What's a guy to do?

I'm exceptionally smart and well-educated, but I'm ugly and that's why cute girls don't go for me.

By Cary Tennis

Published March 19, 2002 8:13PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I'm an exceptionally smart and well-educated man and because of that I was raised to believe I'm far above average in every way. Nevertheless, I've been tragically unlucky in love, as for some reason all the women I'm interested in are not interested in me. Well, now that I'm 38, it's hit me: I'm ugly. That's why the cute girls don't go for me. Oh, I've had other problems, for sure, typical teenage angst and low self-esteem, but what's left is that I'm ugly and now, nearing 40, fat and flabby besides.

So what am I to do? There are some ugly women who seem to like me, but when I think of seeing them naked I want to poke out my eyes. When I flirt with the pretty girls they give me the "What makes you think you even have a chance?" glare. And honestly, I've been alone so long that even the ugly girls would probably turn tail once they see my apartment or experience my utter lack of moves.

Please, help me find a way out of this mess. I don't want to live the rest of my life alone.

Champagne Taste on a Beer Budget

Dear Champagne,

What sort of exceptional intelligence could it be that could shroud the obvious in secrecy for so many years? It is the perverse privilege of the truly brilliant to be utterly stupid when they choose, I suppose. It is to your credit, however, that unlike many other appearance-impaired geniuses you have chosen to come forward.

Let me make a suggestion: Throughout human history there has been something called clothing and grooming. It is the science and art of improving appearances and signifying membership in certain social classes or groups. There are uniforms and styles and all manner of complex significations achieved through this subtle plastic art. If you were to consult an expert in this field -- they are called "clothing salesmen" -- you might find that your appearance could be improved dramatically just by the application to your corpus of a few timeless theorems regarding color and shape.

Fabric alone can make a huge difference. Rich, wonderful colors in shirts, ties and jackets can draw the eye irresistibly away from your face, so that one responds to the totality of your person, not just your repulsive, blood-curdling map, and quite without thinking about it rationally, those who have the misfortune of encountering you in well-lit rooms are unaccountably seized with the notion that it would be nice to snuggle up to that utterly intoxicating ... jacket. Colors can be chosen in harmony with your skin, so that your natural hue acquires a sympathetic glow, and the mind registers only that the overall effect of your presence is rather pleasing.

You can indeed hide behind beautiful clothes. Women do it all the time. You can send your clothes ahead of you into a nightclub like an army. You can cloud men's minds: "If this man is so ugly, why does he look so great?" (It's the jacket, stupid.)

Clean up your apartment. Join a gym. Learn some moves. And get some clothes. If you know what you're doing and you have the time, you don't have to spend a lot of money. But if you've got the money, go someplace fabulous and let them dress you up. It'll be worth it.

Dear Cary,

While visiting my hometown, my boyfriend and I went to dinner with my high school first love. Everything went fine, and it was a great meal. They did the standard old guy meets new guy things (each tried to scope out if he was more or less of a catch than the other, they made fun of my driving, they fought over the check, etc.)

Right before we left, I went to the bathroom.

As I came back, I came up behind them (the restaurant was carpeted) and heard the following exchange:

Old Boyfriend: You're lucky. Carrie's great.

Current: I know.

Old BF: Are you OK with her sex drive?

Current: I've never seen anything like it.

Old BF: I dated her when I was in high school and I could barely keep up.

Current: I mean, it's great, but, damn ...

Old BF: Can you imagine that chicks don't hit their sexual peak until they are 30?

Current: (laughs) I know. Can you imagine what Carrie's going to be like?

Old BF: They're going to find a boat full of Russian sailors, dead with huge smiles on their faces, and Carrie's suddenly going to know how to make stroganoff ...

I come back to the table. They laugh.

Based on this exchange, I have two questions:

1) Were those compliments?

2) Am I a freak? A big part of me doesn't mind or care, but I'd kind of like to know if they feel that way.

I honestly don't think they knew I was standing there. I knew my sex drive was high, but I didn't realize that it was an issue.

Madonna in McLean, Va.

Dear Madonna,

That is an utterly charming story. It sounds too perfect to be true, of course, but what the heck. We're only one step above Penthouse Letters here anyway. It would be disingenuous of me to accuse someone I don't know of making up a story. So I'll answer it as though it really happened. Maybe it did. If so, you and your friends are quite amusing.

Whatever your sexual appetites are, you're probably just fine. But that doesn't mean some men might be a little scared -- that you'll want it when he can't give it, that you'll seek out other men, that if he can't keep up there might be something wrong with him.

But, listen, if you and your boyfriend are happy, what's the problem?

Dear Cary,

About four months ago, I was dumped by my boyfriend of one year. We'd been living together, and we worked together (we work together still, in fact, which is much like having to lie down and be kicked once or twice a day). While I'm aware that this happens all the time, it's been incredibly painful and has made me feel rather worthless.

My ex, when I met him, was in recovery from a yearlong addiction to heroin, among other things, though I wasn't really aware of this. When he began to relapse, I went right along with it; we drank, went out, had fun. We were falling in love, or at least I was. It was horrifying, then, to find that all this drinking was spiraling downward into a catastrophic heroin addiction. Bad things happened. On one or two occasions, there was a lot of blood. We went to hospitals often.

So. Eventually, he began recovery again. He was clean for six months when he dumped me. Apparently, I wasn't good for his recovery process. I wasn't a healthy choice for him. You can imagine how this made me feel. Now I see him every day of the week and am perpetually angered by any number of things: It really was good for him to get away from me; he looks great (he's incredibly handsome, while I'm rather average-looking, and I was always amazed at my good luck); and he really doesn't seem to care one bit about what happened to me, both while I was with him and afterward.

I've become afraid of the idea that he had to get away from me to be healthy. What if I'm a bad influence on other people, not just on him? What did I do that was so wrong? After all, I helped him out as much as I knew how, when he was using (yes, I know the word "enabler," and sometimes I was and sometimes I wasn't -- but someone had to take him to the hospital). Why is it that other people's bad behavior (including mine) is just bad behavior, while his bad behavior is an illness? And most of all, why did I stay in a situation that ended so badly for me, when all along, all I had to do was leave?

The basics: I'm 25, not too bad-looking when I try, and pretty intelligent, though lately I've begun to doubt even that. Oh, and I'm female (didn't make that clear before).

Feeling Rather Unsympathetic Toward Everyone, Including Myself

Dear Unsympathetic,

Your questions are good ones, and they go to the heart of the problem. Simply put, his bad behavior is not an illness. It's bad behavior, just like anyone else's. It's the addiction that's considered an illness. The fact that he's sick doesn't excuse what he did. In fact, the model of addiction as illness requires that he own up. That's how addicts get better. He has to make good. He's probably in some rehab where they're telling him that right now.

Your fear that you are a bad influence on others is understandable, and shared by many in your situation, but unfounded. If it hadn't been you, it would have been someone else. What you did was not so wrong; there may be much acrimony and emotional pain about what happened, but it sounds like you were just trying to help and do the right thing. However, you're not excused either. You will have to change.

Why did you stay in the relationship? That's another great question. One way to find out would be to talk with other people, women in particular, who have done the same baffling, inexplicable thing, sticking with the heroin addict, driving him to the hospital, cleaning up the blood, trying to keep him from nodding off, waiting, lying, pretending, lending money, lighting matches and twisting the belt. The behavior of which you speak is so common that there are actually groups of men and women who meet to discuss their common problems, their tendency to hook up with addicts, their confusion about their role, their understandable sense of betrayal and anger when the addict gets better and leaves! I think you'd probably get a lot out of such a meeting, and the people there would benefit from hearing you describe what happened. Ask anyone who knows about recovery and they can direct you to such a meeting.

Oh, those lucky heroin addicts. First they get to have all the fun, and later when they get clean they act like we were never there for them. And they are so slim and good-looking!

P.S. Hold on to that lack of sympathy: It may be the solution to your problem.

Dear Cary,

I don't take risks in love. Hmmm ... perhaps I won't take risks in love. Instead, I live vicariously through the heartsick Häagen-Dazs-fueled pity parties hosted by my newly detached, teary-eyed friends. I think I've overdosed on Kleenex and chocolate fudge swirl. I've seen their anger, betrayal, pain and need for vengeance. However, unlike them, I've never experienced the first dates -- where everything glimmers like so many Hallmark card clichés. I've yet to share a bag of overpriced movie theater popcorn with my "beloved," greasy fingers intertwined in a luxurious orgy of salt, butter and preservatives. My friends took risks for love, and they paid the price. Is it worth it? Months of hurt in exchange for a really, really great bag of popcorn? Heck, yeah!

Here's the hard part -- finding the popcorn partner in crime. It's not every day that I come across a punk rock listenin', "Mystery Science Theater 3000" watchin', William Burroughs readin', fast-talkin' sarcastic SOB -- someone just like me. Instead, I seem to find myself accosted by generic, boring, misanthropic Neanderthals who wouldn't know an alliteration from their assho- ... well, you get the idea. I spend my time looking for a brow ridge to appear, to reaffirm my hypothesis. This group of single males usually travel in packs, think of women as accessories, and scratch themselves in socially inappropriate ways. Me frat boy, you roofie poster girl.

On the other end of the spectrum, I've found a disturbing trend emerging: the "neo-sensitive" male. I don't want some emotional weenie who will sit on the edge of my bed, sipping chamomile tea, talking about how much he loves Emily Dickinson. I want some guy that can change a tire, not write heart-wrenching poetry about his "feelings." I don't want my boyfriend to go shopping with me -- that's why I have gay male friends -- and I can hold my own damn purse. I'm not in the market for some misogynistic "Dukes of Hazard" reject, I'm just not interested in someone who is more of a woman than I am.

So what's the question?? Do I stand by my seemingly impossible standards? Do I give up my integrity and peruse the produce aisle of my local grocery store, obscenely pawing through the display of bananas? Do I make good on my threats to "get me to a nunnery"?

Thanks ... I feel better already.


Dear Kat,

I mostly ran your letter because it was so much fun to read. I'm not even sure what the question was. Oh, yes, your standards: By all means, stand by them. Your feelings probably reflect those of many women; you're just exceptionally good at writing them down. Frankly, your impatience is refreshing.

The only danger I can see is that if your vivid idealism, too long unsatisfied, were to harden into unyielding perfectionism. So keep your chin up; continue the fight; and, while you're at it, love the imperfections.

Dear Cary,

I have a wonderful boyfriend who I love intensely. He is kind and considerate and we get along incredibly well. He is also my best friend. We have been together for almost two years now. Only three months after we started seeing each other, he was diagnosed with cancer. He has had chemotherapy and a major operation to resect half his liver, and now we have just been told it has come back and he is to have chemotherapy again.

My question to you is this: Should I protect myself from the sorrow that could feasibly come my way, as his type of cancer is known to be very aggressive, by leaving him although our relationship is wonderful? I have thought if I were to do so I would leave my job here in Australia and move to a Third World country and drown my sorrows by helping other people's sorrowful lives. Is this shallow? I don't think I'm being shallow; I'm just afraid. I am 32 and not getting any younger, am intelligent and supposedly very attractive, and my job as a computer programmer would allow me to travel.

Or should I wait for a miracle and/or face tragedy squarely in the eye but at least be true to my love? I have quoted Tennyson's "'Tis better to have loved and lost ..." to myself many times, but this is no solace.

I fear I am being selfish, but this is always at the back of my mind. He has no idea these thoughts cross my mind; I am surprisingly cheerful and supportive of him. What should I do?

Scared of the Future

Dear Scared,

In school, through the study of literature and philosophy, we are privileged to think about and discuss doing the right thing vs. doing what's convenient, the meaning of selflessness, honor, devotion, conscience and so forth. In life, in cafés, over dinner, on long walks and even in the workplace we often continue these discussions. But rarely are we faced with such a clear and penetrating choice that could define us for years to come.

The right thing is clear. Of course you are afraid. This is a defining moment in your life. Consider it a gift -- to you and to him. Stay with him. If you lose him, at least you have your honor and your conscience, and the lifelong respect of his other loved ones and family.

It is more difficult to act on ideas than to talk about them. I had occasion to face a similar, if less grave, problem recently. As a longtime renter in San Francisco, I often lived in fear of eviction. I believed in protecting the weak against the predations of capitalism and held that it was wrong for landlords to evict tenants solely to make money. After many years, I was finally able to buy a house. To help pay the mortgage, I rented out part of the house, thus becoming a landlord. Soon afterward, the housing market in San Francisco boomed. I could have made a great deal of money by selling the house out from under our tenants -- a single mother and two young children. I had to choose. It wasn't easy. The money would have been nice. But if you don't follow your own principles, your life has no meaning. They don't know I was even thinking about it. It was just a quiet decision.

This as well ought to be a quiet decision of yours. Good luck.

Dear Cary,

I'm in a similar situation as "Torn" from your March 5 column. I met an older guy (28) when I was young (18), spent a few years with him, fell in love, slept with another guy, told him about it and set about resolving problems in our relationship.

Unlike "Torn," however, I had no sanction to get more experience. I essentially cheated on my boyfriend, as he was and still is adamant about my remaining faithful. "Exploring" is out of the question. My one-night stand with the guy I cheated with wasn't an attempt to get more experience with guys, though. It was just the result of a very heady attraction I have toward his type (aloof, arrogant, handsome white men). I know it's rooted in some psychosexual issues (the thrill in "conquering"), but I'm afraid that despite knowing this I might cheat again.

And of course there still remains the question of experience: Is it necessary? Do I give up a good relationship for the sake of some partially satisfying flings? Or do I stay at the expense of knowing the intricacies of human relations, of other people? (I'm double-majoring in sociology and English for a reason.)

Then there's always the thought, maybe there's someone better for me. He and I are not two peas in a pod. We come from different backgrounds (middle-class/working-class, Asian/white), our philosophies don't always mesh, he can pick out some damned ugly shirts and call them great. He's seen, though, a lot of my oddities and hasn't run for the hills yet. My infidelity nearly ended our relationship, but we're working through it. We still love each other.

So I can't bear the thought of hurting him again just for the sake of curiosity, especially since what I'd be looking for -- love -- I already have. But are there other things out there that I need to know?

Student of Life

Dear Pupil,

It's a balancing act. Only you can decide. You have to reach a point where you know, yourself, that you've had enough. Have you had enough? Or do you want more? What you were looking for was probably not love, but thrills. As you say, you already have love. Knowing your weakness is scant defense against it. I would suggest that you decide what is the best, truest thing you can say to your lover, and say it. If the best, truest thing you can say is that you can't promise to be faithful, say that. Give him the opportunity to make his own decision about whether to take the risk of staying with you.

There's no easy answer. In fact, the struggle you're going through may be the only answer there is. Good luck.

Cary Tennis

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