarot cards are great–they trick your unconscious into revealing itself. If something I’ve said really resonates with you, then grab that thing and think about it! If something I’ve said feels totally off and wrong, then grab THAT thing too. The only real problem you have is that you don’t know what you really want to do, and once you figure THAT out, the rest will be easier.

and p.s. you can always write while doing something else. Last summer I wrote a 200 page novel for no reason. I never even showed it to anyone! I am a full-time professor who is also supposed to be writing books about J.S. Bach or something. If I have time to do something stupid like write a plague apocalypse novel, then you will too, as a teacher. If after meditating you realize writing is not necessarily your True All-Consuming Life Passion but more just like your way of envisioning something drastically different for yourself as a means of escaping the drudgery of grad school, then just know that if you enjoy writing you absolutely will have time to do it. Do you know how long summer vacation is, when you’re a teacher? It is LONG AS HELL. It goes on and on. It rules. It makes up for ALL the intense stress and 60 hour work weeks of the school year. You are down at the river on Wednesday afternoon while all your friends are at their dumb offices! You are ruling life! If you want to write, you will have the time to do so.

Did this even help at all???? Feel free to ask follow-ups, and also anyone who wants to weigh in in the comments, I’m sure we would both really appreciate that!!!

Posted in Opinion | 1 Comment

I Am 60 Going On 16

Dear Advice,
My mother is having a major milestone birthday this year, turning 60. For a while she has been saying she wants to go do this weeklong thing in Europe, then she started saying she actually wanted me and my sister to come with, that she was trying to find a way to afford this trip that would be like $18,000 all in. It was a vague request and admittedly a bit of a pipe dream–she just bought a house and said she can’t afford it. My sister (and her boyfriend) just bought their first house that is requiring a gut rehab that was not entirely anticipated. I have no money to spare for my own reasons and can swing maybe $600ish. My mom then decided we should try for Mexico instead that it would be cheaper, starts email us ideas. Mind you, by this point, both my sister and I have made clear neither of us can afford any trips even for ourselves–and suggestions that wemaybe plan for this for a year or two from now and just do something special on a smaller scale this summer–i.e. throw a party. Any attempts at real talk get nowhere.

Then, so, a few days after all of this, she posts on Facebook about how her daughters want to take her to Mexico for her birthday, do something special does anyone have any suggestions of where to go?I was flummoxed, but my sister straight up dialed my mom direct and was like WTF does this even mean? My mom was saying she was seeing if maybe someone she knew had a time share they’d offer for cheap or free–but was super defensive style–if thats what she REALLY wanted she could have just as easily posted “anyone have a timeshare in Mexico for cheap?” So, it’s become kind of obvious, through this and some other things, her fantasy includes us paying for the trip. Which is really profoundly awkward, because either we knowingly disappoint her or we go into debt, find some financing from an Angel Investor or something.

Meanwhile, my sister’s amazing boyfriend has been religiously socking away a little savings, for him and my sister, so they could do something “fun” at some point to get away from this nightmare house. He would literally do anything in the world to make my sister happy and so he offered to empty the savings to buy my mom whatever kind of trip, domestically, that they could swing in part because his mom is dead and if she were alive he would have liked to do something like that for her. Which just made me sob. I do not want to let him/them do that–I feel like it’s morally wrong to let them do that just because my mom is being overbearing and acting like she is turning 15, not 60. Do I put my foot down with her and say “tough titty, birthday budget is $1000, deal with it.”?

Thoughts?/Sorry this question is so epic.

“Worst Birthday Ever”,
Justin Beiber

OH NO!

I hate awkward parent stuff. I hate it! I feel for you and your sister.

Your mom is having this milestone in her life–a milestone we can’t really imagine yet, you know, I’m just starting to feel weird about 40–and admittedly the fantasy of her loving daughters taking her on a fun girl’s weekend to Paris or whatever does sound nice. But it’s a fantasy, and as adults we have to at least make a good faith effort not to act as though our fantasies are reasonable. I want Daniel Craig to declare his undying physical passion for me but it’s not gonna happen, and I’m not gonna post on Facebook about how it’s gonna happen in a vain attempt to MAKE it happen. We must marshall our fantasies and face reality with a smile. Your mom’s daughters are broke-ass 21st century 30-somethings. This is not an age when anyone can take their mom to Paris/Mexico/whatever. If you were Don Draper, sure, that would be a nice thing to do, but you’re not, and you aren’t going to be. Your mom, like moms everywhere, needs to realize who her children actually are rather than who she thinks they ought to be (millionaires?).

I think your call about acting like she’s turning 16 is pretty good. She’s passive aggressively trying to make her personal milestone a bigger deal to you guys than you are able to contend with, financially, and that is rude. She’s probably just weirded out by turning 60, which is totally fair. Handle her with love and gentleness.

Sometimes when my mom gets a weird bug up her butt about something unrealistic I remind myself of how kindly and lovingly and non-judgmentally she managed me when I was a teenager. I think the more grownup we get the more we should try to remember that our parents are just human people, like us, with weird bugs up their butt sometimes. I remember being 14 and screaming and crying and one time wedging myself down between the wall and the washing machine and literally yelling “YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND” at my mom. Can you imagine! How could anyone confront that with seriousness and gentle acceptance and calm words, rather than laughing so hard you peed your pants?? Only one time in my entire stupid life did my mom reveal her true feelings during one of these instances (she sprayed me with the garden hose). So now, when she freaks out about something, I try to remember that, and be kind and calm and gentle.

So don’t be mad at your mom. Be firm, but be loving.

1. There is no way you and your sister can afford a trip of this nature. Full stop. I feel like your mom would have to be literally a crazy person to still insist on a trip if you told her it would mean you guys going into debt.

2. There is no way your sister’s boyfriend should pay for this trip. OMG! On the one hand I totally value and commend the boyfriend for being so open and generous and I think that is beautiful. If he were Don Draper, I’d say, sure, that’s a nice gesture, go for it! But he’s not, and it’s up to you guys to not let that generosity get out of bounds–to not take advantage of his generosity. I can’t imagine your mom agreeing to this either! Would she really want her daughter’s boyfriend to drain his savings account so that she can go to Mexico? When you put it that baldly it just sounds bonkers. Surely she would not agree to this!

So yeah. I think you answered your own question. I think you gently and lovingly tell your mom:
– you love her so much, and if you had any money you’d give her the moon itself
– you appreciate that 60 is a big deal, and you want to honor that milestone with her
– you absolutely can’t go on a trip, full stop.
– BUT, here’s the crucial thing, I think you should then immediately pitch your alternative. Talk to your sister and actually make a rad fancy party plan, so that you can come at your mom with something more than just vague “maybe a party instead” ideas. Be like “a trip is not possible, but here’s what we want to do instead, SPECIFICALLY, does that sound awesome? It sounds so fun to me!” Like Don Draper says, always be selling (actually I think it’s “always be closing” and I think it’s from Glengarry Glen Ross. Still great advice, whatever it means)

I don’t know much about your relationship with your mom. I know everyone’s is different. For me, I struggled a lot with this weird conception of my parents as these super-natural beings who I couldn’t imagine ever being fallible and who it caused me anguish to imagine ever being even vaguely disappointed in me. Then after awhile I started confronting the fact that they are just people, and sometimes they’re jerks or they’re wrong, and they have their own weird foibles just like anybody else. And that has helped me to sometimes just gently say “that’s not correct you guys, I’m not going to do that” without feeling a lot of angst. Your mom is just a dude like anybody else! She’s being weird right now and it is totally okay for you to lovingly put the kibosh on it.

GOOD LUCK PLANNING THAT PARTY

Posted in Opinion | 2 Comments

The Ultimate Friend Challenge

I need ‘friend in an abusive relationship with a crazy person’-level advice–sorry for the wall of text, but this one is heavy.

One of my husband’s best friends (and my good friend) from college is a sweet and passive dude who has seriously a horrible track record in relationships. While we were in college, he was dating a shut-in type of lady, 15 years older than him, who was controlling and emotionally abusive, and an animal hoarder/abuser on top of that. They finally broke up, and everyone told him how relieved they were he was out of a toxic relationship, and he made a point to all of us that if he ever dated someone we thought was toxic again we needed to tell him.

Fast forward 6 months and he managed to find a new girlfriend. Let me state that I know the term ‘crazy’ is often used as a gross misogynist catch-all term, which aggravates me to no end–therefore I use the term only when I think it literally applies. And this chick is certifiable, DSM-IV level psychotic. There have been scary rage explosions in public, meltdown crying jags, comments in casual conversation about killing people and chopping up their bodies, rampaging paranoia that people are trying to poison her, etc. There was one particularly awful event at his own birthday party where we witnessed this girl berate and verbally abuse him in front of all his friends to the point where he was in tears. Now, we know that our friend knows she is crazy, that she’s bad for him, and he knows his friends think she is horrible for him–because, per his instruction, we were honest that we thought she was bad for him way back when they first broke up. Not unpredictably (I suppose, for someone who gets in a cycle of abusive relationships) there have been the repeated break-ups and reunions, and each time he’s been covert about it and obviously not proud of what he’s doing or comfortable with it–but it happens regardless.

Here’s where it gets more complicated, and where I feel like we as friends have screwed up and may not be able to recover ground. Our friend and his crazy girlfriend had been broken up for about a year (to our knowledge, probably not really), and recently she started showing back up with him at social functions. Our friend acknowledged they were back together, in a really ashamed and grovelly kind of way, to my husband–who reassured him that we wanted to be his friend and wouldn’t judge him, etc. etc. I don’t really know if my husband was straight with him and repeated any of the previous reasons given for why his friends thought she was bad for him; my guess is he was pretty passive about the whole thing. Time goes on, as we are interacting in groups with them, and my husband and I figure she must be medicated because she seems mellower. We thought okay, maybe things are not going so badly after all.

The Big Reveal of the Ongoing Crazy came one evening last month in which it was just me, my husband, our friend and his girlfriend, all sort of thrown together by circumstance into an unplanned couples-type outing. It quickly became clear that this chick was just as crazy as ever. She said a bunch of really creepy and violent things, raged at perceived slights, and there were a couple points when both my husband and I thought she was going over the edge completely because of something one of us had said. What is really unsettling about it is that a lot of the vitriol and crazy comments are directed at me–the only other female–and definitely seem to be part of her overall Crazy Matrix that involves complete domination of her boyfriend’s attention. Afterwards, my husband said he could tell the moment I just stopped talking because everything I said was causing her to start going off the deep end, and that at one point he really thought she was going to straight-up throw a punch at me. Bad scene, end of story.

After that my husband and I realized that our ‘second chance’ move was a really, really bad one, and we should have trusted our instincts and stayed clear of this girl. Our friend seems to have hit the reset button on all our past interactions with us about this girl’s suitability as his significant other. Since the Big Reveal, we’ve tried to get him to hang with us solo twice, inviting him over, and both times he’s come back trying to bring her along. The third time, we dropped the subtlety and straight out told him that we weren’t comfortable with her, and really wanted to spend time with just him. As you might expect, our friend has now completely retreated and isn’t talking to us, and we don’t know what the hell to do. Honestly, we are worried about his emotional and even physical safety with this chick, but can’t even have a rational conversation with him about it now.

WHAT NEXT? How do we help our friend? How do we stay friends if we can’t see him because he is attached at the hip to his crazy girlfriend? How do we help him help himself and stop making these awful toxic relationship choices? We feel seriously guilty and like really shitty friends over all of this, and don’t know what we can say or do that won’t make the situation worse.

Oh my god, how awful.

This is the ultimate advice question, isn’t it? This is the ultimate thing a person needs advice about so bad but that is the hardest to actually advise upon. I mean, first of all, please don’t feel guilty. What on earth? It sounds like you’ve done everything you possibly could do, up to this point. You’re not the one abusing him; you’re just the guy’s friend trying to figure out a way to help him. That seems really good to me. Also, please don’t imagine you can make this situation worse. It’s as bad as can be, already, and doesn’t have much to do with you anyway. Your friend himself has made it what it is, and only he can extricate himself. I remember my friend whose dad died, we were talking about how as a friend you feel scared to call someone whose dad has just died, because you don’t want to say the wrong thing. And she was like “news flash: nothing you can say to someone can make them feel ‘worse’ that THEIR DAD JUST DIED. What they’re going through is already the worst it could be–whatever you say, it’s just nice that you said something.” I mean, unless you are like “Hi friend, I’m really glad your dad died,” or something absurd like that. Anyway, my point is, don’t feel guilty, and, I think, don’t worry too much about making it worse. It’s pretty much as bad as it could be, right now, already.

As friends, we should take our responsibilities seriously, as you obviously know. Friends, social networks, loved ones, we have real responsibilities to one another. That is one of the points of having friends. We are supposed to support one another, and that means more than just signing off on everything someone does. Just like parenting! Parenting isn’t about just letting your kid do whatever it wants and then telling it what a genius it is. You’re gonna raise a sociopath if you do that! Real, actual support also means challenging a person, calling them on their bullshit, helping them through gnarly stuff, telling them your honest opinion, and, just like parenting, sometimes cleaning up their barf and in the morning telling them it was no big deal, even though it was. It was a big deal. We all know this, and yet it is incredibly sticky to actually navigate, when push comes to shove. And “push” in this case ALWAYS means your friend is dating somebody you don’t like. It is the Ultimate Friend Challenge. Very similar to drug addiction, I would imagine. Giving someone your “honest opinion” is sometimes very difficult. Sometimes even if you love a person with all your heart, your honest opinion is still that they are a fucking idiot, and how do you say that? And how do you know when it is helpful and loving to say that and when it is helpful and loving to keep that opinion to yourself? Thus, advice columns.

Because we are all different. I respond pretty well, actually, to being told I am a fucking idiot by a trusted loved one. But I know other people who would respond with utter raging vitriol and then never speak to the person who told them that again. So it’s also a case by case basis.

I think general consensus holds that the “honest opinion” becomes not only appropriate but downright REQUIRED at the point when the friend in question is being abused. That’s a no-brainer. BUT! “Abuse” is itself a sticky wicket. We learn about abuse in school and through television shows and it seems so clear cut. On your favorite 90s TV drama somebody’s boyfriend hits them, gives them a black eye, then they show up wearing big sunglasses and you’re like “how come you’re wearing those sunglasses honey” and then she takes them off slowly and you gasp and go “I’M GETTING YOU OUT OF THERE” and the situation gets more or less immediately fixed. Like as if just saying it out loud–“He hit you!”–breaks the spell and now everything can go back to normal, and your friend spends one episode crying in a women’s support group and then she’s fine.

But then you learn that abuse is a many tentacled and subtle beast. It’s not always the black eye and the sunglasses. Sometimes it’s verbal, sometimes it’s psychological. Sometimes it’s not a girl wearing the sunglasses at all, it’s a boy, and culturally we aren’t as well equipped to make safe spaces and challenging life-altering demands of men who are being abused, and that sucks. And you also learn that the whole thing where somebody wants to stay with their abuser isn’t always based on fear. It is sometimes based, confusingly and dreadfully, on a weird unravellable tangle of self-image issues, self-confidence issues, love, longing, and deep-seated notions of what is “deserved.”

A lot of people don’t feel they deserve healthy nurturing relationships. Or else they grew up in a house with fighting and so they are organically more comfortable with fighting than with calm conflict resolution. Or they think anyone who is nice to them must be a sucker. Or they had horrific manipulative controlling parents and so they are deep-down comfortable being treated that way, even if logically they know it’s bad. Or maybe they’re being blackmailed. Or maybe the sex is so astounding that literally nothing else matters. Who knows? This shit is a mystery. I think everyone else’s relationship is a mystery, even if they are the greatest couple in the world. It’s always hard to imagine what a given couple is doing/talking about/behaving like when they’re in private together.

I’m talking like I know anything about this issue, which I don’t. But I kind of think no one really knows what to do when they find themselves in your un-enviable position.

On the one hand, you owe it to this guy, and to the world, and to yourself and your conception of the responsibilities inherent in friendship, to DO SOMETHING. On the other hand, what would that something look like? It sounds like you’ve been honest with him. You’ve told him everything you think. You’ve even made the call to tell him you’re not comfortable being in the presence of his girlfriend! That is pretty crystal clear. He obviously knows what you guys think–hence all the covert shameful grovelling and everything–and moreover, he obviously knows, somewhere inside of himself, that his situation is bad and wrong and he should get out of it. You know? You don’t shame-facedly apologize to your friends for getting back together with someone unless you know deep down that you’re doing something wrong. I’ve been there–I’ve been the one ashamed and confessing to my friends that I was getting back together with my shitty college boyfriend. It’s humiliating. And the reason I was ashamed was because I straight-up consciously knew I shouldn’t be with him. But I was doing it anyway, for complicated embarrassing reasons that had a lot to do with not yet being a fully-fledged, self-actualized human being. Your friend sounds like he’s still locked in this mode of being too. But how do you transition out of it? And how do your friends help you do that?

I think the most common consensus among advice on this issue is that first you express yourself honestly and compassionately to the friend. You make it clear that you love them and don’t judge them and that you want to help them. You use “I” statements and you try not to sound accusatory or condemnatory–“When she made you cry at your birthday party, it upset me so much because I hated seeing you so upset” rather than “what kind of crazy motherfucker behaves that way??”–or better yet, you phrase stuff in questions–“when she made you cry in front of everybody at your birthday, how did that make you feel?” You work this angle for awhile, trying to get them to talk honestly about what is happening, expressing non-judgmental support along the way.

After awhile, when this doesn’t work, some people say you are supposed to deliver a loving ultimatum. You’re supposed to say “Seeing you treated this way is toxic and upsetting for me, and I am starting to feel that by continuing to be around you I am enabling or otherwise lending my unspoken support to this relationship. I love you and I am here for you, and the moment you leave this person you can come to my house and sleep in my guest room for as long as you want, and I will do literally anything in the world you need me to do at that point. But until that time comes, I can’t be around you anymore.”

This seems so fucking intense to me. And although this is very common advice that I have seen given by everyone from Dan Savage to actual domestic violence counselor-types, I have also read responses to this advice from people who say this is too cruel, unhelpful, that it withdraws support at the very moment when the person in question needs it most, etc. Unfortunately these people never provide a better option, from what I have seen. Because I also really don’t think continuing to hang out and talk and act like nothing is wrong, WHEN SOMETHING IS SO WRONG, is loving either. That’s not loving! You don’t just let your friend slowly die of a drug addiction in front of your eyes because you don’t want to hurt his feelings or whatever.

I am torn. Because on the one hand I think it can be so jarring to hear an ultimatum like this that maybe it makes you question yourself in a way you hadn’t before. When I was with the aforementioned shitty boyfriend there came a point where my best friend very calmly said “I can’t talk to you about him anymore, I’m sorry.” And at first I was stung, and annoyed, but then after awhile I was like “Jesus, what kind of maniac do you have to be for your best friend to tell you they’re not going to talk to you about a certain subject anymore?” and I got embarrassed, and concerned, and ultimately I ditched the dude. It took awhile, but I did do it, and in retrospect that moment with my friend was pretty pivotal, even though no direct change took place immediately afterward.

But on the other hand, you’ve all but said this stuff to your friend already. He knows how you feel. He knows her behavior is unacceptable. He knows his friends don’t even want to be in the same room with her! He knows. So part of me thinks all you can do now is wait for those seeds to take root and grow. Just like with alcoholics, you can’t force someone else to make changes in their life. They have to WANT to.

On the other hand, sometimes those seeds never take root, and a person just stays in a shitty abusive relationship forever until they die of old age, their life wasted and pointless, their friends all long gone. How horrible! But, a brutal bottom line is: you can’t live someone else’s life for them. You can’t make their choices for them; you can’t make them want the stuff you want for them. My mom’s been trying to get me to grow my hair out for 20 years and it’s not gonna happen and frankly I wish she’d stop fucking talking about it. But you should prepare yourself for this possibility. Not everybody blossoms into a fully actualized individual. Some people really do die unfulfilled failures. That is just the way it goes. All we can do is work really hard to make sure it doesn’t happen to us, and to help each other however we can, but ultimately we’re all on our own journey.

I have a theory which is that some people don’t want to be happy. Everybody says they want to be happy, but some people, it’s like over the years you can only come to the conclusion that they are deliberately making choices in an effort to never become happy. I think some people thrive on drama and anguish and uncertainty. Or they don’t even realize that a relationship doesn’t have to involve fighting and crying. Like it’s never even occurred to them. Maybe this feels romantic or artsy or maybe they were broken in childhood by shitty parents and this is just the way they operate, I don’t know. But after awhile you can only come to believe that people, on some level, WANT TO BE WHATEVER WAY THEY ARE. Even if they say they don’t. The only way to stop being whatever way you are is to do something different. If somebody is like “I know I should do the dishes honey but I just ALWAYS FORGET, oh woe is me, my mother didn’t teach me right!” then after awhile you know this person is full of shit. They don’t actually “know” they should do the dishes. If they “knew” that, they would fucking do it. They’re continuing to not do the dishes because you’re buying their bullshit; you’re letting them be a lazy asshole. If someone keeps dating the same kind of person, then that’s the kind of person they’re drawn to, and what are you gonna do about it?

I think we all want to be whatever way we are. And if a time comes when we don’t, then we change. This guy could leave this girl, even though he’s passive and easily controlled. It’s a free country, he could do it, and if a time comes when he fully realizes that he wants to, then he will. But you can’t make that time come. You can’t make him do anything. It’s the sad double-edged sword of friendship–you have to be honest while also realizing that your honesty a lot of the time isn’t going to change anything.

Now I am fully closing my eyes and meditating and trying to put myself in your position, to try to see what I would actually do.

Initial Actual Advice (there is additional Actual Advice after this part):

I think that, for better or for worse, I would probably go the ultimatum route. I would sell it as hard as I could. I would probably cry while delivering it. I would say things like “I can no longer just sit here watching you get abused, it makes me feel helpless and furious. I can no longer imply that I support you staying in this relationship by hanging out with you as a couple. You are being abused and it is making me crazy and I’m not going to be party to it anymore.” I would cry and probably beg him to leave her, which would be shocking and gross and he would probably get really mad. And he would feel abandoned and alone. Maybe he would even tell me I was a piece of shit, I don’t know. It doesn’t seem like it could possibly end well. But for me, that ultimatum would be at least partially selfish, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing, actually. Everybody is on their own journey, and you have shit to do, you can’t spend your life desperately babysitting other people for years and years and years. Have you read the great DFW short story “the Depressed Person”? It’s about this raving narcissistic depressed person and her multi-layered cyclical internal monologue about how ashamed she is about how ashamed she is about being depressed. She calls these girl friends, who she thinks of as her Support System. She calls them ceaselessly, every night, and just delivers this unchanging monologue about her own feelings, and her shame about those feelings, and her shame about how selfish it is to keep calling these people to express her feelings while also expressing her shame about those feelings. DFW satirizes this relationship by slowly revealing that the main member of this Support System is herself dying of cancer, but still patiently listening to this Depressed Person’s ceaseless monologue with kindness and compassion. Like as if the person dying of cancer is still obligated by the bounds of friendship to listen to this hideous constant unchanging stream of negativity, instead of being allowed to focus on her own situation, or to create positivity around herself, or whatever, just to have HER PERSONAL SITUATION as a human taken into account in any way.

It’s like, the longer this goes on without an ultimatum, the more the abuse is being allowed to leak out and touch other people. You’re starting to be in this abusive relationship, along with your friend. And that’s not good for anybody. You are obviously allowed to not hang out with someone who physically scares you; who stresses you out; who you don’t like. No one would argue with that. If I was actually afraid someone was going to punch me in the face, I would never hang out with that person again and no one could criticize me for it. So I think you are doing exactly right in terms of announcing officially that you will no longer be in the girlfriend’s presence, due to personal terror and disgust. You’re allowed to extricate YOURSELF from this friend’s abusive relationship. And after a certain point I think you are allowed to tell your friend that HE HIMSELF makes you feel these things, after all this time of him not changing and him expecting everyone around him to go on implicitly sanctioning his shitty life decisions, and that life is too fucking short for you to feel these things, and that you’re here for him but only if he leaves her. Maybe that’s not loving but I also don’t think it’s exactly loving to just keep supporting and supporting and listening and listening. Like after a certain point, that’s obviously not helping, and it’s a fucking drag for you, and if it’s not helping AND it’s a drag for you then what is the point. “I am not going to continue to be in this abusive relationship with you.”

So that seems cold and hateful, and maybe it is. But I keep thinking of when my friend told me she couldn’t talk about my boyfriend one single time again, and what an impact that had on me. I’m imagining if I were in a deeply toxic horrible situation and it just went on and on and on while I passively accepted it, and then if someone I loved harshed me out with that kind of ultimatum…I feel like it would be so shocking, such a jolt, that it might get my thinking channeled down a slightly different path. Even if in the moment I was pissed, or hurt.

And the other consideration is: what else are you supposed to do? You can’t even hang out with him. You’re losing him anyway; you might as well give the ultimatum a shot.

Brutal.

ACTUAL ADVICE:

There is also the Intervention route, where a whole group of people trick the friend into coming over for a high-society jewel heist (hopefully you get that reference) but then actually it’s an intervention, and you all go around the room forcing your friend to look into your eyes while you tell him all these things. And then you all collectively say, here is our ultimatum. If you choose this hideous person over everyone in this room, that’s that, you’re on your own.

Ugh! I hate thinking about it. But if you are all in agreement that might make even more of a jolting impact than your solitary ultimatum. God, can you even imagine? It’s the worst.

I think the Friendship Intervention is probably the best route, it’s just harder because people are notoriously afraid of confrontation and I bet it’s really hard to get a whole group of friends to agree to look someone in the eye and tell them their life choices are fucked up. But if you can accomplish this, I guess this would be my first-choice advice. It seems the most intense, the most hardcore, the most likely to have an impact.

But it is also like the last-ditch thing you owe to this guy, in your position as someone who loves him. It’s the last tool you have to use; it’s the last option. Beyond that, there is only sorrow and suffering and constantly having these horrific social interactions with this awful person who scares you, or else awkward hang-outs where you have to specify “do not bring your girlfriend.” The friendship will wither and die eventually under these circumstances. So really you have no choice, it seems to me.

BUMMER

I bet other people have very strong feelings about this–please weigh in in the comments. I am not an expert on abuse and maybe I’m also a bit of a cold-hearted monster, who knows? Please help this person!

Posted in Opinion | 5 Comments

long distance alienation and needing space

Hey there,
Maybe you can help me. How can I be more empathetic? I’m in a long distance relationship, and I’m finding it really hard to be as “present” as I should be/my girlfriend needs me to be. When she’s here visiting me or I’m there visiting her, it’s not a problem. We do our things, we do things together, and always at the end of the day, it’s nice to snuggle up and share our days. But I won’t lie, I like spending time by myself – the long distance thing is not a problem for me. I’ve dated lots of different people in my life and I’ve had long periods of being by myself, and I’m happy either way, as long as I stay in regular contact with people and don’t disappear into a work hole for too long. (Though I will say that being in a relationship is awesome, and I love my girlfriend and I definitely prefer being with her to being by myself.) Anyway, when we were first getting together, she moved away for a postdoc, and to try to stay together and get to know each other better, we started skyping every night. This was easy because she didn’t know anyone there and I have been working really hard to finish my diss, so I haven’t had too many evening engagements. We basically fell in love in a few weeks over the summer and then over skype and short visits every month or so. But as the semester went on, she was having a harder time than ever being in her new city. She wasn’t reaching out to anyone but me, and it began to stress me out. I didn’t realize that that was what was happening at the time, but in retrospect, it was and it was really hard. We spent the winter break together and were able to work through some of these issues. I had asked her to come a week later because I knew I would be really busy when her school got out, but she ended up coming anyway and I kind of shut down. But we worked it out, and things were really good for the rest of the break. Then she went away again and it was sad, and it felt like things were going to be better after all the processing we’d done over the break. We were in a different place than we had been when she first moved. We had been really honest about where we were at and what we wanted. She admitted that she had put too much pressure on me to be there for her in the fall, and I admitted that I could have handled her return a bit better, but said that I also needed her to understand that I’m in a really stressful place career-wise (finishing diss, on the market, etc.), and that I would need a bit more space for that. So all of that was on the table. So now it’s the spring semester. I can tell from talking to her that she’s having a really hard time out there again. I suggested gently that she try to reach out to people, establish some deeper connections with people she’s met there, but it doesn’t seem to help very much. She’s doing that a little, but fundamentally thinks that one year is not enough to really make friends, so has all but written it off. She just seems sad and even got upset when I replied to her a text curtly and without the usual sweet words one time. Meanwhile, I’m trying really hard to get my stuff done and sometimes just think about how I have to skype when I could be working. I know that it’s hard to empathize with someone who’s depressed, but that’s what I need to do, right? I hate to say it, but my usual pattern in these kinds of situations is to run. It’s hard for me to feel like someone is dependent on me. But I love my girlfriend and know that when we’re in the same place, she’s not like this. She’s also super-introspective, has a deep meditation practice, and is honest with herself, so I feel like we could work it out somehow. But even still, her brain tends to jump to the worst conclusion – that I’m cheating on her, or that I don’t want to be with her, etc., which are unfounded, but are also really challenging for me to handle, since they just make me mad and want to run away. I guess I’m wondering, should I learn to be more empathetic to other people’s vulnerabilities, or should I just resign myself to being a robot and try to find another robot to date. (By the way, I tried this in the past, and that person’s inability to commit was a problem…) Anyway, sorry this has been so extremely long. I would appreciate your thoughts.
I, Robot.

Here are my long, rambling thoughts on your letter:

There’s a lot going on here! I can really empathize with both you and your girlfriend, in this situation, and it also sounds like you guys actually talk honestly about this stuff, which is the main thing that has to be in place if the relationship is going to succeed. So my first reaction is to say that it sounds like you’re doing pretty well, actually, and handling it as best you can without doing anything I would label as dumb or immature! And neither of you sounds like an asshole! Which is great. Maybe there are some things to think about though that could kind of subtly shift the way it feels between you, and so that’s the next step. Lets try to identify some stuff.

My old man and I lived in separate cities for 3 years while in school, and so I really understand a lot of what you’re describing. We ended up talking a lot about How We Talk On The Phone, which was exhausting and boring. It’s like, one of us comes home from a weird day and wants to talk about it, and calls, and interrupts the other one while they’re trying to read Hegel, and the chemistry is just not matching up, and so then the first person gets their feelings hurt because the second person is being distant and weird, and then the second person has to, like, wrench their headspace around unnaturally in order to compassionately deal with the hurt being expressed, and then you talk for an hour about “when I can tell that you’re reading while you’re on the phone with me it hurts my feelings” and “when you don’t respect that I’m reading when you want to talk on the phone, it makes me feel marginalized” and after an hour you’re both like “what even is this conversation we’re having??”

I feel lucky that my old man and I were both more like you in this scenario–we were both very focused on our own work, and our own things, and although we missed each other, it was not that heart-breaking, really. We did not feel isolated and lonely and emo the way it sounds like your girlfriend feels. This is partly because we approached our 3 years apart as a SHARED GOAL. I’m sure you guys do too, but have you really verbalized it? That this distance thing is a shared obstacle that you are going to confront together, in order to come out the other end of it even stronger than before? I’m wondering if maybe you have not made it clear enough what the situation is, emotionally, for you? You say you have these robotic tendencies, and so I’m wondering, have you actually literally told her that you DON’T LIKE being apart, that you would MUCH RATHER be together? That this time apart is NOT IDEAL for you? Does she know that you feel that way–that you’re just making the best of a non-ideal situation? Or do you kind of keep her at arm’s length, just a little bit, like do you sort of let her know that you’re having this great time without her and you never think about her until she annoys you by Skyping you (JOKE, I am sure you do not do this). I just mean, my old man sometimes had the tendency to, like, sort of GUARD his emotional well-being by not letting himself get all mushy or emo, and sometimes it would be to the point where, like, I’d be coming to see him for a weekend, and I’d be telling him how excited I was, and then he’d just sigh and say “well, I’m going to have a lot of work to do while you’re here…” and it was so deflating and rude. In retrospect I know he was just trying to keep things realistic and balanced in the face of my tendency to be like “IT’S GOING TO BE FUCKING INCREDIBLE” but in the moment it felt like he was telling me “you can come visit if you want, but we aren’t going to be able to hang out that much,” which made me feel like, Jesus, buy your own $600 two-stop plane ticket, asshole! I HAVE HOMEWORK TOO!!!!

So that’s me thinking from your girlfriend’s point of view. Only because I am married to someone who can sometimes play things close to the vest and who is very good at compartmentalizing, whereas for me everything is in one big blob. Like right now, I am writing this advice, thinking about what I need to read for my article, going over my mental checklist about next semester’s readings, wondering if it’s time for another cup of coffee, and planning what I need to get at the store for dinner seven hours from now. For him, if he’s writing his dissertation, he’s not doing anything else. He’s not emailing, he’s not on facebook, he’s not listening to me when I ask him if we have anything planned for the 15th, he’s not eating or drinking water or caring for his body in any way. Like literally, if I went in there and put a bowl of soup by his hand for his lunch, I’d go back in 3 hours from now and it would still be there untouched and then later he’d be like “what’s this soup doing here??” A personality like that, it’s very easy for him to make a different kind of personality (loud blobby me) feel like he’s not even thinking about her for one second, even though he obviously loves her so much etc. Is this kind of like you and your girlfriend, a little bit? If so, my most concrete advice would be to not say things like “this is so easy for me! I don’t mind being apart at all” when you’re talking to her. Because even though I think it’s great that you’re able to not be all clingy and dependent, it’s also kind of like there’s a time and a place to say certain stuff and Skyping with your sad girlfriend is probably not the time to talk about how being apart from her feels exactly the same as being in a room with her (I know you aren’t literally saying this, I’m exaggerating because it’s funny)

So yeah, maybe try to warm things up a bit, in terms of your robot demeanor? Tell her you can’t wait to see her. Tell her you miss her. Let her know that the distance is hard on you–even though it’s not THAT hard, because you’re doing other stuff and you’re busy and you don’t have a super co-dependent personality (all of which is great!), don’t TELL her that it’s not that hard. Be like, “this sucks, I wish you were my normal girlfriend who I could ride my bike to go visit!” Also maybe say future-oriented things? “When we’re together over spring break, I want to do x, y, and z.” “When we live in the same city again, I think we should do x, y, z.”

One thing that is probably hard is that you are both academics (right?), so neither of you probably knows where you’re going to be living at any given time in the future. It’s very hard. But still, be future oriented, be warm and tell her you miss her and stuff, and don’t say things like “this isn’t that hard for me.”

I also have some questions. Is she moving back to your same city at the end of this semester? Is she on the job market? Do you have bigger life plans together? Are you actively trying to live in the same city or is everything kind of up in the air and unresolved right now? Because that unresolved quality might be making her feel more uptight and lonely and adrift than she’d normally feel. Which, there’s nothing either of you can do about that–the academic life being what it is–but still I’m just saying, there might be darker cosmic terror underlying some of her behaviors/feelings. Do you talk about those terrors or do your conversations about dissatisfaction revolve solely around the relationship? In my experience, getting away from the relationship talk and talking about bigger life fears can be really refreshing, and a good bonding experience. Maybe ask her about this kind of stuff, if you don’t already?

NOW, I’m thinking from YOUR point of view, and there are some things I would like your girlfriend to think about and try to be aware of. The first one is the very obvious fact that it is unfair and unrealistic to expect that your partner is going to provide everything you need, in terms of human life and contact. Your girlfriend was wrong to not try to make friends at her postdoc. A year is a long time, and there is always SOMEONE worth having drinks with once a week or whatever. Furthermore, even if that’s not true, and there is literally no one worth getting to know, it’s still not fair to put all her emotional eggs in the daily Skype conversation basket. Because she’s creating a situation where all that she brings to you is loneliness and desperation and neediness, whereas ideally you should both come to the Skype conversation full of stories about your days, interesting things that happened, funny things other people said, etc. etc. Instead, she’s creating an environment where, in spite of yourself, you’re going to start feeling a little nibble of dread in your guts when you go to make the Skype call. You’re going to be mildly steeling yourself for her depression, her neediness, her questions about if you’re cheating on her (!!). That’s not fun, and is also creating a gnarly cycle where if all you do is talk about your relationship problems, it makes you less and less desirous of talking to her, which makes her more and more clingy, etc. I believe in partners being wholly there and supportive of one another, but we also owe it to one another to cultivate rich, stable lives of our own, so that one person doesn’t bear the full weight of the other person’s needs. It’s so much better if you both maintain your own personal well-being and don’t have to have insecurity-based fights! It’s so nice to be out at a bar getting drunk with colleagues and to have your partner text you, “going to bed, can we talk?” and you text back “I’m getting drunk with colleagues” and he texts back “have fun! talk to you tomorrow honey I love you” and you text “I love you too” and you both go on about your evenings safe and happy and calm and thankful that there is no weirdness between you. I can’t imagine how stressful it would be if that text conversation could go any other way. I would hate it if he got mad or emo or passive aggressive and then I had to, like, step out into the street and have some tortured conversation with him while inside my colleagues are like “long distance relationship” and nodding knowingly to each other. YUCK!!!!!

So, I would ask her to re-think what this long-distance thing is really about. It should be at least partially an adventure, a challenge, a goal to be met and overcome. There’s a positive spin to be put on it! She’s doing something weird and different, living alone in a new city–that’s exciting, even if it’s also alienating and lonely. She should be trying to continue her relationship’s development across these new circumstances, rather than living in the past or clinging or trying to make it more than it can possibly be. ALL YOU HAVE right now are these Skype conversations, and Skype is not an ideal form of human contact, so instead of fighting or crying about it, isn’t it better to just ACCEPT that that is a fact, and cope with it accordingly, and try to find the stuff in the situation that feels like an adventure?

But so, now I want to say some things about mediated communication.

When we were first apart, my old man told me that he did not want to email anymore. He found it too alienating. He famously said: “You are not a white text box,” which is awesome and I think about it all the time. So we began our three years apart with no emailing and just once-daily phone calls, and by the end of the 3 years we were barely talking at all. Why? Because talking on the phone SUCKS. Hanging out in person IS BETTER. Full stop.

It took us like 2 years to fully realize that we hated talking on the phone. Talking on the phone is not the same thing as hanging out in person. When you live in a house with someone, you can be making a sandwich while he’s playing his football video game, but you still feel together. And when you’re hanging out with each other, you can also be snuggling, or patting the dog, or watching a movie, or listening to music. We realized that so much of quality hang-out time with a partner involves being QUIET together, or at least having long thoughtful pauses that don’t feel strange at all. But when the only connection you have is the phone, you have to be constantly verbalizing, which is exhausting and boring. And those long thoughtful pauses become creepy and horrifying. WHAT IS GOING ON OVER THERE?? We realized that a lot of what we would argue about wasn’t actually real–it was like we were arguing ABOUT THE PHONE. If you took the phone out of the equation, we actually had no issues. There were no issues when were together in person. The phone itself was the problem! Because it’s just like you point out–sometimes you don’t want to talk on the phone, because you’re tired, or you’ve been teaching all day and are sick of speaking, or you really want to watch Lost. Body language is lost over the phone, so there are all kinds of weird communication breakdowns where someone couldn’t tell that someone else was joking. Etc. Or that feeling of being on the phone and just eyeing your stack of Battlestar Gallactica DVDs and being like “uh huh….uh huh….” trying to hurry up the conversation while feeling guilty about it but really you’re just so tired and you want to watch your BSG and have a glass of wine. Which, if he were there in the room with you, you’d just do TOGETHER, and it would be great. But instead you have to be on the phone verbalizing every goddamn thought in your head, when frankly there aren’t that many thoughts in your head right now. Ugh!

Once we realized this, we actually started talking even less, and it was great. We’d talk every couple of days, instead of ritualistically every night. It was great! It became more like we called each other when we actually wanted to talk and had something to say.

Also, I wonder if you have an end date? The end date makes everything easier. It’s easier to go three days without talking when you know that in 97 days you’re going to live together again forever and ever. Once I knew I had gotten my funding and was moving to be with him again on June 1 or whatever, everything was a breeze. You have to have an end date, even if it’s super far in the future.

Okay, so, anyway: I don’t think you are a robot, but I do think it’s good of you to sort of recognize that you are more self-contained than some other people might be, and to try to compassionately deal with that facet of your relationship. And I don’t think your girlfriend is crazy, I just think she’s sad and weirded out and worried and not getting the right perspective on the situation. I think you should be a little bit warmer and she should calm down a little bit, and you’ll meet in the middle.

In conclusion, I will tell you my old man’s and my only real advice to anyone we meet now who is in a long-distance situation. People sometimes ask us “how did you do it?” and “it’s so hard, how did you get through it?” and our advice is very very simple: STAY CALM

Be cool
Stay calm
Don’t freak out
Keep it mellow
“Don’t Panic”

For both of you: Try not to fight over Skype. Try not to talk about The Relationship too much over Skype. Try to save that stuff for in person. Try to get some distance and see that talking through a computer screen is awkward and not the same thing as talking in person, and try to be compassionate about how the other person might be experiencing that mediation/your behavior/your statements. Do your own thing, have fun, fully engage with your own life, so that when you are together you have something real to build on TOGETHER. Obviously your girlfriend’s career is important to her and something she’s worked hard to get–she should try to revolutionize her thinking, to get stoked on the fact that she got a postdoc (I’ve applied to so many postdocs and not gotten a single one!) and is DOING IT, she’s doing this career she’s worked so hard to achieve! That’s so awesome! She should do it to the max, and her relationship with her girlfriend should be this wonderful comforting thing that’s always at the bottom of her heart and mind, like a lovely foundation of joy on top of which she can build other stuff that’s also good.

Anyway, not sure if that makes any sense. It’s a tough situation and I think from your letter it sounds like you’re very compassionate and aware, both of her situation and your own personality traits, and I think that is HUGE and probably the actual changes that need to get made are pretty small and more about just changing thought patterns and approaches. You can do it!

Posted in Opinion | 1 Comment

Vacation on the Cheap vs. Saving it up

Maybe this is a stupid question, but bare/bear with me here. My in-laws are going away on a vacation to one of the Virgin Islands for several weeks later this winter and have invited my partner and I to come down and stay with them for a little bit. The flights are not that much–our total outlay for the trip would probably be just under a grand. My husband is presently about to roll into months 6 of being unemployed, and his parents generously gave him a decent bit of cash for Christmas. At first I was like, no effing way should we use this money that is mini-nest-egg/suddenly we have a savings situation towards a vacation, but now I am thinking we should do this because there is no way we would ever be able to consider a vacation of our own if we had to pony up for a place to stay/rental car/food/etc. Meanwhile, there is also a miserly and frugal part of me that is thinking no way should we be spending money on anything that is not essential need at this time. Is a vacation being “a deal” a good enough reason to take it? Please help me out, so I am not forced to write to The Ethicist.

It’s funny to get this question, at a time in my own life when parental help/money/support is being hotly discussed in my own family and my feelings on said subject are being loudly broadcast to my long-suffering friend Steve. But this isn’t really what your question is about, so lets get going!

Vacations are valuable. They are good for your body and mind, they are fun for your kids (unless your kids spend the entire vacation barfing and then you start barfing too, AHEM, which is what happened to someone I know recently), or maybe they offer time AWAY from your kids, which, as a non-parent, when I imagine being a parent, I imagine wanting time away from my kids desperately and at every moment of every day, 100% of the time, which I realize is probably not how actual parents feel. But anyway, vacations are relaxing, etc. Like a massage, they are good for you, and thus they definitely have value. Unfortunately, money also has value. Trying to weigh the relative values of things/time/experience vs. actual money is one of the ultimate problems of life in this grueling capitalist corporatocratic nightmare in which we are all so thoroughly enmeshed.

My mom and dad are good examples of different ideologies w/r/t all that. My mom won’t spend any money, ever. She will paint her house all by herself; she will haul lumber; she will walk 10 miles; she will take outrageous four-stop two-day flights just to get from Denver to Dallas–all this and more, if it means saving money. I am exaggerating, but honestly some of her choices continue to surprise me. Or like one time she made the entire family stay at a super long concert of acoustic guitar music even though everyone, including her, wanted to go home at intermission, because we had paid for the tickets. It doesn’t make any sense. My dad on the other hand is more fully invested in the idea that your time and comfort and happiness are also worth money. So, if painting the house himself is a task he dreads, and if it gives him weird blisters, and if he’d really rather be reading a novel that whole time, he’s comfortable assessing the value of paying someone else money-value to do it instead. My mom’s genes are the reason I used to take a 3 hour 3-transfer bus ride to the Long Beach airport to save $50 flying Jet Blue; my dad’s genes are the reason I go out to eat constantly and don’t have a savings account. HELP

MAKE A LIST:

1. first you should assess the value of going on a vacation. Are you really longing for a vacation, and have been wanting a tropical break for a long time, and so this cheap one is like, hooray? Or are you more like “I guess a vacation would be nice” and then you feel sort of like you OUGHT to take this vacation DUE to its cheapness? When you picture this vacation, does it just seem like thank god, finally you can relax for a second? Or do you imagine taking your laptop and trying to get work done while you’re there, and other such? Try to honestly evaluate how much you actually want to go on vacation–and on this particular vacation at this particular time. If the answer is “not desperately,” then maybe hold off? I can’t really tell from your letter if you and your partner have been dying to go on vacation or if it’s more like his parents made this offer and now you’re like, well, it’s so cheap, maybe we should do it.

2. next, evaluate this nest egg situation, though. Because having a nest egg is fucking important and nest eggs are hard to come by, and if your old man doesn’t have a job waiting in the wings, it’s like, do you spend this nest egg on a vacation and then you don’t have a nest egg again for years? That seems super stressful and like you would need a whole other vacation just to recover from the stress! How good does a nest egg make you feel, vs. how bad do you want to go on vacation? Other considerations: when will your husband get a job, what are your possibilities for one day soon re-earning a nest egg if you spend it on vacation; what kinds of unexpected expenditures could possibly arise in the next several years; how long would it take you to re-save this nest egg? If the answer is several months, that’s different than several years, or never. Or like, if he has a good job looming in the future, I say go for it, but if he doesn’t, maybe don’t go for it.

Get into full lotus pose, close your eyes, and fully immerse yourself in each choice. First the vacation, then keeping the nest egg. Which one makes you feel the happiest/calmest? This is usually all you need to know.

Personally, while I totally appreciate the value of the nest egg, I’m also a bit of a nihilist or whatever–I have the tendency to kind of shrug and be like “we’re all going to die anyway, who cares.” My dad says money is pointless unless you spend it on shit that makes your life awesome (he doesn’t say “shit” (or “awesome”)). My mom says life is pointless if you don’t have enough money for when you’re old and have Alzheimers. Which of them is more right???

I also have never gone on a real vacation, so I don’t even know. My friends K and N are famously thrifty penny-hoarders but they religiously go on a real vacation every year. If it’s that worth it to them, there must be something really important about it. I want to go on vacation someday, to someplace where I get a drink in a coconut.

To sum up my advice, it is that if you guys have been really wanting to go on a serious vacation but have been not doing it because of money, then this seems like a great opportunity and you should probably do it and not feel guilty. On the other hand, if you have been longing for a nest egg and now you finally have one, and it makes you feel so secure and good, then probably don’t do it. You ask “is a vacation being ‘a deal’ a good enough reason to do it” and I say NO, not on its own. But if it’s a deal AND you’ve been jonesing for a vacation and feel like you really really want one, then I say YES.

Regardless, I think whatever decision you make, you guys are going to be okay. It sounds like you have your shit together and also like you have a nice supportive safety net in the form of some parents who you even like well enough to go on vacation with. I think you will be fine either way! If you want to do it but feel GUILTY, then do it! Guilt is a terrible reason to do/not do anything. Your decision should be rational and based on what would make you feel the coolest.

This seems unhelpful! I’m sorry!

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Un-Friending

I really need to un-friend someone on Facebook, but I don’t want to ruin our relationship. We are bound by friends & family. Outside of Facebook we have always gotten along. I am moderately liberal, but my friend is extremely right-wing. For instance: Glorifies Beck & Fox News. Believes Obama is trying to destroy our country. Believes that Sandy Hook is a scam. I am not bothered overly by that. I mean, it irks me, but they have a right to their opinion.
It’s the Facebook posts and comments that are so crude: insults, name calling, being disrespectful (not directed at me specifically, but at everyone that doesn’t agree with him: i.e. stupid idiots, heads up their asses). I just want our relationship to revert to pre-Facebook status, but I don’t know how to go about it without being insulting & judgmental myself.
I’ve tried to not read the posts & removed him from my daily news-feed. It didn’t work. I’m drawn to his page & all it does is upset me.
So you see, I’m the problem!

Help,

Well, this is my first advice question relating to facebook etiquette! I’m excited. As you may know, awhile ago I quit Facebook completely for one full year due to basically the same thing you’re describing here. It was after the Giffords shooting in Arizona and I just couldn’t bear all the stupid things my stupid friends–and some of my smart friends’ stupid friends/family–were posting, and I couldn’t ignore it, and finally I was like, what is the point of this. Do I really wanna read some person’s dumbass father explaining how the Giffords shooting is Giffords’ fault for being too liberal? I finally quit after I found myself shaking with rage and composing a vast comment defending Matt Damon in response to somebody’s clearly-uneducated/super old weird dad. I had this flash of awareness, like, what is this that I’m doing? I don’t need to do this.

I quit for a year, and it was truly a great year. I think about doing it again, often, and would, were it not for the fact that facebook is the perfect venue for my particular brand of pithy humor (joke)

Anyway.

Un-friending! I think it depends on how up in his friends’ biz your friend is. You know? If someone un-friended me, I would straight-up not notice. It would have to be SUCH a close friend for me to ever even notice I wasn’t seeing them in my feed anymore or whatever. I never “go to someone’s page,” ever. I just look at the feed totally passively. I don’t even know how the feed works anymore, and I don’t know who can see my updates, etc. The whole thing is baffling. But so, yeah, if someone unfriended me I would not notice. I have no idea how many friends I have on there. Do you think this guy is like me? If so, un-friend away, you have nothing to worry about.

If your friend is the obsessed-with-“friends” type though he might notice and then it would get awkward I guess. However, if it did get awkward, you could always just say “I really like you in real life, and I value our differences, but on Facebook I find that sometimes your posts stress me out, because the format is not conducive to reasonable conversation. I’d rather just talk to you in person, is that okay?” and he will probably be like “I can understand that” unless they are legitimately a weird crazy person, which, no offense, but Sandy Hook is a scam? Just saying. Scam for what, like a credit card company? Like Obama planned it so he could make tepid half-assed comments about “doing something” about guns? Anyway, I think everything is a conspiracy, so I guess I shouldn’t talk.

It’s hard for me because I already have un-friended all of my vocal right-wing friends, with nary a thought for their feelings. They were mostly random people from high school, or some girl my brother used to know, or something. I have zero feelings of remorse or awkwardness about this. But in this situation, it sounds like you do like this guy and want to maintain some sort of actual relationship with him.

So that is what I would do. I would just un-friend him, hope he didn’t notice, and then if he did notice I’d say something really loving and gentle, and I’d also make it more about ME than about HIM. “I’ve just been getting so stressed out by Facebook, I think I just need it to be only funny cat videos and no politics, so I’m un-friending people who talk a lot about politics.” You know? Making it not specifically about him/his politics. You could even lie and say you un-friended a bunch of people who constantly posted about how the meat industry is the main contributor to global warming or whatever. Then be like “I guess it’s practice for when I inevitably quit Facebook altogether, ha ha,” and then hopefully the conversation can move on to other climes.

No shame!

I think it’s perfectly reasonable to guard one’s facebook life–one’s internet life–with some vigilance and to try to make it as much of a safe space as possible. Some people don’t feel that way, which is also fine. Some people really like the raw fucking internet, the in-your-face internet. They read the comments! Those people don’t mind encountering bonkers shit in their facebook feed. They love a fight, they’re ready to go. I feel like, I love a fight, but I want it to be in person, and amongst equals, and without 8,000 random strangers looking on and weighing in with weird un-helpful shit.

If you’re a lover, not a fighter, I say un-friend all the crazy gun-nuts and let god sort them out.

Additional advice: if you feel like you’ll un-friend him, and he might notice, but then instead of confronting you he’ll just get weird and emo and quiet, and that would be terrible, then you COULD email him to tell him you’re un-friending him. Say all the same stuff–oh, I just want FB to be cat videos, I don’t like seeing political stuff, I really prefer to talk about that stuff in person, I’m un-friending a bunch of people who like having political fights on facebook, it’s not personal, I’m just dramatically taking creative control of my facebook experience.

I think that’s the best you can do, and that it has good odds of working out. What do other people think? I might be overlooking something crucial, so let me know.

Good luck!

Posted in Opinion | 3 Comments