The Help Desk

For those in distress

Willa Nasatir, Braid, 2013. Pigment print, 27" × 34". Courtesy of the artist.

This is the first installment of Kristin Dombek’s advice column. Questions can be sent to

Dear Professor,

Sometimes when I sit outside on my day off and wait for the sun, instead of the sun there are clouds, and pre-rain humidity, and mosquitoes. This summer, I have heard, the West Nile virus is coming to town, but sometimes I still can’t get myself to go inside. I bring out sunglasses, water, a beer, a hat, a light quilt, a pillow, and sunscreen in case the sun comes out. Then I stay outside until I’m hungry and thirsty and have drunk all the water and have to pee. It can be totally clear that the sun is definitely not coming out, but I’ll stay outside until it gets dark and the trees begin to look stern and worried, and it feels like things are looking at me sideways, suggesting a future rain and some imminent danger. I am thinking about things, over and over, but I can’t really explain what I am thinking about, and I’m not doing anything useful. It’s a little bit exciting, the abandon of sitting there anyway and all the nervousness and desire that entails, but I still don’t know why I am outside, and why I can’t move inside. What am I waiting for? And why do I want it so badly? Will I ever be able to go inside or will my desire determine everything? Sincerely, Waiting on Long Island

Dear Waiting on Long Island,

I do not know what you’re waiting for, or why you want it so badly. But what is inside that is so important? Your question leaves us wanting to know. Maybe it is laundry, or writing, a family obligation, an exercise video, or catching up on emails or tweets. Whatever it is, if it is really true that you are spending too much time outside doing nothing, alone, and you feel badly because of it in a way that makes the problem worse, and makes you a bad friend or boyfriend or writer or mother or activist or whatever love calls you to be in the world, then you will have to be more disciplined. Some things you could do to become more disciplined are the following: (1) Make a list of things you want to do on your day off, on a Post-it note or some kind of paper you like, and then scratch off all but three things on the list, prioritize them, and put the list in a corner of your apartment or house. Every time you do something on the list, scratch it off, and then eat a piece of chocolate or something. When you’re done with the list, then go sit outside. (2) Instead of sitting around wishing you were the kind of person who would be capable of that, split yourself in two. Imagine that the other part of you, the part that is supposed to get the work done, is a small belligerent puppy who needs training. Not abusive training — we should probably treat nonhuman animals as if they are as important as we are, as beings — but the kind of training you have to give to a being who is not you but with whom you are interdependent (like a spouse, a child, or a puppy) in order to get along. Don’t be mean. Just ask it to go inside. Then do the same for every task you think the puppy should do. Do this without feeling every single little fucking feeling that the puppy feels. Remember, that little puppy seems adorable and endlessly deserving of indulgence, but cuteness is a fiction manufactured by biology (big eyes, huge head, stumbling around, taking lots of naps, and then looking all helpless and sleepy) in deadly collusion with consumer capitalism (spend all your money on dumb adorable things that do you no good and then, in despair at your brokeness, do it again) to try to get to you to waste your energy caring about things that suck the life out of you. (3) Consider the possibility that you’re drinking too much, or not really in your right mind, and join a recovery organization or yoga cult that will impose its idea of order onto your discombobulated, disarrayed, disaster of a self, and get stuck there instead. If what is most important is really that you become more productive, that you do more things on your day off. If this is what you mean by “going inside,” as opposed to letting your “desire determine everything.” The way you describe your paralysis reminds me of the guy in the beginning of Infinite Jest who is waiting for a pot delivery. The guy wants to go on a three- or four-day weed-smoking binge, which he is pretending will be his last one. He has cleaned his apartment, bought a new pipe, rented “film cartridges,” manufactured a vague emergency on his outgoing message, and now he is just worrying, like about whether the dealer will buzz or call, and waiting. The waiting becomes excruciating. After ten pages, his phone rings and his doorbell buzzes at the same time, and he can’t decide which way to move, so he ends up splayed in the middle of his apartment, arms and legs stretched out toward the door buzzer on one side, and the telephone on the other. And Wallace leaves the guy there, crucified in the shape of an X, a chiasmus, a portrait of profound stuckness. We don’t know whether the guy gets the weed or not. In your case, nothing tangible is coming, not even the sun, but you are stuck anyway. Wallace is trying to show us something about addiction; interestingly, you call yours a portrait of “desire.” I have a garden, or what we call in New York a garden — a cement plot edged with potted plants — and I often think I should go outside to sit at the green plastic table and write and work, in good health, having made myself a glass of iced tea or something. But sometimes I just can’t do it. I make the list, but then I sit on my brown couch and stare for hours, turning something inarticulate over and over in my head, waiting for something that never happens, dehydrating myself, eating nothing good, caught between dread and guilt about not doing the things on the list and the pleasure of not doing the things on the list, while the air gets too heavy to move through, the stillness a little terrifying, if I let it be, like lucid dreaming about paralysis. Recently nearly a whole week passed while I was on the couch, while the sun shone outside and the flowers bloomed absurdly. Neither of us is talking about what, or whom, we are thinking about. The problem with the advice I gave you above is that there is something intriguing happening outside, for you, and it might never lose its allure. Or rather (I hope this isn’t presumptuous of me), I suspect there is something that interests you in getting stuck outside when you feel you should be inside, something good in feeling constrained there until you are hungry, in danger of wetting yourself, fearful of trees grown ominous as night approaches, and longing for rain, as if the water you’re holding inside you until it hurts could pour down from the sky itself and make this afternoon-turned-evening mean something cataclysmic. I do not think you need a cataclysm, though, for it to mean something. The opposition you set up between “going inside” and “letting your desire determine everything” recalls the story in the book of Luke about Jesus visiting the home of Mary and Martha, the famous sisters. Martha has invited him over, and when he arrives, she stays in the kitchen, making preparations for the meal, doing exactly what she should be doing given that there is such an important guest in the house. She is the sort of person who makes a list and does the things on the list. But Mary sits with Jesus, just hanging out, listening. Martha gets frustrated, comes out from the kitchen to ask Jesus, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” Jesus says her name twice. “Martha, Martha,” he says, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed — or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” He does not say what is needed, only that Mary has chosen it. The obvious reading would be that “what is needed” has something to do with spending time with the Messiah when he’s in your house. But maybe Jesus is not such a narcissist, and maybe there is a reason he leaves it intriguingly vague, so that the only thing we really know is that sometimes, at least, “what is needed” is different from what Martha is doing, that is, the things on the list. It is something more like “hanging out.” You think you should be Martha, even on your day off, but you are Mary, hanging out outside your house, and, importantly, outside time. There is no messiah coming, not even the sun is coming. But perhaps you are doing what is needed anyway. Maybe it is just to sit there, on Long Island, in between what you should be doing and what is next, gathering props but not really the right props (may I suggest bug spray?), denying your physical needs, as if pinioned by some force that you know, secretly, is imaginary. What an imagination you have, then. Need it be so frightening, inside of it? The chiasmus, the X, can be the shape of being stuck or pinioned, the double bind, but it is also the shape of inversion, which is why Milton has Satan speak in Xs. Again: “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.” The more I think about it, the more I think you shouldn’t join a cult or split yourself in two and pretend one part of you is a belligerent puppy. I don’t think this would work for you, and besides, you are already in two. Part of you has found a way to sustain the moment of desire, on your own, the way you like it, so that you can be still, inside of it, and listen. It’s like you’ve created the good part of addiction — the way time can be beautifully suspended by your dependence on something or someone, until the moment when you get the thing or the person or whatever and your desire once again builds, ever unsatisfied, ever, by the having — without the anxiety and the chemicals and the dissatisfaction, because you fill that time and space with imagination. This is evidently what is needed, on your day off. But you are Martha, too. And Jesus was a bit of a narcissistic asshole, wasn’t he, for not acknowledging that without the woman working inside, in the kitchen, no one would eat. Would you have the time and the yard to rest outside in imagination and longing if you didn’t do what you do inside to feed yourself? Could you do what you do later, inside, without this way you have of resting, outside? Is what you are waiting for some way of moving inside and outside more easily, when you need to, as if you have intended both, which you have? Or are you cultivating your desire until it is big enough to explode your house? I wish I could sit there stuck with you on your Long Island lawn, and hear what small revolution you are plotting, or imagine one with you, together. Sincerely, The Professor

Dear Kristin,

I’ve just gotten out of a complicated, year-and-a-half-long relationship with a married woman. I was her first girl. She was the first person I’d fallen in love with during my own open marriage to a woman I’ve been with for five years. The first half of the relationship with the married woman was sexy and intriguing. We’d spend weekends in a hotel room on the outskirts of the town where we live, fucking and drinking and talking for hours about the art we admire and the art we make. Our conversations felt generative for my own work. Our relationship felt like a work of art, too, because we invented it, as we needed and wanted it to be. We even took a trip abroad together, with my wife’s blessing and, I thought, her husband’s. She met my wife and my close friends; though I never was invited to her house, I was grateful to her husband for letting us become so close. My love for my wife, who had other relationships of her own, deepened during this time. But the second half of this relationship revealed self-deceptions, and finally, a discovery that she and her husband were not in an open marriage, as she’d said they were. The whole scene made me feel duped, bamboozled. The relationship ended partly because of this fact, but also partly because I felt disregarded as she continued to negotiate her feelings about me with her husband. She wanted me, but my feelings no longer mattered — only, it seemed, her own and her husband’s. She expected me to be her therapist, and to help her to work things out with him. She would tell me she couldn’t see me, and then show up at my office, which felt selfish, like a way of prolonging my agony, in order to reassure herself that I was still there, still wanted her. I have felt this thing before — when someone’s love feels suddenly selfish. It remained unclear whether she’d lied to me, or only to herself. When I told her I couldn’t talk with her anymore, since she didn’t have an agreement with her husband, she sent me a text in which she accused me of abandoning her. This was several months ago and I have not responded. And she hasn’t written me another — this, after over a year when we wrote to each other almost every day. There are some days when I can’t stop agonizing about this — how did I trust her? If she was lying about me to her husband, and about him to me, what else was she lying about, and how could she have seemed so real, so genuine with me? On these days, I think she’s evil, a monster — how could she play such games with me, blame me for the end of our relationship, and then claim she loves me? Other days, though, I just miss her. It breaks my heart to think that you can feel so close to another person, and then suddenly, they’re not in your life anymore. That you can admire someone so much, and then have such anger and misunderstanding between you. I’d like to reconnect with her in a different way, to build a friendship, to start fresh, but I’m not sure this is possible. To write to her now feels awkward, and frankly, I’m not sure how to address my long hiatus. What should I do? Sincerely, Bamboozled

Dear Bamboozled,

Many times, now, I’ve opened my laptop to answer your question, and every time it leaves me speechless. When you love someone you make a world with him or her. It seems like the world, but shining. Part of the hurt of lost love is discovering the singularity of that world, the way no one but the two of you really knew it, when you are left there alone. There are ways of honoring this, in the leaving. But some people would rather destroy that world to save themselves from mourning, even if it means making you doubt the reality of the love you thought you’d made. These sentences don’t begin to capture the nightmare this can create for you, left there wondering what was real. In the presence of that nightmare, what can a person say? That this happens to lots of people, all the time, is the furthest thing from comfort. As I think about your question, Leonard Cohen sings into my ears that “love is not a victory march,” that it’s a “cold and broken hallelujah.” I space out, I start thinking of other betrayals, I face the fact that maybe this is all there is, and then, moments later, there is Phosphorescent: “I know love as a caging thing / Just a killer come to call from some awful dream.” But shut up, Leonard Cohen, and Matthew Houck, and everyone on my playlist: Shut up. Why is this always happening? Haven’t we had enough of people devastating one another? How can we be expected to keep loving again if whenever we manage to become generous and naked and pimpled or fat or skinny and drunk and orgasmic enough to really enter the world of another and invite that person into ours, and make a new world in the process, one or the other of us will eventually, inevitably make that new world feel entirely like a fake? No more breakups, I say. No more. That the end is always there in the beginning is, obviously, no comfort. Our strangeness and difference from one another is what makes it feel so expansive and effervescent to learn each others’ bodies and worlds; this is what makes the world shine, and then empties it out, for a while, when the other becomes strange again. It’s true, but it’s also bullshit; some people are able to learn one another again, apologize, forgive, make new. She could have. He could have. You could have. I could say: Next time, ask to meet the husband. But you are not asking what to do next time. You are asking what can be saved, if anything, of the world you made together. And some might say, I mean they do say, all the time: Open relationships never work, anyway. It wasn’t real love, anyway. It’s like a vacation people take from real relationships. Because they’re scared of intimacy. Because they can’t commit. And then there’s the way that when open relationships fail, explaining your heartbreak involves such complicated descriptions of relationship structures that the whole thing you’ve done, constructed as it was over the course of time through these gentle, intricate increments via conversations as considerate as those in any great monogamous relationship, and perhaps even more vulnerable and tender and generative of love because you’re negotiating actual, present-time jealousy over real people — despite all that work, it can sound like a shit-show. And that is the worst of it, right? It sounds like a shit-show, when what you’ve been doing is actually loving, fighting for the kind of love that exists beyond owning someone. Anyway. I wanted to say something in honor of the work you did to make this thing happen, for that year and a half. And then, all of a sudden, that is not how it is. It looks like everything else, everything you’ve been escaping. And you’re not only left alone in a world you thought you’d made bigger, but one she was lying about, and to make things worse, the story is illegible: no conventional boy-girl or girl-girl true-love story, no Facebook relationship status, not to mention any wedding, or U-Haul, or dogs, or strollers, nothing but the hotels on the outskirts, the trip abroad, the art you made after. You dared to create a different kind of world, and then the real one, it must seem, crashed down, as it does. I have no doubt, given the language of your question, that you have been strong about this. That you have grieved, but not in such a way as to destroy your marriage. And now you ask: Can I repair this relationship in some way? Is there some way to recuperate it, to change an ending into a something other than an ending, to change one kind of relationship into another, to ease the hurt? I think that your impulse — tikkun, the Hebrew word for it, to mend what is torn apart or bring together what has been broken apart, to repair the world, as if it is our responsibility, in the absence of God, or until God comes back — answers the question I would have about your question. You don’t merely want to escape the pain of your shattered world: you want to incorporate into our world what you have known with her, despite her betrayal of it. Despite his. To salvage its realness. You love her. You invited her into a certain relation with you, which you are able to make, a kind of utopia. But she was also in a different relationship, and you were in that one, too. You agreed to it. You agreed, at least, to not know. To not see. I bet you will not do that again. And this is what I have to tell you, and this is a sad thing: There are people who use open relationships in order to escape what they cannot face. There are people who use open relationships in order to have someplace to go in that moment when you become ugly in the face of a loved one and want to hide when you should stay. There are people who use them to pit people one against another. To dominate women. To have secrets. To avoid the endless conversations that you have had. To save their marriage, or wreck it. To piss off their husbands. It is no utopia, what you have chosen. It is the same as everything else. Except for the fact that you somehow, in your patience and imagination, managed to honestly and openly, for a while, have a spouse and a lover, something people all over the world dream of in their secret minds. It means nothing to all these people unless you keep doing it and talking about it. Write about it. Sing about it. Paint about it — whatever your art, make it. I wouldn’t talk to her. There’s nothing wrong with you for believing in her, and you can love her, always. But don’t talk to her, dear. You made a world with her, but now, you have to realize, you made it also despite her. You can do it again, and it will be better. Don’t stop. Sincerely, K

Dear Prof,

Recently I overheard a customer ask the following question at a bar where I work. The question, disguised among the usual inane bar rhetoric, struck me in its simplicity: “Why is everyone trying so hard? Is it cool to try hard now?” Thank you, Bartender Ears

Dear Bartender Ears,

Thank you for passing this question along to the Help Desk. It is a very important and complicated one. It assumes, as many have for some time now, that “trying hard” and being cool have been, throughout history, natural opposites. But when we look more closely, we see that those who have created cool in various eras have generally manufactured the appearance of not trying that comes to constitute “cool” only through considerable effort, but only in secret. In addition, expending considerable effort in a cathartic sort of way — think of Charles Mingus, Sid Vicious, or Axl Rose onstage — has often been cool. In fact, assessments of coolness are arguably founded in judgments about the relative value of the things on which the actors in question are expending effort. To cite an obvious example, most of my friends thought the Zuccotti Park Occupiers were cool because they were trying harder than most to protest certain systems, but to my conservative and libertarian friends, the fact that they were sleeping in parks rather than trying harder to get a job made them “not cool.” In other words, what looks like “trying harder” to some can look, to others, like “not trying at all.” All this goes without saying. But let’s bracket these complications for a moment and take this question as it is. Like your patrons, I have noticed that a lot of people are trying harder now. They’re in not one band, but two or three. They’re staying up all night to write essays, and then staying up all night again to work on their novel. They’re not only writing a novel, but also being a social worker and a bartender and launching stealth micropropaganda campaigns for important sociopolitical reasons in their spare time. They are leaking crucial information about how the CIA surveys us even if it means forever exiling themselves from America. And all these people are cool. Before we can determine why, though, we have to define what “trying harder” really is. The phrase “try harder” first came to my attention when I was writing an essay for this very magazine. Next to a paragraph that was foundering on the rocks of my typically confused mind, Mark Greif, rather than engaging in any substantial way with the content of that paragraph or giving me any guidance at all about how I might improve it, instead wrote in the margin next to the paragraph in blue ink, try harder. At first I was puzzled. Try harder at what? Try harder at making sense, I supposed, but how? Maybe Mr. Greif should try harder at editing, I thought. But then, because he had asked, I decided to attempt what he’d suggested. I turned my attention more vigorously to the problem paragraph, and found the place in the mind where you can — motivated by heightened belief and desire — make yourself make more sense, and I sat still and worked until the paragraph got better, and it did. And the fact that he hadn’t told me what to do, but assumed that if I tried harder, I would figure out what to do, was the condition of possibility for being able to do this. I thought about this, and while I was still revising that essay, I had the opportunity to experiment with this strategy in another situation. In the course of participating in a certain act, the details of which I will spare you, I had gotten something stuck inside my body. I regret telling this story already, but for me it was only an intense visceral situation that could really bring home what it means to try harder. It was a tampon, which was stuck inside me. For twenty minutes I was in the bathroom trying to get it out, and in the course of trying to get it out I became overwhelmed by many new things I was learning about my anatomy that I had never had occasion to investigate quite so deeply before. I began to get that alienated feeling one gets in potentially medical situations when one’s body suddenly seems more powerfully biological and complicated and therefore unfamiliar — How could there be a turn to the left in there! — than one ever imagined. It was like trying to write a paragraph, in that way, or trying to be in a relationship. I became overwhelmed, and I just could not get the thing out. I couldn’t even understand where it was, or conceptualize the physics of the whole situation. And so I gave up. I left the bathroom and walked into the living room, where the man with whom I had performed the act that had gotten the thing stuck up in there in the first place had been sitting on the couch, stroking his beard, occasionally getting up to pace the hallway outside the bathroom door and say encouraging things to me. I said, “I can’t get it.” He asked me if I wanted him to help. I did not. I like to pretend he is a doctor, sometimes, but I didn’t want to get all medical with him, not literally, not like this. He asked if we should go to the hospital. I looked at him in despair; I’m the kind of person who would find it ridiculous and humiliating to go to the hospital if I’d had, say, a heart attack; I just couldn’t go for this reason. We looked at each other and thought. I had told him previously about the phrase that an editor had written in the margin of an essay, and the magical effect of following its instruction. And after a moment, we nodded at each other, and I said, “I have to try harder,” and he said, “Try harder. It’s the only way.” So I went back into the bathroom and I did. I calmed down enough to actually think about the problem, and I sort of felt out a strategy for solving it, and over the next fifteen minutes or so I figured out how to stretch a little further than I had before, and like some kind of tiny Roman city engineer I created a kind of micro-lever situation with my fingers, and got the damn thing out. Since then I have written the words try harder in the margins of my students’ essays and said them to their faces with remarkable results. I’ve applied them in situations ranging from not getting depressed, to having difficult conversations with friends, to playing my first show about a month after picking up the bass guitar. I’ve applied them even in the course of trying to write the answer to your question while being partially or entirely mentally impaired because I gave myself a concussion on a window while climbing onto a fire escape to water a friend’s vegetable garden. Your vegetable garden, I suspect, if I am guessing correctly about which bartender would send in such a question. At any rate, I can attest that trying harder can work. Which brings us back to the question of whether it’s cool or not. Part of the perceived historical opposition between trying harder and being cool arises from our need to disparage our desire to have our choices approved of by others. It is well known that coolness itself arises, in its endlessly paradoxical way, when individuals or groups achieve the impression of not giving a fuck, and thereby gain the approval of others. But what if we are so disparaging of the effort to be cool because we know all too well, and must therefore disavow, the way in which we do our best work in the world, have our most important ideas, and bring about the most real changes, only under the gaze of others who approve? This is the paradox inside the paradox of coolness. People who are actually able to make good art and bring about political change and wear startling new fashions and so on have reconciled themselves to this fact — that they are doing what they’re doing because of and for others — and so they do not give a fuck whether or not people think this of them. And that’s what makes them seem cool, and as if they do not give a fuck. And so what I would say to your patrons is yes, absolutely, it’s cool to try harder now, but what you choose to try harder at matters, and you should always also not give a fuck. It’s cool to try harder not to make any more shitty art, for example, which takes not giving a fuck about letting people see your shitty art along the way so that you can get their feedback and learn to make it better. It’s cool to try harder to love people who mean a lot to you, which takes not giving a fuck about them seeing you, like, have to try to get a tampon out, and all of the other embarrassments that come with being known. It’s cool to try harder to make the world, or at least your neighborhood, fairer for more people, which means not giving a fuck about people thinking you care too much or are judging them. And it’s cool to seek out and gather around you people who will look at you and say, “Try harder,” and to do it, sometimes, only because they have believed you can. Yours, Prof

Dear K,

Lying is a lot of work, and I have always been too lazy to be good at it. Remembering the details, keeping track of who said what to whom. How much you know according to one person versus how little you know according to another. But I told a good lie once, and I remember what it feels like: it feels exactly like telling the truth. It went like this: when I was young I had a set of problems that I’d routinely lie about. There were problems one through six, and probably one through four were problems that I knew, eventually, would have to be resolved, because I was not good at keeping them hidden. Eventually my boyfriend and parents would come to know everything. Drugs, et cetera. It was just a question of timing. So I would lie, to the best of my ability, which was poor, and say that I never did thing one, certainly not thing two. One by one I fucked up, and, being lazy, had to admit that yes, I had done, or I was things one and two. Also three, and yes, even four. After some time, I could tell, they were really close to discovering thing five. I had dreaded this day, and I remember it very vividly: I was standing on a low cliff overlooking the scenic highway, and the wind was really violent, whipping my hair against my face, which was covered in runny snot from so much crying. I looked at my boyfriend and I said, sore with tears, You caught me. I am telling you the truth. Thing five is X, it’s true. Kill me now, I deserve it. I have nothing more to hide. He was smoking. He wouldn’t look at me, he was doing his best to be stoic and furious, and he said: That’s it? And I said, That’s it. And he said, You’re sure. And I said, I’m sure. And he said, You would swear on my life that there’s nothing else. And I said, I have nothing left to hide, I have said thing five, the last of the things. Yes, I am sure! And then he said: Fuck you. I know thing six. And then right there he took my phone, dialed my parents, shoved the phone against my cheek, and as it rang and rang and rang, he said, to my total bafflement, Tell them you want to go to rehab or I will never speak to you again. The thing is, I had completely forgotten thing six. Totally, honestly, completely fucking forgot. I was telling the truth so hard in that moment. Unveiling thing five had been so devastating, I’d been blindsided, and by contrast, thing six just seemed so . . . inconsequential. So I lied, yes, but to this day, I swear to god, I was so full of truth when I swore on his life that I had nothing else to betray. I didn’t, according to my spectrum of acceptable lies. As I said, I’m too lazy, I don’t lie anymore. Or at least I confess to my lies too soon for them to really count. My problem now is different. Now I know this man who’s a liar, worse than I ever was. He lies and lies and lies and lies some more. I’ve loved him very much, but he’s a liar. Except he doesn’t realize it; as far as he understands, he’s telling the truth so hard, just like I was, with thing six. Except for him, everything is thing six. His life is a series of Things Six. I’m starting to think he really has no idea that he’s lying. Can a liar of this quality ever be a true friend? Can you tell a liar he’s lying when he’s so sure he’s telling the truth? I want to say: Why are you still lying to me? but I know he’ll have no idea what I’m talking about. Please help. Yours truly, Bad Liar

Dear Bad Liar,

The answer to your question about whether this man can be a true friend to you, and whether you should challenge him about his lies — your wonderful, difficult question, puzzling to the point of inducing in this advice columnist intellectual paralysis, repeated intoxication, and fights picked with friends for the sake of “research” — depends on a lot of things, not least of these being the matter of what “true friendship” is. (There will be a sneaky, Yoda-like nature to the Help Desk’s answer, à la a good therapist, and I feel guilty about it. So I’m going to sum up the twist right here: we can’t really answer the question of whether or not this man can be a true friend to you, dear. The real question is, “Can I be a true friend to a liar so good he’s sure he’s telling the truth?”, i.e., “Can I love this man?” And the answer is yes, you can love anyone. Or the question is, “Should I love a liar so good he’s sure he’s telling the truth?” and the answer is still yes. You already do. You should love everyone you can; we should. The answer is always yes. But the answer is always also that there are many kinds of love, more than you think.) I wish that I could ask what you think “true friendship” is. A couple of summers ago I really felt it, I think, in Connecticut. I was visiting Nadia, we’ll call her, at her new country house. Years ago, we’d both moved to New York on the same day, her from the West, me from the Midwest. We’d met on line, as we’d learn to call it, in the payroll department at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, where we’d both gotten jobs as writing tutors. Nadia was a poet. I didn’t know what I was, and wasn’t ready to find out, so I’d enrolled in graduate school. What I really wanted was the city, and I wouldn’t know it as I do if it weren’t for her. The whole time, those first years, we were full of an unbearable combination of melancholy and joy. One day, in the lounge at work, I was so full of feelings that I said I wished someone would just hit me, and without hesitating she hauled off and decked me, right in front of the students and everyone, and then we laughed about it for days. She was impetuous and hilarious like that, and still is. Our busyness took us in different directions for a few years, and then we surprised each other by ending up at the same job again, teaching writing at another university. As we caught up about the time we’d missed, we learned that we’d both met the men we believed would become our companions for life. We’d met them in the same exact week of the same exact year. I was starting to write essays, and she’d become a short story writer. Since then, we’ve spent years reading and editing each other’s writing, traveling, understanding our lives together. We moved in with the respective men, and they became friends with each other, too. She is one of the people I look at and think: I would not know what I know or be who I am if it weren’t for you. Then she got married, and I broke up; she quit smoking, and I never quit anything; she had a daughter and a terribly late miscarriage and another daughter, and I did not have children, and kept living much as I always have, reckless and without a family or even a permanent home, much less a second home in the country, but less melancholy and more joyful than ever. She’s started writing poems again, and they are poems of startling beauty; I’m still writing essays. Literary genres aside, the difference in our choices seems like the stuff of New York and Atlantic articles about the double binds of being a woman, these terribly sacrificial decisions, as if the values underpinning the different paths we are taking, Nadia and I, are so different as to cancel each other out. That summer weekend, I was floating at one end of her pool, looking at her big yellow house and watching her, beautiful in her black-and-white swimsuit, taking care of her two little girls at the other end of the pool with patience and her characteristic disarming silliness. She makes motherhood look as fun as a Saturday night at my local, which is to say, very fun. The joy I felt about her life with these daughters, the good husband she’d managed to keep, the poems — it was so material as to make my heart feel stretched; I felt a different but equal joy about my own life. This witnessing of another’s life with genuine pleasure, even or especially when its different success might threaten your own personal philosophy of life — I’ve been thinking this is true friendship, or a part of it. We often begin friendships, like love affairs, in an ecstasy of sameness; but when they go on, they do it by means of a world-widening pleasure about difference. For love, we stretch to see things from outside the little circle in which we have come to stand. This is why I think you can love a man who you believe is a liar, even if you yourself are not. But there are many kinds of love. On that low cliff overlooking the scenic highway, your young boyfriend decided that you were lying so hard that being a true friend meant telling you so. That you couldn’t be a true friend unless you changed. He put a phone up to your snot-plastered face and overruled you, regarding the truth; he said, I know what it is, better than you do. He risked losing you to help you. Or he tried; you don’t tell us whether you did go to rehab, or what you learned there, if anything, about friendship and truth and the lies that weave themselves into so thick a fabric beneath us that it becomes the foundation of our life, upon which everything else depends, and the thing we cannot look at, or cannot even see: our Thing Six. You’ve told this story to show that you understand what it’s like to have a Thing Six; I wonder if you’ve also told it because you are trying to decide if you should do for your friend what your young boyfriend did for you. But I don’t know what this new man lies about, how bad it is. You have not told us what is at stake when he does, and so all we have to go on is your repetition: He lies and lies and lies and lies and lies some more. I do not think you would have written the word so many times if his lying did not cause some hurt, to him, to others around him, to you. You have also not said if you tend to believe him, and then find yourself deciphering the truth, a perpetual detective. I hope not. You say you’ve loved him, very much, but you haven’t said whether or not you’re in love with him. Maybe not, but I can’t help but suspect, since you have written to the Help Desk, that you are. You also have not said if he is an addict, as you once were, but we tend now to see these things as going together: when people lie to this extent, it is in order to cover up some uncontrollable and destructive dependence. We’ve learned from AA et cetera that when someone has a Thing Six that’s really bad, there comes a point where you take that person up to a low cliff above a highway, or sit him down in a room with the friends and family, and say: You’re no good at the truth, we know the truth better than you, and the truth is that you are in need of professional help. To forcibly overpower a person’s sense of her own authority over her own experience, in order to save her life: it seems necessary in some cases. With junkies, with some kinds of drinkers, with meth heads, probably. Guys who spend all their money on hookers and cannot, therefore, pay rent or buy beer. I don’t know if the man you love is one of these kinds of people. And I am not sure that intervention, and its end goal — sobriety via a moral journey back to “truthfulness” and “health” — is always the most helpful model to have in mind, when it comes to the problem of true friendship and Things Six. I’m not sure it’s always helpful to categorize people as truth-tellers or liars, healthy people or addicts. People you can be close to and people you cannot be close to. People you can love and people you should shut out. For one thing, this model does not acknowledge (well, the AA model and some others try to acknowledge this, but I don’t think well enough) the possibility that everyone, when you get to know them well enough, has a Thing Six, even you. That there is a possibility that everyone has a Thing Six does not mean, though, that when you think you see someone’s Thing Six, the alternative to a cliff-top intervention is to let her go on and on, not knowing that you think she has one. In fact, that would maintain a kind of power over the person that is, I think, antithetical to true friendship. You definitely can say it: “Why are you still lying to me?” You should say it. The question is how. A few days after I returned home from Connecticut, Nadia wrote a blog post, which I came across via Facebook. The post — it was an advice column she was writing at the time, actually — included a portrait of a “friend” I quickly realized was me. Nadia was answering a question about parenting an autistic child, and to illustrate a point she described me as she’d seen me that weekend: strung out, chain-smoking, pacing, texting, all caught up in trying to figure out why some man who’d been so into me a week before had turned suddenly cold. Nadia wrote, “How do you love someone who is right in front of you but not really present?” There was no judgment in this portrait, just longing and a good question. Reading it gave me pause. While I was busy being all blissed out on friendship transcending difference I was struggling with something. It was more visible to her than me, and the way she named it opened a window so I could think about the struggle as one about being present, which was a much more helpful way to think about it than “I’m trapped and I suck and I don’t know why!!!” I’m sorry that it has taken me so long to write back to your question. Ever since you contacted the Help Desk, I have been trying to figure out whether everyone has a Thing Six or not. I have researched this in various ways, as mentioned above, and I have reread Nietzsche, and read the copy on the back cover of M. Scott Peck’s People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil, neither of which helped very much. I have come to the conclusion that most people I have loved do have, in my view, a Thing Six. But I have also concluded that there is no way for me, personally, to know whether this means that everyone has a Thing Six. Maybe everyone has a Thing Six, and I just prefer people whose are so obvious that you can see them coming a mile away. Maybe those people are more honest, somehow, for letting their Things Six hang out all over the place; at least you know what you’re dealing with. You see the problem; I may be the least qualified person to address the issues you raise. I tend to care deeply for people who some think are beyond the pale. I teach writing in prisons, and sometimes I’ll look at an inmate who’s drowned her own daughter or something, and I just want to help her: I say, let’s work on that passive voice. When I was playing at being a scholar, for a while, I was a scholar of religion, and I spent my time writing arguments that secular people should be more empathetic toward fundamentalists, even those who conduct or support great atrocities. I have been in love with several people I would call “hustlers” but who are generally considered to be liars. I recently had a dream that I was with a group of friends in a labyrinthine mansion in which a serial killer was hiding. We searched high and low until one of our search parties found him in a secret, boarded-up room in a corner of the cellar. They brought him up and sat him down in the yard. He was dirty and exhausted, and yet was looking around with a terrifying, maniacal grin. What I did in the dream was feel badly for him; I sat down beside him and rubbed his back and told him that things were going to be OK. I smiled at him and directed all the warmth I could muster at him until his smile toward me turned real, and then I helped him get in the van to go to prison. I don’t know what my Thing Six is, or it wouldn’t be a Thing Six, but I’m pretty sure I have one, and I suspect it has something to do with this. According to at least one theory of dream interpretation, everyone in the dream is always you. Let’s just ignore that theory. A question of interest here, that you did not ask, is what is so enchanting about liars? Even your portrait of yourself — telling the truth so hard that you were lying, on that low cliff above the scenic highway — is endearing. Your question is such a good and difficult one that I’ve talked about it to several people, and without exception they say, Wow, I love her. They assume you’re a “she,” though it’s not certain from your question that you are. I talked about your question with the man I was texting at Nadia’s, who likes to say that everyone in the dream is always you. His Thing Six may have something to do with the seduction of women. Sometimes I think he is a liar, but most of the time I see that things just change a lot for him, from day to day, from person to person. On a day I thought he was a liar, I showed him your question, thinking he might recognize himself in the gentleman you love and feel bad when he saw how upset you were, and change, or something. He read it and said, Ask her what is it about her that would draw her to someone who lies so much. And how does she know it’s not she who is lying? Also, he thought you sounded hot. He wanted me to ask you: What do you look like? Do you like beards? At the risk of getting too late-night-dorm-room relativistic, I have to point out that other people’s dearest beliefs, and the beliefs we’ve left behind, often look to us like Things Six — lies so good they provide the hidden foundations of our lives, corporately and in our intimate relations. Religions, for example. Atheisms. Nationalisms. Family, even: the story of one’s own family, as the center of the world. Romantic love, magical until the “spell is broken” (how many times have you heard someone say, after they’ve been broken up with, that their ex is a liar, or even a sociopath?). Is it because our lives so often depend on beliefs we can’t look at too closely that we like novels and movies so much, and evaluate them, much of the time, on whether they are believable or not? As if being lied to is so fascinating? Aren’t more people than you and I, Bad Liar, fascinated with liars? Remember a couple of winters ago, when all the delis and supermarkets were playing Rihanna and Eminem’s “Love the Way You Lie”? Her pretty, sweet chorus: “Just gonna stand there and watch me burn? / That’s alright because I like the way it hurts / Just gonna stand there and hear me cry? / Well that’s alright because I love the way you lie / I love the way you lie.” Between her choruses, Eminem raps to her about how much he loves her, explains why he thinks they “fight,” i.e., why he hits her, rationalizes seductively and promises he’s trying to change, until finally he cracks, exploding with something — honesty? — in his final lines, addressed not to her but to us: “I know I’m a liar, if she ever tries to fuckin’ leave again / I’mma tie her to the bed and set this house on fire.” Rihanna comes back in, her chorus’s metaphor of burning turned awfully real: “Just gonna stand there and watch me burn? / That’s alright because I like the way it hurts.” It sends you back to see the whole song differently. It’s a dissection of what we call a “toxic,” abusive relationship. And with some kinds of liars, you just need to get out of the house, and fast, and that is one kind of love. Yet the structure of the song tricks us into recognizing something very hard to look at, about relationships in general: the way we call out, sometimes, to lies and liars, to bind us. The confusing similarity between the burning of desire and the burning of suffering. The way our Things Six are always getting into relationships with the Things Six of others, and how that is a big part, usually, of what we call love. I don’t know why you’re so drawn to a man who lies and lies and lies and lies some more. But I know why I go again and again back into that firetrap of a house. It is because there, wrestling with other liars, especially when they are liars of a certain quality, I get to glimpse the way that Things Six are buried, on the way to making all we can see: We are the best couple. The best family. The only nation that matters. The only true religion, eternal life. There I get to wrestle with how gender and power get organized. Eminem: “When it’s going good it’s going great / I’m Superman with the wind at his back, she’s Lois Lane.” He’d do anything to her, to get that feeling back. The self: burn long enough and she feels like the fucking messiah in the form of a girl. With spectacular liars, you get to fight. What can save us from these flames, Bad Liar? I only know of one thing that can: true friendship. And I do not mean that it is your job, as a true friend, to stand on some cliff and describe this man’s Thing Six, as if you can see it clearly. By the time you know someone well enough to see their Thing Six, it probably has something to do with you. Thing Six is not something to angrily describe. It is something to be. Be his Thing Six, Bad Liar. You already are. It’s your name, after all. Be bad at lying; be different; be honest. You are the possibility that one can live without lying about the fact that they are lying. It is not comfortable to let yourself be different from your friend, especially in a moment when he is telling the truth so hard and it feels like to believe differently will make him be hurt at you, but you must do it. There is no getting out of it. You will be the Thing Six in all your true friendships, anyway, should they last long enough: you will come to represent the paths your friends have not taken, that they will not or cannot go down, what they have shut out, because they are only one person. You will represent who they might have been, had their lives so far been different. Knowing you will help them see the circle where they stand, and that they are not trapped there. But you have to remember, about them, that they are your Things Six, too. Even this liar of a man is a Thing Six for you. To be Thing Six well means to be different without judgment. It doesn’t work otherwise. And there is something that is even better. There is a quality that my favorite Things Six, Nadia and the bearded fellow among them, share: when they show me where I’m standing, they don’t make it look like the alternative to lying to myself is penitence and shame, and then the dull emptiness of whatever “sobriety” would be. They don’t even really point out the invisible fabric beneath me; they just convince me, by living with real pleasure and such evident grace, but differently than I do, that life out there might be more meaningful and fun than this endless attachment to some unworkable belief that I have to be the way I’ve been. When the best Things Six point us toward alternative places to live, they make them seem not like rehab centers or churches, in which to sit penitently and sort wrong from right and shame from health. They make life outside our circle seem as fun as the best kind of local bar — with private corners to hide and open spaces to meet others in, full of rigorous spiraling conversations and little spontaneous dance parties and bathroom blow jobs and nonsensical hilarious games. Does this man do this for you? Can he be your Thing Six? If so, maybe he can be a true friend to you, but you won’t know unless you can be his. Yours, K

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