Existential ennui and too many dates

Life is hard when you have too many women, but you haven't yet figured out how to handle preoccupation with mortality and pointlessness.

By Cary Tennis

Published March 5, 2002 8:41PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I am a 24-year-old male, exceptionally attractive, socially skillful, pursuing an advanced degree and talented in many ways.

I also have very little trouble meeting beautiful and intelligent women, have a very stable family life, do not need for much in terms of material goods, spend most days of the week laughing with a truly special group of friends, take great pleasure in many of the arts, including poetry and music, both of which I have been blessed with a bit of an ability to produce, and am spending my 20s in one of the more cosmopolitan cities in the country.

My question is this: What's with the unwavering, insufferable (however quotidian) preoccupation with mortality and the inescapable suspicion of the pointlessness of all of this?

Waste of Life

Dear Waste of Life,

Are you in the cast of "Friends"? If you're not in the cast of "Friends," whose preoccupation are you talking about? Yours? I can't tell, because of your oblique way of asking the question. But if it is your preoccupation, that's normal. Being clever, delighted and distracted by life's amusements is not the same as being happy and contented. You cannot be happy and contented without facing your own mortality and other disagreeable aspects of your short stay in this strange hotel.

If it's other people's preoccupation that bothers you, however, you could just be shallow. If it seems silly to you that other people your age are fearful of death and concerned with the ultimate meaning of their lives while you're on the guest list for Alicia Keys and you just ordered the last fillet of Chilean sea bass, that might explain it. In which case, cheer up. Shallow people don't often commit suicide and are infuriatingly healthy, so they often live long enough to become fearful of death and meaninglessness themselves, and sometimes thereby acquire a patina of depth.

Or do I still misunderstand? Are you saying that it's those other people who seem to be preoccupied with mortality who are insufferable posers, that it's just an act? If they wear thick black eyeglasses and talk loudly about Baudrillard in crowded restaurants, they may indeed be posers. In that case, I understand completely: You're reacting with understandable irritation to their presumption that others are impressed.

Rule No. 1 of life: Others are not impressed.

But frankly, you sound too happy and clueless to live. You're bound to be headed for a fall. So watch your step, handsome.

Dear Cary,

In three months I'll graduate from college, and my life is in danger of splintering apart. When I was 19 I fell in love at first sight with a charming, funny, smart, sensitive man of 24, who lived in the City [New York]. For two years we commuted back and forth between his nice apartment and my campus digs, and I spent two happy summers living with him. Well, mostly happy -- by the end of this past summer I was convinced that if he was going to be It I needed more experience, emotional and physical. So we arranged to take exactly three months off in the fall, during which time I desultorily pursued a few oddball boys while thinking of him, and he worked a lot and waited for me.

We got back together at the appointed hour and spent a stormy two months working out the issues we should have dealt with earlier -- his tendency to get involved in work or fun and temporarily forget about me, and my failure to conform to the dream-girl illusions he nurtured for so long. Finally, it seemed that we had reached a new level of honesty and communication, bliss in bed and holding hands in Central Park. He asked me to move in with him for good after graduation, and I agreed with pleasure.

I have a lot of confidence in our future based on how good things are when we're together, but when we're apart he shows this disconcerting tendency to block out my existence, and I get extremely resentful and hysterical.

Enter a tall, dark, anguished, angry, funny, sweet, guitar-playing poet of a boy, a mere freshman with whom I barely realized I was flirting until he started leaving strange gifts on my doorstep, including CDs of his songs. He ended up in my bed two weeks ago after a night of extreme intoxication and entreaties, and somehow hasn't gone away yet. This is obviously the boy I should have had the fling with last semester. Now on top of finding a job, writing my senior thesis and all the normal anxieties of graduation, I have to call my whole relationship and the plans of the past two years into question over my incipient attraction to and affection for this kid with his uncombed hair sticking out?

Do I: Come clean, throw myself on my man's mercy, postpone moving in indefinitely? Indulge this fling, maintain secrecy and stay with my man? Or maybe break with the past completely and follow this new thing as far as it's going to go?


Dear Torn,

I think you have demonstrated that you do want a committed relationship and you're capable of the hard work and compromise it involves. So your fling with the freshman sounds like what you refer to as "more experience, physically and emotionally." If I were you, I would, in the kindest and most romantic and elegant way you can, break it off with the boy and go back to your man. If the only problem you have with the love of your life is his tendency to forget about you when you're not there, you have very few problems indeed. That is a common source of conflict between men and women, and you'll be able to work it out.

The real problem is that you're still quite young and there's a lot of living to do. You really have to be sure that you're not trying to be single and committed at the same time. Will the itch go away after one fling? No. You're going to have to sacrifice further "experience" if you want to live with this guy in a committed, monogamous relationship. You really have to be ready to do that. Should you tell him about your fling if you go back? Probably. Better now than later, when he might rightfully wonder what other secrets you've been keeping.

But if you're not ready, don't kid yourself. Be a single girl in New York.

Dear Cary,

I'm 18 years old, a graduating senior in high school, and I think I've found the love of my life. I've been with her for over a year -- "with" being in the figurative sense; it's a long-distance relationship, so I see her for a few days to a week at a time every month and a half or so. When I'm not with her, I talk to her every day on the phone or online, often for hours at a time. She's my best friend, confidante, the funniest person I know, the only person who's ever really told me I'm beautiful. She's dependable, a wonderful kisser, great in bed, adorable, snuggly, and waking up next to her is such a wonderful feeling that I can't even begin to describe it. We're just different enough that we have healthy arguments and can check each other's imperfections and similar enough that we always have something to talk and laugh about. We share everything. I'd never dreamed that such a fulfilling relationship could exist, and now it's mine.

But I'm no fool. If there's one thing I've learned in all my years as a child, it's that those oft-repeated admonitions of adults, though they seem ridiculous at the time, usually end up being true. And one of the most familiar of these is that "You can't know what real love is until you're older. When you grow up, you'll look back on all of your teenage relationships and realize that you were just confused or infatuated." If it weren't for extenuating circumstances, I wouldn't give a rat's ass and would just follow my heart; however, I may have to make a difficult decision in the coming months.

Education has been valued in my family far more than monetary success. I have applied to six colleges, and I am ashamed to admit that I would not have applied to two or three of them if it were not for their proximity to my girlfriend. None of them are bad schools, but some are certainly better than others. What I'm honestly hoping for is that I will only be accepted to one school and be spared the choice. But I've decided that I shouldn't evade the question so that in the event that I have to decide I'll be prepared.

What's your opinion? I fear that if I end up at a college far away from her, I wouldn't have the time to continue giving her the attention she deserves because of all of the school work (I'm planning on a very heavy curriculum) and that if I go to a not-as-good but close-to-girlfriend school the relationship might end and I'd be missing out on better schooling. Either choice has the potential for lifelong regret. I honestly don't feel like my love is infatuation. I'm completely aware of my girlfriend's faults and bad habits, but I can accept them as part of who she is and love her even more for them. I know that things change, but right now I'm utterly terrified at the prospect of losing her; I need her. She's the light of my life. Could all the adults really be right?


Dear Scared,

One choice is clearly better than the other. Pick the best school. The girl can always move closer to you. But the school can't move closer to the girl. Believe me, the potential for regret is greater with the choice of schools than with the choice of girls. So pick the school that represents all the dreams you have in your life, and then pursue the dreams. And if the girl is part of the dream, you two can always get together. There's nothing to prevent you from having everything: the girl, the education, happy parents, everything.

Dear Cary,

I am a 17-year-old in the midst of a racial "Romeo and Juliet" complex: For the past year and a half, I have been dating an Asian guy behind the backs of my racist WASP parents (it's somewhat easy to hide; he lives 700 miles away from me).

Senior prom is coming up soon, and my parents are actually allowing him to come for the weekend and attend the dance with me. However, I am concerned that my parents will manage to say something totally off-color (no pun intended) in his presence. If this worst case scenario happens, how should I react to their comment? Telling my parents that their comments are offensive doesn't work; I just get told to "lighten up." My boyfriend knows I'm not racist and says he would never break up with me because of my parents, but I also don't want to look like I am tolerating my parents' comments.


Dear Juliet,

So when you were 15 and a half you started a relationship with a guy who lives 700 miles away, and now he's coming to stay the weekend for the prom. That in itself is interesting. Have your parents met him? Do they already know he's Asian, or are you planning to surprise them? Are you and he sleeping together? Is he staying in your room or the guest room? Do his parents know?

As to your question about racism, having grown up in the South, I'm familiar with the problem of fearing that somebody's parents will make some stupid, hurtful remark.

So I can say this: They probably won't. They'll probably be charming. But if they do say something that strikes you as racist, don't make a scene when you're all together, even though you want to protect your boyfriend and show him that you're on his side. Nobody will get educated by that. When you're alone with your boyfriend, ask him if he picked up on what your parents said and ask him what he felt, and tell him how you felt about it, whatever it is, whether you felt protective of him or embarrassed or angry or whatever it was. Likewise, when you can talk to your parents in private, tell them what you heard and why you thought it was racist or offensive. Think it through so you can tell them calmly; don't just call them racist pigs.

But remember: Meeting any boyfriend of yours is going to make your parents nervous. You might think they're being racist when they're just being suspicious, judgmental and close-minded, i.e., parents. And don't project yourself onto your Asian boyfriend. Let him deal with racism. You might think it's heroic to step in and protect him, but it's presumptuous; you can't really know how it feels to be Asian in America. Just calm down and be the white person. It's not your fault.

Dear Cary,

In all my relationships, I take things quite seriously. Although I'm a fun-loving person, I'm also a "one-woman man," very dedicated and probably too considerate of the other person. All women feel so secure with me, from Day 1, that they take me for granted (in some cases, I even become a father figure). They "admire" all my qualities (handsome, poetic, successful, charming, considerate and romantic, problem solver and so on), and they fall in love with the qualities, not with me.

After extensive conversations, I have concluded that all of these women were much more considerate to people they had bad experiences with than with me. I married this woman once, we moved to her place, and for the first year she kept having pictures of her with her past boyfriend on the wall. I wanted to be tactful, so I didn't say anything. Is this behavior common and normal among women when they marry? Should I quit being who I am and try to become the "average Joe" who enjoys genuine love from women without him possessing any exceptional qualities?

Good Product

Dear Good Product,

Yes, I think you should quit being who you are and try to become the average Joe, because you were irritated by those pictures on the wall, and you had the right to say so just like any average Joe, but your irritation didn't live up to your sense of how unruffled you are, and there might have been a scene, so you bottled it up, which of course is our peculiar genius, we superior Norwegians. Anyway, go off in a snit, storm out in a huff. Open up your old dusty case of ultimatums and shoot one off. They make a frightening crack when they've been packed in gun oil. It's not that women like to be mistreated, but they do like a man who stands up for himself.

The burden of being good is a terrible weight. I suggest you do something wrong for a change. Get drunk and get into a fight. Sure, it's shameful, but despite the bruises and the hangover it can be curiously cleansing.

Dear Cary,

It may not sound like I've got much of a problem on my hands, but I am beginning to get nervous. Two and a half years ago I found out my wife was having an affair with my friend, and we quickly separated and divorced. It sucked. It was brutal. I was extremely depressed.

But things have never been better in my life. It forced me to make major life changes and take chances that have propelled my writing career faster than I ever dreamed.

Also, being a single, relatively young (34), professional male who showers regularly and has all of his teeth and most of his hair, things with the ladies have never been better. In the last year I have made "friends" with a lovely young African-American lady, a 21-year-old college student, a 23-year-old blond bartender and a 26-year-old med student, and many more sit on the back burner. Problem? What problem?

Well, if therapy has taught me anything, it has given me insight. I know that my choices in women lately have been completely "safe" ones. Relationships that I don't invest emotionally, thereby avoiding the risk of exposure and pain. I go back and forth about marriage and long-term relationships. Isn't this the life most men (me included) dream of? All the fun, none of the responsibility.

When will I grow up? Will I ever trade in the 24-pack of condoms for the baby stroller and video camera?

Single, Saucy and Loving It?

Dear Single,

Why don't you buy the baby stroller and the video camera now, put your 24-pack of condoms in the stroller and head for the park? Women love a daddy. Go ahead, take a peek, you say to the nice young woman. And when she leans down to the stroller and pulls back the pink blanket, you can videotape her.

Yep, that's my darling little 24-pack. Go ahead, pick her up.

You know, I went through something very similar to what you describe, at about the same age you did: betrayal, bad breakup, months of anger and depression, then a period of serial dating with no commitments but a lingering sense of incompleteness. When I met my wife I was suffering from three girlfriends in various stages of flare-up and remission.

What I had finally decided was that since no woman seemed to want to commit to me, I was going to be the one to do the not-committing first. So right off I sat my future wife down and told her I liked her but I still wanted to see other women.

And she said no.

We've been together about 12 years now.

So I predict that sooner or later one of these women is going to say no, sorry, I'm all you get. And you'll have had about as much fun as you can stand by that time, so you'll just put your wrists together for the handcuffs like any good prisoner of love.

Cary Tennis

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