05 March 2011

Why Salon's Cary Tennis is the greatest

by Nia

Sometime in 2000, when I was about halfway through either the first or second most miserable time of my adult life -- I haven't finished my calculations yet -- I came across Garrison Keillor's "Ask Mr. Blue" advice column on salon.com (hereafter to be referred to as Salon). Whereupon I was immediately hooked, began reading it first thing every morning, and after a few days started reading the two years of archived columns I'd missed.

In his calm, gentle, meandering answers he meditated on life with what was for me the perfect balance of compassion and patience and get-your-head-out-of-your-keister. As he phrased it himself in his 9/4/01 farewell piece: "Mr. Blue's strongest advice has come down on the side of freedom in our personal lives, freedom from crushing obligation and overwork and family expectations and the freedom to walk our own walk and be who we are."

At the same time he refused to pander to the You're Perfect Just the Way You Are theology. In his responses to a few people who couldn't find anyone who would love them for THEM, he said, in his own sweet way: Dude, take a hint. It just might be that you are not be-withable. Take stock of yourself.

He ended his column in September of 2001, and about six weeks later it was started up again (as "Since You Asked") with one of Salon's editors, Cary Tennis. I was skeptical, afraid that I'd be disappointed. But three columns later I realized he was just as good. It was one of life's little victories.

Mr. Tennis has personal experience with depression and cluelessness and addiction and lousy family upbringing and therapy treatments, which he is very open about. (Like almost all such commentators, he never touches upon the possible nutritional aspects of depression, which continues to be a gaping hole in the Depressionsphere, but...some day.)

Some of my favorite quotes:

On how to get to know someone: 

"...you might have to use a different kind of intelligence that doesn't involve critical reasoning or empirical argument...And maybe you're not even specifically curious about these [suggested topics to talk about]; what you are doing is engaging him long enough to triangulate his position; you're sending sonar signals so you can plot the contour of his personality...You are trying to form a picture in your mind of the unique constellation of emotions and desires that is his spiritual signature." 1/13/2003 

As someone who grew up in a family that, to quote one relative, "communicates by monologue," I thought this was a great way to describe the power of conversation.

On dealing with life's disappointments:
"Those of us who were singled out as children for being exceptionally bright often go through this...we aren't taught how to accept being second best, how to be just one among many...learning humility, learning to be a worker among workers." 2/16/2005

You might also replace "were singled out...bright" with "grew up depressed". I had recently come across another quote, source forgotten, about how such people often assume their lives should be all corner windows and genius grants. Because to go through all this mental shit for a run-of-the-mill life is just too dang unfair.

On going through therapy:
"There may be much burning emptiness there. Welcome to the emptiness. Welcome to old hungers never fed. Welcome to the pain of existence." 5/20/05 
On leaving home and family when you are young:
"That's how dads get. They get settled and protective and forget how crucial it is to brush up against the world and get pollinated by mystery." 11/16/10

How many unpollinated-by-mystery people have you met and thought, "God, not another one; he is so —" but you couldn't put your finger on it? Now you can.

On dealing with needy people:
"...When you see her feeling sad, it's not like a regular person feeling sad...She's not synthesizing experience and consciously growing...You are just the representation of something that she wants and cannot have. Maybe that's wholeness, or authenticity, or acceptance...You are an interchangeable element in her disappointment. So don't be drawn in. Understand that her sadness is global and persistent, no matter who comes and goes in her orbit." 11/26/10

(If you're a writer, Mr. Tennis also has his own writing workshop/retreat/occasional-newsletter thing going in San Francisco -- see carytennis.com. I once emailed him a writing-related question and he replied two hours later.)