Love among the ruins

Salon's new advice columnist addresses the perils of post-Sept. 11 romance, fear of being fat, a best man's toast that went too far and other scenes from the human dramedy.

By Cary Tennis

Published October 17, 2001 7:41PM (EDT)

Ignoble responses to good fortune are many, but noble ones are few: gratitude, humility, happiness, commitment. Of bad fortune, the noble responses are also limited: acceptance, determination, grief, self-examination. For the one, you thank the gods; for the other, you refrain from blame.

As to my own good fortune, well, I'm feeling lucky today, having been asked to continue the tradition of Salon's advice column, memorably created and ably conducted lo these three-plus years by writer and radio host Garrison Keillor.

How this came to be is both simple and mysterious: simple because one day as our daily meeting at Salon was breaking up, I asked if a successor to Mr. Blue had yet been found and was told no, so I said why don't you send me the sample questions. I figured I'd give it a shot, help out if I could. I answered the sample questions. The editors liked what I did. They called me into a room and offered me the job. I said I was honored and flattered.

But mysterious because, having had my share of disappointments, I treat every bit of good luck like a marvelous non sequitur. More about that later, but for purposes of writing an advice column, let's just say that I've been through enough to be comfortable with misfortune; I've learned how to listen and how to not know the answers. And now, not knowing the answers seems paradoxically key to giving them.

When people ask for advice, sometimes there's just something right in front of them that they can't see but you can, because of where you're standing: Look, see that speck? That must be the source of your itch. Others just need somebody to say yes, go ahead, book the cruise, write the resignation letter, buy the ring. Sometimes we're hoping to be let off the hook, but what we need is to take a good look at why we're on the hook in the first place. And sometimes there are no answers for a tough situation except to put your head down and keep going, and we just need some encouraging words from the sidelines.

I guess I do have an overall philosophy, but the short version sounds cheap. So let's hope it gets revealed chapter by chapter in what I say about particular situations.

Anyway, I know doing an advice column is not like being elected president, but for me it's a pretty big thing. And I know I am not Mr. Blue. Scientists say I never will be. So thanks to all who wrote, and especially to those Mr. Blue fans who wrote to his yet-unknown replacement and encouraged him to "just be yourself ... To thine own self be true." I'll do my best to follow your advice.

Dear Cary,

I began dating a smart, athletic, fun and funny man in July. He is nearly 30 but has had only fleeting relationship experience. I was deeply smitten immediately. He expressed discomfort at the force of my feelings, but his body language and actions often contradicted his words (holding hands, kissing, when I meet his friends they always seem to know a lot about me, etc.). He'd say he feels "pressured." And when I asked what I was supposed to do about it, he'd say, "I just need to say it out loud, and for you to hear it, but you don't have to change anything that you're doing."

Then Sept. 11 happened. He and members of his immediate family worked in or very near the towers. They all saw and felt unspeakable things. The next day, when I saw him for a few hours, he alternated between drawing me closer and pushing me away, both physically and emotionally.

The next weekend, he invited me to go away with him. He told me he wanted to be friends. But again, his body language and actions conveyed otherwise. When I pointed this out, he said, "Maybe I am confused." For a whole day I was petulant and resentful. I was hurt and exhausted from riding the seesaw of his words and actions so I called a time out and said we'd make no plans or even talk much, for a few weeks.

During this period of "no talking," he's e-mailed me nearly every day. Just "Have you seen this article?" kind of messages and others on business matters that affect me. The volume of his e-mails is far greater than before. I want to be supportive of him if he is suffering post-traumatic stress, but I want to protect myself from his swinging emotions, too. Most of all, I want to be in a relationship with him, but a secure one, because I feel that we have so much in common, and are compatible in ways that I haven't experienced with anyone else.

I know he needs space, but how does one go about giving a person space during a time of need? I have a forceful personality (perhaps the key to the problem?), like things to be black or white and am uncomfortable living in the gray, so I need a little guidance on how to tread this unfamiliar ground.

Exasperated and guilty to be having such inconsequential issues in this time of collective sadness

Dear Exasperated and guilty,

We're all on unfamiliar ground after Sept. 11. In fact, the ground is so shaky it's all we can do to step carefully, the way one walks on a railroad trestle, eyes just a few feet ahead. We can't afford to gaze about us, or look too far down the tracks. Perhaps you are steadier on your feet right now and can lend him a steadying hand. But perhaps giving him a hand might throw him off balance. (In fact, maybe that's what happened. Have you ever startled a blind person by grabbing his elbow to guide him? The unexpected and unseen "help" throws him off balance. What blind people often like is for you to present your arm so they can take it and use it as they need it.)

When I was a kid, I tried making trees talk and making stones fly, just by persuading them, talking to them. The truth is that you can't persuade stones and trees, nor can you control people; they're as distant as the stars, as unreachable as pebbles. You have to stop trying. No matter the illusion of togetherness that comes of conversation and sex. Accept the distance.

If all you care about is whether he becomes the right kind of lover, perhaps you should move on. There's no telling what's going on in his head, and he has expressed resistance to your program. But if you care about his well-being, perhaps you could perform a little act of mercy by simply being there for him. Maybe it will work out the way you wish it would, or maybe you will have to content yourself with having done a kind and not altogether selfish deed in a time of fear and uncertainty.

And how do you give him space? Just decide how much you want to give him, and give it to him. But how do you measure it? It's a matter of frequency. E-mails three times a week, phone conversations twice a week, dinner once a week, that sort of thing. But don't tell him you're giving him space. Just do it.

Dear Cary,

I weigh 250 pounds, and I've been this overweight for my whole life, including when my boyfriend and I started dating. He says he loves me the way I am, and he'd like to get engaged on New Year's Day. I'm afraid, though. He's been totally loyal for the two years we've been dating, but I'm worried that someday he's going to wake up and really look at me and realize how big I am.

He's a wonderful boyfriend, and I know that in every other way I'm the perfect woman for him. We go to the same university, have the same interests, the same goals and dreams and we're just really happy and comfortable together.

I worry because so many people seem to think that nothing else matters except a woman's weight. What about when we leave school and our friends, he makes new friends who might tease him about me? Also, he's probably going to go far in his career (as am I) and I don't want to be an embarrassment to him at company parties. So I guess my question is, will he always love me, or will he start to resent me and feel embarrassed of me eventually?


Dear A,

If all you've got is fear about the future, you're doing great. People leave people for all sorts of reasons, and there's not much you can do about it. People leave people because they're too thin, too mean, too short, too tall. People leave people because they're just unhappy. You sound happy and like you have a great future. So here's the thing: Do not deprive yourself of what you might have just because of some fear of what might happen in the future.

A couple of weeks before you wrote your letter, some people crashed airliners into the World Trade Center towers and killed thousands of people who probably had all kinds of worries about the future but they didn't even get to find out what would happen. You get to find out.

Go for it. There's no reason to believe that what you fear will come true. It's just fear. Why not try to put it aside and just be grateful for this guy who loves you and who you love.

Dear Cary,

I have a somewhat irritating problem. I live in a midsize city in the South and have decided that it is not the place that I want to stay, long term. However, I am in love with a man who will not leave this city. He is a wonderful, generous, sweet man who is just addicted to being close to his family and this town! I feel as if I should travel, perhaps go out West. What should I do?


Dear Hippiegirl,

Sure, you should travel, go out West, but I have to say, if it were me, I'd keep living in the city you're in. I left the South years ago to go West and I guess I'm kind of glad I did, but I yearn, yearn, yearn for family, roots, smallish city, family. It was very hard, and I got quite lost in this alien culture, rootless, full of people just like you and me: restless, too good for where they came from. What you have sounds great.

Why don't you figure out the specific things you don't like about your city, and find solutions? Is it the heat? Is it certain things the people do, like talk too slowly or display prejudice. Do they hold the door open for you when you don't want them to, is the architecture too boring, are there no mountains nearby, does an air of segregation hang over the city like a dull memory of slavery?

Are the people boring? Seek out people who dislike the city as much as you do. Need museums? Go to New York. Develop a long-term visitor's relationship with great cities like San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. I live in San Francisco, I work a block away from the Museum of Modern Art, but do I go there? Well, when my mom visits, yes.

OK, I'm a bit funky culture-wise, but it's not uncommon for those of us who leave everything behind and come to a big city to find ourselves so consumed with work and survival that we don't take advantage of all the cultural opportunities there are.

Stay put. Love this guy. Get to know his family. Buy a nice big house for a song. Start a sophisticated group of arty friends and thumb your noses at the locals. And travel.

Dear Cary,

My husband has decided the best man at our wedding seven months ago is out of his life. The ex-best man was never a true friend, he says. He felt obligated to make him best man because he introduced us. He is also deeply angry at the best man's speech at the wedding, which he claims made him look like a loser in front of my family and friends.

Well and good. The problem is that I have known the ex-best man for almost as long as my husband and feel no compelling reason to end the friendship. I enjoy the occasional coffee with him. We exchange witticisms and gossip. It is not a deep friendship, but one that I feel adds to rather than detracts from the quality of my life. My husband remains an awkward subject between us, for obvious reasons, and I haven't the heart to tell him that, not only does my husband not care about getting an apology for the speech, but he never wants to see his "friend" ever again.

Almost all of our friends are part of this man's wide circle of friends, and have expressed astonishment at my husband's behavior. They all thought the wedding speech was highly enjoyable. And they have told me that if my husband will not have anything to do with his former friend, they will have to exclude us from social functions, not him.

Soon it will reach the point where I have to choose whether to go out to dinner with the group of friends while my husband stays at home. I don't wish to behave like a singleton when I am married. But neither do I wish to break off all contact with these people because my husband has decided that they do not meet his standards of friendship, and who needs friends anyway?

I've tried talking to him, but he is adamant. And it's getting harder and harder to defend his behavior when I do run into these people.

What do you suggest I do? Agree to stop seeing the ex-best man, as my husband would like? Maintain the friendship and pretend there isn't a problem? Wait for my husband to have some kind of Damascene change of heart? Please help!

Loyalty schmoyalty

Dear Loyalty,

I think your husband is being unreasonable. If this were my movie, when the best man found out that the husband was insulted by his speech, he would understand immediately that his attempt at lighthearted roasting had gone too far, and he would go see the husband and offer his apologies; he would try to take the husband out to dinner or lunch, and, if the husband refused, he would just tell him right there in his office that he was sorry, and the husband would feel bad about not having been able to accept some ribbing, and he'd try to do some ribbing of his own, except he'd do it clumsily and really insult the best man, and then they'd tumble into a fountain and have a punching match. And the movie would be all about these two guys and how they misread each other, and how they were drawn together by this lovely woman but they were the odd couple. OK, I know this isn't a movie. What I really believe you should do is not let your husband ruin your social life. So continue to see your friends and if your husband won't come, let him stay home. Maybe he'll enjoy his alone time.

Dear Cary,

I have been aware for some time now that I am a compulsive liar (I'm 28 now). I lie about things expertly (or at least I like to think so), embellish already interesting stories unnecessarily and sometimes end up embarrassing myself when I trip myself up with my fibs. Do you have any advice on how to stop (aside from telling myself to stop, which I'm already doing with slight success), and any insight on why I do this when on the surface I am an intelligent and fairly together woman? Thanks for any advice you can offer.

Verbal Diarrhea-ite

Dear verbal Diarrhea-ite,

Nonfiction can seem boring if your senses are worn out or overloaded, but if you get down there on the ground and really look at the ants, they're pretty interesting. Sometimes you need a magnifying glass to make the truth shine; sometimes you just need to be hit on the head to remember that we are actually living through history right now, and that even the barest fact is a bit of a miracle. You, for instance: Even the slightest truth about you is more valuable than the biggest lie; I'd much rather know what kind of car you had as a kid than hear you lie about what college you went to or what celebrities you know. The facts of your life are fascinating if you cultivate them. Work to perfect a persona of enchanting but rigorous verity.

Cary Tennis

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