Cary Tennis has been called the “Walt Whitman of advice columnists” by one of his regular readers. His daily column “Since You Asked” has been a hallmark of since 2001. Tennis offers frank and sometimes pointed advice, and he reveals his own struggles with refreshing candor. He is part spiritual advisor, part fellow flawed human, part friend who’ll give it to you straight. He can also craft a mean sentence. The columns here are reprinted from his book Since You Asked: The Best of’s Cary Tennis, by Cary Tennis, available in bookstores and at © 2001–2007 by Salon Media Group. They appear here with permission from the author and Salon Media Group.

— Ed.


Dear Cary,

I’ve been in a relationship for the last two and a half years, and I now find myself at a difficult crossroads. The relationship has been wonderful at times and a real struggle at other times. My partner is a funny, warm, and talented guy. When he wants to be, he is extremely gregarious, and everyone loves him. He is also a writer and has been effectively unemployed for the last two years, although, since he’s fairly well-known and well connected, he’s managed to put together a living by doing freelance work. However, he thrives on stability, and so the constant worry of whether this next paycheck will be his last has put a strain on him and thus on our relationship.

He’s currently on the cusp of breaking into Hollywood and is a lot further than most hopefuls ever get. He’s extremely talented, and deals are being discussed that could set him up for life — but nothing is a definite in Hollywood until the check’s been cashed. And so the constant worry and stress have made him self-focused, self-indulgent, and self-absorbed. He doesn’t ask me about my life, how my day has gone, or how I’m feeling. It just simply doesn’t occur to him. For quite a long time, although I’ve been very clear, open, and honest with him about how I feel and what I need, I’ve been carrying this relationship on my shoulders, doing all the work, going to his house to hang out, and patiently waiting for his sex drive to return.

Because of all this, he hasn’t really made an effort to become a part of my life. He hasn’t made any effort to get to know any of my friends, which they now resent — because, after all, one can only go so long before “getting to know the friends and family” is so overdue as to be ridiculous. He balks at coming to my house, preferring to stay close to home in his cavelike environment.

I’ve brought these things up to him many times, and we have nearly broken up over them before, and every time he asks me to be patient and says that this cloud of depression will lift as soon as he is financially stable; that he loves me as much as life itself; and that his life would be miserable without me. He doesn’t want to go to a therapist because of the expense, as well as his insistence that it won’t help him. (He went before because he was abusing alcohol as a means to deal — or not deal — with his depression. He has since stopped drinking, but lately I worry, since he’s starting to have drinks now and again, that he will sink back into it.) He probably needs to be on some sort of antidepressant medication, but he can’t afford it, and, for various reasons, he doesn’t qualify for state assistance.

I am starting graduate school in a month. I have a history of depression (though I’ve not had difficulty with it since I was an undergrad about six years ago), and I have been clear with him that our problems have to be sorted out before I start school, or else I can’t continue in the relationship. He says that he wants to be supportive, but that I just need to continue to be patient and wait along with him for his break to come. As much as I love him and believe that he’s really a good guy in an awful place right now, I just don’t know what to do. My friends are telling me that I’ve given him enough chances and that I should probably just make a clean break before the world of papers and dissertations and all of that swallows me whole, at which point a breakup would be exponentially worse.

He is one of the few people who have really understood me in my life. I’m reluctant to give up what we do have. We’ve talked about marriage and kids in our future, which makes me happy, as I think he’d be a good father. But I just can’t carry our relationship on my shoulders any longer, and there’s really no telling how long it will be before he’s financially stable, or if that will cure his depression. How do I resolve this?

— Philosophically Flummoxed

Dear Flummoxed,

Sadly, I think you go. I think you stop carrying the load. If he wants you, he can find you. He can win you back. Maybe he’ll rise to the occasion. The only way to find out is to stop carrying the load.

He says he cares for you. What the hell does that mean? What does it mean if I say I care for you? Does that cook you dinner? Does that feed your cats? Does that make you warm between your shoulder blades? What if I say I care for Julia Roberts? Do you think she’ll come over tonight and read me Shakespeare? I care about the homeless people I step over on the way to work. I care a lot about them. I love them! I care about the dead Iraqi women and children, and the dead soldier boys from small towns in Iowa. I care for you.

What the hell does that mean? It means I want you to like me. It means I’d like to keep you waiting around. It means that what you think about me is more important than whether you’re happy or sad.

You need more than some guy who keeps you on hold. You need more than a guy who can’t get out of his little cave of an apartment to drive you to the beach. You need somebody with a car to put your umbrella in, and your little hibachi, who will drive you to Venice and back just for one of those little corn dogs they sell from a stand.

Sure he needs help. So put him on your health insurance and hook him up with a psychiatrist. But don’t hang around and be his girlfriend. You’re not helping anybody that way.

I know this guy. I know the kind of self-involved artistic hell he’s in, and I know the fear of oblivion and the need for approval and worldly success that drive him to trudge deeper and deeper into that hell. We are brothers in our fear of oblivion and our lust for approval, and we will do anything for it, and it is not pretty, because we are the young dead bodies found by housekeepers at the Chateau Marmont; we are the overdosed rock stars in fabulous hotels who never got to hear the final mix; we are the writers who burned out after a novel or two because they couldn’t take it; we are the critics who wish they had the courage to try it themselves; we are the bitter executives screwing starlets on their leather couches from Pottery Barn; we are the dull, sick soul of television; we are the limp prose of writing schools and the slack-jawed hunger of MFA programs; we are the reason no one respects journalists anymore; we are trudging into hell and we like it, because it proves what we’ve thought all along, which is that we’re really not worth shit and everybody knows it; and we resent you and your graduate school, but we don’t admit it, because we’re just trying to keep you around until we score big, and then we’re going to dump you anyway for Kirsten Dunst, who we’re suggesting be cast in our first feature film.

We’re just a couple of cheap punks trudging into hell with a film treatment and a card from a cast supervisor at Miramax who said she’d call but never did. Let me warn you: don’t follow us; we’ll promise to call, but don’t count on us.

Maybe he’ll stop. I can see him in the distance there, pausing at the gates. Maybe he’s turning around. Maybe he’ll be rescued. Maybe that’s his Lincoln Town Car I see rounding the turn. Or maybe he’s going all the way down to the Chateau Marmont for a fabulous party that never ends.

You don’t need to go with him. It wouldn’t be much fun anyway. And don’t wait up. It could be a long night.

Dear Cary,

I work in a fairly large office, with about fifty others on my floor. Everyone gets along pretty well, but, as I suspect is almost always the case when any number of people share a space, people sometimes do things that subtly encroach on the environment in ways that are discomfiting or just downright perplexing.

For the past couple of months someone has been routinely leaving printouts of articles from politically conservative news sources on the floor in one of the two stalls in the men’s bathroom. This has begun to irk me because (1) this is obviously littering in a public space — who does this person expect to throw it out, given that it is sitting on the floor in a toilet? — and (2) I feel that it is a passive-aggressive attempt to insert controversial opinions (which I happen to disagree with vociferously) into what ought to be a collegial and basically neutral environment.

Although I have my suspicions, I don’t know for sure who is doing this. Given that, what, if anything, can I do about it? People would probably think me a little strange if I were to start inquiring around about it, even if only in the mild way of asking if others had noticed it as well. I could try to get the office manager to send a reminder to everyone not to litter or leave things in the bathroom, but that would seem to be casting the net a bit wide for an issue localized to one person and one bathroom stall.

At any rate, I don’t want to overstate an issue that is, in a practical sense, easy to ignore. I suppose my concern is mainly philosophical. Is it worth trying to do something about this for principled reasons? My feeling is that in our culture we are far too often obliged to put up with unpleasant encroachments into our public spaces that are beyond our control. Shouldn’t we exert our will in spheres we can possibly influence? Do we have a political obligation to do so? Or am I making something out of nothing? Certainly the last thing I want is to end up taking a tack that is merely awkward and unnecessary — impolitic in quite another sense.

— Upright Citizen, Dismayed

Dear Upright Citizen,

I am surprised that you consider this an unpleasant encroachment into a public sphere, rather than a fine and noble tradition.

In my view, the corporate men’s-room stall is a sacred space — a small and intimate temple, actually — where men briefly bask in the ancient, mournful camaraderie of shit and death. Being such, it has certain traditions and rules.

The leaving of reading material for the next man is a venerable and near-universal practice by which men take narrative communion. You seem to have stumbled upon a particularly interesting vestige of this ancient practice, and yet you disparage it. Why? Is it the content of the material itself? Or is it the practice?

I for one value the practice, even if the material disagrees with me.

One man leaves something for the next man to read. The viewpoint expressed need not be shared. By reading the opposite of what you believe, you can join these men in spirit, if not in ideology.

What better place for right wing and left wing to come together in common humanity than in the toilet?

Why should you be so self-righteous about this right-wing information? We are not having a civil war in this country. Right-wingers are not the enemy. They are simply troublesome friends. I say, Love the right-wing asshole who leaves propaganda in your stall!

How very seriously we take this! That is what I notice. We live on a dying planet. We don’t have an unquestioned place in the cosmos. We don’t have an unquestioned place in the tribe. We have jobs and cubicles and bathroom stalls.

In this lonely and, for some men, shameful moment of defecation, when we stink up the world, the written material rescues us from our symbolic experience of death (that awful thing will eventually be us; that is our formless, disgusting, unavoidable future; we will all be like shit in the ground one day).

So I heartily suggest that you participate in this tradition of camaraderie rather than shun it. Leave some Noam Chomsky in there if you have to, but communicate! Leave some good poems. Leave something provocative like Revolutionary Black Panther Poetry. But participate! We kill culture with our stiffness. We kill it with propriety. We kill it with our separateness.

Lastly: By no means should you suggest the office manager send a reminder to everyone not to leave things in the bathroom. Leaving things in the bathroom is, after all, exactly what we aim to do, however poor our aim.

Dear Cary,

I have a brief but immense question that I don’t think you have addressed directly to date. It has been nagging at me for a while now, but it came back when I started rewatching American Beauty tonight. In fact, I paused the DVD fifteen minutes into the movie to write you this e-mail.

My history isn’t particularly relevant to this question, which I think is pretty universal. But just to be thorough: I am in my early thirties and was raised in households of High Drama (many parental fights of the screaming, throwing-things, raising-bruises sort, between mother and father, mother and her boyfriend, father and stepmother, etc., although never directed toward me).

My relationships (up until the current one) were similarly dramatic and typically dysfunctional. At a certain point I realized that this wasn’t what I wanted, so I took about five years off from all relationships to work on myself and clarify what I did want. I am pleased to report that my current boyfriend and I have been living happily together for the last six months, after having been good friends for about a year and a half. He is an intelligent, kind, decent, funny, and mentally stable man who’s also had his share of bad relationships and is motivated to avoid falling into another one. When there’s a problem, we are both able to take a break, then come back and work things out rationally. (Hooray!) He’s my best friend, we do everything together, and he makes me unbearably happy.

Now for the brief question. It seems like all relationships, over time, naturally degrade in either one of two ways: High Drama (as seen in my childhood), or complacent alienation (cf. American Beauty). Surely there must be a third option? What is it, and how do I get there?

I know so many couples that started out just like us, young and happy, and twenty years down the road they wake up and realize they’re trapped in a sterile, loveless marriage. They look back and think, We were so happy back then in the beginning!

What happens? And how best to avoid it? I have learned how to avoid High Drama, but how do I head off the American Beauty scenario? It terrifies me to think that one day I might look back at myself today and wonder, What happened?

— Needing Insight

Dear Needing Insight,

There are workshops where you can exercise your relationship to give it bigger muscles and more stamina, but my relationship tends to walk by those kinds of things and look in the window and go, Ooh, that’s scary what they’re doing in there. My relationship is kind of shy about working on itself. So instead, each of us in the relationship tends to work on ourselves separately so that, when we come together, we’re more interesting to each other than we would be otherwise. I don’t know if that’s what it says to do in the book. We didn’t buy the book. I’m not even sure what book we’re talking about. What I’m talking about is trying to have a rich and full relationship with another person by first being true to yourself.

Being true to yourself these days pretty much means joining the resistance. My wife and I belong to the resistance. We communicate with our friends by Morse code on old-fashioned crystal radio sets. We hide out in church basements and French farmhouses. That keeps us focused on what’s important: overcoming the Nazis, fighting tyranny, finding good cheeses.

It’s hard to remain independent and quirky. The Vichy regime has so many inducements: healthcare, vacations, cars, and boats. But look at how you have to dress to have those things! The uniforms! Look at the way they talk in elevators! So you have to join the resistance. Otherwise they’ll beat you down, and your marriage will become loveless and sterile. You will look at your partner one day, and you’ll wonder if he isn’t working for the Vichy.

So how do you stop loving someone? Do you just run out of person? Is a person like a jam jar, and you finally get to the bottom? If we are like jam jars, then we have to keep filling ourselves up, so when they stick the knife in and start scraping around, there’s something sweet to put on toast. You’re never out of everything. Rummage around. You’ve always got something. You have to always be refilling yourself.

Don’t assume you’re enough as you are. Who could possibly be enough? Superman, maybe. The rest of us have to work at it.

Stay desperate. Make that your motto: “We’re desperate. Get used to it.”

Stay one step ahead of the law. Don’t ever get too clean. Disguise yourself when you visit the drugstore for a prescription. Live like a happy, contented spouse and wait for your moment . . . be mad but not out of control . . . be contrary but not reflexive . . . write incomprehensible verses deep in the night while everyone else is sleeping . . . take long walks by the river before they arise . . . resist assimilation . . . pass notes to strangers in the park . . . remain obdurately convinced of the rightness of your most controversial beliefs . . . occasionally be inconsolable . . . refuse to name your sources . . . stay silent under torture . . . beware of existence fatigue . . . do not believe anyone who calls himself a “spokesman” . . . question yourself mercilessly about your recent whereabouts . . . organize yourself for maximum speed . . . refuse to use the cruise control . . . neither fear nor trust your neighbors . . . have a suitcase always packed . . . keep your passport handy . . . learn a little Arabic . . . learn to operate the crystal radio set and locate the finest cheeses.

In this manner you may survive and avoid a loveless, sterile marriage.

Dear Cary,

I’m in my midforties and find I have less and less tolerance and patience for the world’s vagaries. I’ve never suffered fools particularly gladly, but these days I find that I can work myself into an irritable frenzy over the smallest things: People talking on their cellphones and not considering anything or anyone around them. Drivers doing forty in the highway passing lane, then slowing down even more when they know you want to pass. Cashiers who don’t even bother to thank you when you’ve just plunked down three hundred dollars at their store. A mother calling her kid a “lying piece of shit” in a department store. Is it just me, or are people saying and doing more outrageously stupid and ignorant things than ever before?

Maybe it’s because I live in one of the poorest states in the nation, where there’s a huge rate of addiction and lack of education. But something tells me it’s not much better in more-prosperous places, where people simply manifest their unconsciousness with better liquor and nicer clothes. Lack of civility offends me constantly, and yet I’m living in one of the crassest cultures on earth. Don’t get me wrong — I’m not asking for manners à la Letitia Baldrige. But how about just a little common courtesy, respect, and decency, bred of realizing that there are other people in the world besides oneself?

Short of moving to a more civilized place (please feel free to specify exactly where that is), do you have any advice on how to cope with the ever-present rudeness and crudeness of the modern world? How do I take less offense and have more patience? Or should I just try to live in as much isolation as possible and hope that eventually old age will bring a tired, docile sort of acceptance of humankind?

— Ready for a Rooftop and an AK-47

Dear Ready for a Rooftop,

Move over on this rooftop; I need to aim. And stop hogging the ammunition.

Like you, I have been giving people a hard time lately. My wife says that I am entering premature codgerhood. I don’t approve of how people do things.

But I know this much: You and I and everyone else who can’t stand the way other people do things — we’re the problem. It’s us, not them. There’s something wrong with us. We’re nuts.

We’re like little crazy people going around with secret voices in our heads.

Really it is a form of craziness to walk around thinking everybody should be doing things differently than they do. In most of us it’s mild enough that you can’t be put away for it. But it’s crazy.

It’s crazy because it presumes the impossible.

What if, for instance, we criticized birds? What if we looked up at the sky and said, “Those gulls are flying all wrong. Look at them — they’re out of formation!” Or the pelicans. Or the dogs. Or the trees, for that matter, the way they grow, so crooked and slow and uneven! What is wrong with them? Don’t they know?

Ah, you say, but humans are supposed to know. They’re smart. Are they? They’ve been educated. Have they been? And by whom? Who is supposed to have taught them what they are supposed to know? Did you teach them? Did your mother teach them? Did my mother teach them? In what sense are we to expect that any kind of uniform instruction has been given, and even if it has been given, why should we expect that people would conform to it? It is equally reasonable to expect that people will do the opposite of what they have been instructed, because they did not like being instructed, or the instructing was done in a spirit of intimidation or sadistic control and the person is saying by his behavior that he will not allow his spirit to be smothered in that way; that he will be rude and contradictory in a holy way; that he will fly his freak flag high, even though it is the wrong day for freak flags.

Some people think it’s good to drive forty in the fast lane. I know that’s hard to accept. But if you look at what people do, as opposed to what you wish they would do, you can only conclude that our rules are not the only rules. Other people have rules too. Their rules may not be the rules of consensus, but they have arrived at them, and they believe in them. And so what are you supposed to do with that?

The problem is that we all have rules, but we don’t have them posted. If we carried signs on our chests, things would be much clearer. Then, when a person with a sign saying, “I think the world is a beautiful place, and I hope you do too, and if you do, then you will smile broadly,” is required to interact with a person who has a sign saying, “The Holocaust proved that life is tragic and man is a monster,” then they can perhaps each gauge the proper distance and respect they need to show each other. Or on the highway, if the person doing forty in the fast lane had a sign on his car saying, “I believe everyone should go forty in the fast lane, and if we all did that, we’d save gas, and the freeways would be safer,” then we could process that. We could say, OK, that person has an opinion; and as we passed them at ninety-five they could attempt to read the sign on our car that said, “Have you ever driven the Autobahn? It’s so much better than this!”

Basically we are all breaking each other’s rules all the time and annoying the hell out of each other because we pretend that our rules are the right ones. So maybe if we could just stop having rules about other people, we’d be closer to enlightenment. I would like to get to a point of divine acceptance of all people; I would like to be in love with humankind; I would like to see the divine light in every individual — even the man doing forty in the fast lane, even the person handing me my change in the wrong order.

But I am far from that.

What I am looking for, unconsciously perhaps, is for others to match me in my discomfort with the world; I want to see reflected back to me in their eyes a little bit of tragic knowledge, a little bit of somber self-reflection, a little bit of acknowledgment of suffering, a little bit of gravitas.

I am a cranky bastard, yearning for peace and enlightenment.

And so to you, my annoyed and outraged friend, I say, Give me some elbow room and pass the ammunition.

Later I will meditate.

Dear Cary,

Boy, did I screw up.

About thirteen years ago I fell for a friend of my sister’s and got her pregnant. I was, at that point in my life, a loser. I had no job, no home (I was living with my father), no car, no license (never had one), no complete education, and absolutely no prospects. Her family, predictably, hated me.

After a couple of months of unremitting and conflicting pressure from our families, she “realized” that I was a loser, and she cut me loose. No contact, no nothing.

The last night that we ever discussed the baby was the night she gave birth. I got raving drunk and never brought it up again. My very WASPy and remarkably repressed family followed suit — or was it I who was following suit? Either way, the topic was off-limits, that part of my brain and my heart was blocked off with yellow tape, and everyone moved on.

My sister’s friend married, and her husband adopted the baby girl. I turned my life around materially and spiritually (education, wonderful wife, good job, house, etc.). I never tried to contact her or the child. I told myself I was just a “donor” and that I would only screw things up for her and my daughter. Eventually my wife and I bought a home not too far from my daughter and her family.

I dealt with the issue alone, fighting the late-night demons and doing everything I could to hold the situation at bay.

Years passed. A mutual friend of the family ran into the woman and told my sister that my daughter is twelve now and is asking a number of questions. The resemblance is unmistakable, and her parents have done a wonderful job (I am thrilled for them and her). Faced with this, and only because I was faced with this, I decided to tell my wife about the situation.

Predictably, my wife is furious and feels (rightly) that I have violated her trust. We are just about to start a family of our own, and now everything in my life has been thrown into play. I don’t know if I would have been able to reveal this were I not forced. Now that it is out in the open, the events are painful and crushing.

I’m scared, I’m confused, and I suddenly feel every bit as worthless as I felt all those years ago. I don’t think that my wife is going to leave me (we are looking into starting some kind of couples therapy), but I feel like I am still paying for not being good enough all those years ago. I am starting to get angry at those folks who are angry at me.

I have written a letter to my daughter’s mother and adoptive father, explaining where I am in my life and that we are very open to contact and a relationship, once rules and boundaries have been established; but my primary concern is my wife. I do not want to lose her (or her respect) over this.

Three days ago I had a normal life, and I feel like I am never going to have that again.

— What a Tangled Web We Weave

Dear Tangled,

I do not think you will lose your wife over this, or that your life will fall apart. You will get into counseling and learn about family systems and the keeping of secrets. You will work out some arrangement with the family of your daughter, and your wife will look at you with unfathomable anger for an indefinite period, and if you are good and do not completely freak out, eventually the normal life you had three days ago will return. But I hope out of this comes some thinking about how you have been living and where the secrets come from and who this person was who so many years ago fathered a daughter and later kept it secret from his wife. I detect in your letter perhaps a lack of empathy for your earlier incarnation, and I would like to share a little about how I, who was also a bit of a loser and somewhat out of control, have come in middle age to regard my earlier self.

It has been helpful for me to see that I did some of the things I did because I was trying to do the right thing, strange as it appeared. It has been of great help to me to realize that I have often been an innocent actor, naive and lazy and deluded but not malicious. Like you, I was trying to survive. I was doing what I had to do at the time. It has been helpful in considering why certain episodes went wrong to consider what I was running from and why I kept so many secrets and why the truth seemed unsurvivable. Was there some knowledge so corrosive that the silence in our household was a kind of insulation, a balm to naked skin?

What truth in your life was so terrible at the time that it could not be uttered in the house? That you had sex without love? Is love a pair of handcuffs that must be worn every time? Is it a sin to do something simply because you really, really want to and it feels really, really good? Was it a sin to make love to your sister’s friend? Was there no one else around who could take you by the hand and show you what you then had to do? Was this all up to you? Are you the sole perpetrator of some crime? Must you now punish yourself for the rest of your life?

It has been of great help to me from time to time to conjure up this innocent being, this young boy who was simply trying to express love and wonder, and later this young man who seemed to be in trouble but was not robbing houses or hitting people on the head. I suggest you do not hate this younger man, this fuckup, this early version of yourself. I suggest, instead, that you learn to love this nasty little fuckup that you had to leave behind. I suggest that you offer a hand of forgiveness to this nasty little fuckup. He was a guy trying to figure it out. He was a guy trying to get along. He was a guy trying to live with whatever it was that hurt. What was it that hurt? Who ever knows what it is with a young guy that hurts so much? We don’t talk about it among ourselves, although always there will be a stoned glance or a touch between young men, high on this or that, that says, I know the crazy, hurting thing, too; it’s a motherfucker.

So you followed the trajectory of your hurting, and you got drunk the night your daughter was born. Fathers have been getting drunk and leaving town for centuries when their babies are born: In spite of our storied propensity for engendering life, we do not always welcome it when it arrives; we kind of wish it would go away; we want to be left to our tools and our greasy hands and our shade trees, our violent metal and brief explosions, our gray primer and rust, our certainty of objects. The birth of a child means more life, more crying, more questions, more hunger, more lying and walking away, more required courses, more questions we cannot answer, more tests, more tedium, more teachers, more classroom sitting, more desolate afternoons, more diapers and howling, more unbridgeable gulf, more rules, more discipline, more silence. We do not like life in a lot of ways. For some of us men we like a few books; we like a little racquetball; we like maybe a sauna and some swimming; we like a long drive down a leafy road in a good truck; but we did not sign on for the entire program, and it tires us out, frankly, and after the truck is parked, we just want to lie down and go to sleep, and it is like this day after day for many of us men, which is why we father kids and go off into the woods, never to speak of it again until it comes up by a careless word or two in the supermarket, and there we are again, saddled with ourselves, bending under the incomprehensible load of what we have done — given life to a child who now looks out at the world and says, I don’t know, man, what you’re all so fucked up about; this looks pretty good to me.

Just wait, we say. Just wait.

What I mean is, you need to conjure up some compassion for the teenager you once were, this wayward loser without a home or a job. You need to do this in order to stop hanging your head in shame for having been simply young and confused and unsure of what to do. My sense of it is that your keeping of secrets arises out of intense shame. You need to replace that shame with some compassion and respect. To do that you need to go back down some of those same old roads and find out what you were really looking for back then.

I can’t do that for you. But my guess is that you were looking for a way out of WASPish silence, the long tradition of family secrets, the code your family lived by. You were looking for a more authentic way of feeling and being. Making love and getting drunk seemed like ways to get to something real. But at the crucial moment, when your waywardness truly bore fruit, it was a forbidden fruit it bore, so you turned away in fear. You turned back to what you knew best: the keeping of secrets, the silent bearing of shame.

Now, as an adult man, it’s time to pick up where you left off. It’s time to finish what you started — not with teenage acting-out but with a sober acknowledgment that wild, untamable passions are as important to your life as oatmeal for breakfast and plenty of life insurance.

You’re married now. You’ve got a house and a job. You’re safe. It’s time to hold your head up and acknowledge who you were then and who you are now and make the best of a pretty good situation.

I hope you get a chance to tell everything. Sometimes, after a life of secrets, telling everything helps.

Dear Cary,

I am writing because I am so utterly heartbroken and lonely that I don’t know if I can go on.

I am twenty-nine, and my boyfriend and true love of 3.5 years just dumped me on my ass. I always considered him my soul mate, my husband, my partner. I always thought he considered me in the same light. (He told me he did constantly throughout the years.) Our families were completely intertwined — his siblings were like my siblings, and vice versa. We were beneficiaries on each other’s life-insurance policies. We owned a dog together, cosigned our lease together. Then, almost out of the blue, in bed one night while casually bringing up a topic we had talked about constantly over the years with mutual enthusiasm — becoming domestic partners — he mentioned that he didn’t think it was a good idea. He then went on to say that he had been unhappy with our “lack of passion” for a while. (I am on libido-crushing Prozac and have a terrible body-image problem, low self-esteem, etc.) After a desperate night of many tears, I said that I would work on it. The very next day I called therapists, made appointments, bought books, talked to friends, and started channeling my passion for him into having more sensual, playful sex.

Flash-forward: two weeks later. I bring up the topic of my progress with my self-improvement campaign. “How do you think I’m doing?” Basically, then, we start a talk that goes into the next morning and concludes with the following: “It’s too late. Problems that I’ve kept inside me for too long about our relationship have festered and overcome me, and now I realize that I have fallen out of love with you, and I will never love you again. I want to break up with you.”

Everyone, everyone was shocked. His closest family and friends (not to mention me) were all clueless about any problems. Maybe twice in the past 3.5 years we had minor talks about our sex life: he wanted more; I tried but didn’t deliver. I suppose that I should have taken that more seriously, even though I had no idea how serious an issue it would end up being. Otherwise our relationship, I thought, was literally perfect. Every night we slept in each other’s arms after laughing together all day long. We held hands, said, “I love you,” etc. So there wasn’t enough sex, enough passion — I was getting help.

I know I should probably feel like I deserve better than a man who didn’t love me enough to put any work into our relationship, or to open up his mouth and communicate with me about our problems — a courtesy I deserved as his partner of so many years. But all I am is devastated, utterly hopeless, heartbroken, totally crushed. I have had no contact with him since. I moved in with my parents. Even though I desperately want him and want to see him, talk, get information . . . what’s the point? He looked me in the eyes and said, “I cannot love you.” Good riddance, right?

After this tirade, my question: How the hell do I get over him? I know it’s been done before: people get their hearts broken every day. At least there were no kids (neither of us wanted kids), but we had such a love (I thought), plans for a future together, a life to look forward to. He was “it” for me, absolutely and joyfully. Now I live in a tiny town where everyone knows everyone (I can’t relocate because I own a store here), and I cannot possibly conceive of ever getting over him, ever moving on, ever finding love again, ever being happy again.

I just need some advice — what do I do with myself? I am now, ironically, in therapy with a great professional. But I need more. I need steps to take to help me get over my pain. I wish some days I had the guts to kill myself, but instead I soldier on miserably. I feel like my entire life is shattered and destroyed. I love a man who just let me go, so easily, after so many years, with no warning and hardly an explanation.

Please write to me, say something wise, give me some hope. I am so desperately hopeless and abysmally sad.

— Joanna

Dear Joanna,

OK. I will take this on. But I will not offer you hope, because hope is a fragile thing, easily dashed. You might better reach for other qualities of more-enduring purpose — skepticism, anger, determination, knowledge of your situation. You need strength and protection. Where will that strength and protection come from? It won’t come from hope. It will come from fierce determination never to be blindsided like this again.

Something died. That is what happened. Something died and everyone who loved what died is sad. What died is this thing that you and he had been keeping alive, this wonderful thing that was not you or he but a luminous third being, whose breath was your breath, whose blood was your blood, whose being was like filtered starlight that came through your bones, a twinkling thing that would catch your eye, a twinkling thing that came with a tune, like a tune you hear in a dream that seems to mean everything.

It was this that died. It died, and now everyone who loved it is sad.

This thing died, and everyone is sad and asking why. Why, indeed, do things die? Children ask this question. Why? Why do things die? But who is supposed to answer that question?

It would be comforting to have an answer. We could say love is a gift from the gods that is occasionally snatched back.

The truth seems too cruel to say.

So we go on talking just to calm your nerves, to make some music you can listen to as you grieve.

We don’t say that the reason for your misfortune is that the gods are bitchy and full of shit; that they are crazy, sick motherfuckers; that the gods spit on us when they’re drunk and curse us when they’re mad. We don’t mention what is actually known to be true: that although sometimes in some places the gods intervene on our behalf, just as often they get lost and don’t show up; that they fight among themselves instead of attending to our wishes; that they look at us with interest and sometimes with lust but only rarely with pity; that instead of offering us protection, they scheme to have us for themselves no matter what havoc it causes down here! They couldn’t care less! They are gods!

We tend to think only of the good gods, the ones that offer us bountiful harvests and invent intricate bees. It’s a habit from childhood, when we were taught to think of one good god; when, although we dreamed of monsters, we were told that god was watching out for us, that there weren’t really any monsters there in the closet, that they weren’t really crawling around up there in the space between ceiling and roof. No responsible adult would have thought to teach us that among the gods are horrible, nasty fucks that would just as soon sprinkle cancer seeds in a womb as devise a perfect delivery of a perfect little baby.

So we grew up with fairy tales, misunderstanding the nature of power, thinking power came with the good. Ha!

So these sick motherfuckers like to screw with us all, and they wait until we’re pretty soft and trusting, because it amuses them no end to see our horrified expressions when the things we love are crushed in impossibly strange ways; when our cells turn against us and buses lose their brakes; when sisters collapse in warm Hawaiian waters for apparently no reason; when strong minds go amok like frayed, sparking wires. They love it.

We live on the fragile edge of annihilation, imperfectly sheltered from the void, open to the sky and to the asshole-motherfucker gods who fuck with us night and day for their own amusement. We pray to a kind and loving insurance god who sometimes provides coverage but who just as often excludes on technicalities the calamities that befall us, looking the other way when he should be watching out for us. And this too amuses the asshole-motherfucker gods, who may be many things but are not stupid or naive.

It isn’t even so much the dying that we can’t handle; it’s the surprise, the betrayal, the way we think we’ll be OK until they yank the rug out and laugh.

So what do we do? We toughen up. We quit playing patty-cake, patty-cake, give a dog a bone; we season ourselves; we take the bit in our teeth; we flog ourselves with birch branches; we bitch and moan and howl at the moon and give up our illusions of a soft, loving god who hears our prayers and answers them. We board the windows and doors. We wise up and face the fuckers; we quit lying down and taking it; we let go of our prettiness; we prepare for the battle ahead. We say never again will we be caught off guard; never again will we pretend; never again will we believe that this thing we have created cannot be poisoned in an instant by a shit-head god on a bender, fucking up our paradise for his shallow and grim amusement.

Never again will we believe in fairy tales.

We were taught a lot of silly things as kids. Only later would we learn what pleasure the gods take in disrupting our plans; only later would we learn how minuscule are our options, how puny our plans of defense; only later would we learn there’s not a whole lot we can do except rub stone in our eyes, interrogate our lovers mercilessly, place fierce guards at entrances and exits.

That’s no consolation, really, is it? It’s just the truth. You’re wiser now, though black-and-blue, sobbing in the firelight, waiting for dawn.