How successful people deal with dead ends: sidestep and reframe

Every morning my Google Calendar alert says “you have no events scheduled today.” This used to be my favorite part of my email, but my prayers for permanent lockdown went unanswered, and my brother did shared screen to help me book a flight and he saw I have no calendar and he lost his shit.

1. Listen to other people. They’ll see the dead end before you do.

He asked me how I keep track of my schedule.

I told him I agree to very little and when I do agree I tell people to call me when it’s time.

He told me this is not an effective way to be an adult.

I think: Whatever.

He told me this is really inconsiderate.

I care about that. So now my email reminds me each day to check my calendar. Which is just as well because I had also been using Nino as my calendar but he doesn’t live with us anymore. A year ago the kids staged a rebellion and Y said, “Just be the adult and get him to move out.”

2. Goals that emphasize what’s working well will evaporate a dead end.

Nino moved out, but he still comes over three or four days a week. He drives the kids to doctor appointments which is good because  I totaled three BMW SUVs in three years because I don’t have an attention span for driving. Also, as we have established, I don’t keep a calendar, and it’s not like I can make a doctor appointment and say Call me when it’s time.

Nino breaks late so the car jerks to a stop. I try to ignore that and just be grateful that he’s driving. You can tell it’s difficult for me because I also told myself that if I’m going to write about Nino I have to write about his good parts. I don’t think we would have gotten a divorce if I had shown him more gratitude. Or any gratitude.

In relationships we can choose gratitude or disdain. What is my fucking problem that I show gratitude to my parents for my childhood and disdain to Nino for our marriage?

3. Test options that looked bad before – they might look better now.

I am not solving this problem while I lay on the sofa with my computer and Nino lays on the opposite sofa with the dog. Nino meant to get to the apartment later and I meant to leave earlier. Each of us has a little plan for how to not end up spending the day together. We have failed.

Z asks us all the time what we will do when the kids are gone. I think we have our answer: I’ll cuddle with the computer and Nino will cuddle with the dog and I will pretend to not write about him but I will write about him because I don’t know how to love someone without writing about them.

I test what he’s willing to talk about with me. I look at my laptop so it’s casual but I want to know how much he still hates me. I ask about work. I ask about his parents. I ask if he wants lunch. Normally I make lunch for Nino and Z but it would be taking another big step for me to just make lunch for Nino so he says no.

Z will eat lunch at work. There are a lot of ways I can tell there’s a labor shortage for restaurants. One is that Z’s first job took him literally one day to get and he’s making $15/hr. Another way to tell is that the chefs make food for the employees every day. When I was a scooper at Baskin Robbins I wasn’t even allowed to make myself a sundae.

4. Look at the situation from other perspectives.

I work on my calendar. I add everything I can think of. It’s important to make sure I do not annoy my brother with subpar calendaring because he helps me a lot in navigating life. Like, I’m pitching a new company to investors and I’m out of practice and I didn’t know the conventions for sending a Zoom link — do I send it or does the VC? So I have to ask my brother questions like this, which I used to answer for him twenty years ago when he was an intern at my startup.

I tell him, “It’s so hard to pitch when I’m no longer young and hot. It’s easy to do anything when you’re young and hot.”

He says, “I think I know women who would disagree with that.”

(My brothers are always clarifying my black-and-white proclamations. If I let them have dialogue in every blog post I would have nothing left to say that’s interesting. What I mean is that pretty much anything you want to do is easier to do if you’re young and hot. Which is a duh. Okay, fine.)

Nino brings up a topic: “When will Y come have dinner with us?”

I look over at him, “Are you joking? How often did you go home to your parents’ house for dinner when you were at college a few blocks from them?”

Nino thinks about it. “I guess never.”

“So why would you expect things to be different here?”

“Because I’m the dad and I miss him.”

What the fuck. I have to write so I don’t start lecturing him on how stupid it was for him to leave the family when Y was four. I appreciate that Nino doesn’t lecture me on how stupid it was to miss so many doctor appointments for so long. And dentist. Z had six cavities. Nino only lectures me on that I ruined his life. But that was fifteen years ago, when we got a divorce. Since then he’s never lectured me. I am trying to return the favor.

5. Reframe the situation so you still have the power.

Z calls to say he’s working an extra hour. I used to get snippy about working too many hours, but he speaks Spanish 90% of the time at his job and his best friends are there. I tell myself to be grateful for how many problems this job solves for our family and not worry so much that I don’t believe in kids working a dead-end job instead of developing a passion.

Nino walks the dog. I wonder what Nino says when people invariably say, “Your dog is so beautiful. Can I pet her?”

I always say, “No, she’s not that friendly.”

Then they say, “Oh, is she a rescue?”

And I say, “Yes,” because I can’t stand admitting that we had every opportunity to have an emotionally balanced dog and I blew it.

The dog bursts in the door with licks and a stick from outside.  I ask Nino. He says he tells them you shouldn’t pet her and walks away so he doesn’t have to talk with anyone.

I tell him people will hate him and the dog if he’s rude.

He says people already probably hate him. He turns to the dog to trade a ball for a stick.

“Why do they hate you?”

“People ask me if I’m your husband.”

“Oh God. What do you say?”

“I say no.” The dog hears no and tilts her head.

“That’s absurd. Do you want them to think you’re some random guy hanging out with my kids and walking my dog? You just back yourself into a corner.”

“You think everything’s a dead end.”

“Well I definitely think this one is. For you.”

“You thinking it’s a dead end doesn’t make it a dead end. It just means things aren’t going how you planned.”

The dog does a circle and sits at his feet like they’ve both just won a prize.

36 replies
  1. Jim Grey
    Jim Grey says:

    Baskin Robbins was stingy. I had an early job at a Dairy Queen and the owner let us make whatever we wanted for ourselves at half price. They used to have blueberry syrup then and I made blueberry shakes for myself, extra blueberry.

  2. Lindsay
    Lindsay says:

    The difference between how you feel about your parents and Nino is forgiveness. You’ve forgiven your parents and not Nino.

  3. Graham
    Graham says:

    Perhaps Nino paid the price for the gratitude you found for your parents. “We always hurt the ones we love the most” is a cliche for a reason.

  4. Peter Varhol
    Peter Varhol says:

    Much to say here, but I’m going to limit it to one thing. I’ve followed you for a long time (since approximately 9/11), and am guessing that you are in your 50s, which in this day and age isn’t considered old.

    “It’s so hard to pitch when I’m no longer young and hot. It’s easy to do anything when you’re young and hot.”

    Do you really believe that? Or did you say it to shut down Nino? Not that I have any sympathy for Nino, but I have been with women who say things like “Because I’m a bad person.” Not because they are, we are all works in progress. But because they were uncomfortable with the way the conversation is going, and that’s a great way of stopping a conversation in its tracks. This sounds like you. Please think about it.

  5. Rachel
    Rachel says:

    Another delightful read. Thanks for writing it and sharing it. Give a pat to your unruly dog for me. How’s the garden? Ours is dead for the winter…

  6. Rebecca
    Rebecca says:

    I say this with fondness for you as someone who I have followed for years, and with appreciation for everything you bring to the table on your blog, and also
    as someone who once paid for a very illuminating advice session with you.

    Just wondering, Penelope, do you think it might possibly be helpful for you to get a current and perhaps more correct assessment of your mental heath diagnosis? Truly, it pains me to watch you struggle unnecessarily and repeatedly with a pattern of responses that could have and should have been sorted long ago. Best, RJG

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Surprise. I have a more current assessment. I’m too scared to write about it here. I’m warming up to the idea. I have appreciated throughout the years, though, that competent professionals have weighed in with their comments on this topic. The comments have not gone unnoticed.


      • Gretchen
        Gretchen says:

        In my 30s I came across a quote that was said to be from Nietzsche: “You love your demons and will not abandon them.” I printed it out and hung it over my writing desk. I loved the ambivalence of it–it seemed like both a criticism and compliment. Later at some point I decided that I did not want demons of any sort to be influencing my life, even if they were interesting demons that seemed to fuel creativity, and I took the piece of paper down. After reading this I just tried to look the quote up, and I can’t find that it ever existed anywhere.

      • Bostonian
        Bostonian says:

        If you don’t post your more current assessment, people may start guessing.

        I’m puzzled by Z wanting to work in food service. But Z is the one who isn’t autistic. My son, who, as you know, is also a musician, and is also autistic, would never want to work in food service, while making money busking, tuning, or giving lessons seems much easier for him. I think Z could probably make more money quicker using his music too.

        Do you think part of Z wanting to work in the kitchen is just a change of venue? He’s been sort of hothoused as a child prodigy for so long. Maybe he relishes being in a completely different world.

        • Penelope Trunk
          Penelope Trunk says:

          The car crash has pretty much killed Zehavi’s cello career. I have to say this in the comments, which is like whispering to me. I get a headache just typing it. It’s so hard to handle. He can only play for fifteen or twenty minutes at a time before he gets a headache. He gets a headache reading. He gets a headache watching a movie. Before he can even finish running 50 yards the headache gets so bad he vomits.

          The restaurant is the only thing he has been able to do that is rewarding without getting a headache. I try not to think about that his job is folding napkins and clearing dirty dishes. And still, he gets headaches some days. And he leaves early to avoid the loudest times.

          He also has bad brain days, which is what people with brain injuries call days when their head is just mysteriously terrible. On those days he can’t remember how to speak Spanish and he says his co-workers’ minds are blown by how terribly he communicates and they think he’s faking it.

          I’m just spewing now. Because the comments have always felt like my safe room to say anything. I don’t know how he is going to cope. I remind myself to be the most grateful person in the world that he’s still alive.


          • Bostonian
            Bostonian says:

            PT, I did not know that the damage from the accident never got much better. I had seen Z around NEC in the times after the accident and before the pandemic, so I imagined he was slowly returning to music then, and of course we did not see him again at all once the whole world got shut down. I imagined he was recovering. It breaks my heart to learn he wasn’t.

            I hope that your support network is helping you do all that can be done for Z, both in terms of doing whatever can be done medically to help recover (e.g. there are treatments centers that specialize in recovering function after TBI), and in terms of accessing the services needed by someone who is disabled.

            Your role was once that of cello mom – you pursued cello competitions and teachers with impressively single-minded fervor. Now you are a TBI mom. If there’s a center somewhere in Utah that promises special treatment, you should go there just like you would have if it were a cello competition five years ago.

            The worst-case scenario is what you’ve laid out above: he may never be able to hold a full-time job (of any sort, forget music or intellectual work) because of his disability. TBI mom needs both to try to prevent that from coming true and prepare for that coming true. I know you’ve spoken to social services repeatedly, and I hope you have made them aware of these facts, because they may be able to help you connect to resources, and transition him from the resources available to children to those available to adults when and if it comes to that.

            Your rant about how stupid divorce is is maybe one of the best things on your site. More people should read it. I have trouble figuring out, while reading it, how to reconcile your passion and unflinching logic there with the contemporary fact that you are pushing your kids’ father away. He came when it most mattered, and he still hasn’t left despite your best efforts. I’m sure I’m not the only reader who hopes you can turn the corner there.

          • Jules
            Jules says:

            I’m so sorry to hear this, Penelope. TBI is heartbreaking, especially when it destroys a gift like Z’s, and it knocks whole families sideways onto new paths. I’m glad that Z has a place he can go and do things that make him feel capable and independent; your job now is to be as proud of his life now as you were of his cello. Perhaps the hardest thing about this is that you both have to mourn the Z who might have been, but that is the nature of growing up – we can only take some of the parts of our childhood selves with us into adulthood and we do not always get to choose the parts we are proudest of. If that feels hard, I’ll finish by reminding you how proud you were of him just for existing when he was tiny, which is my way of saying thank you for the small human currently asleep in my lap, who would not exist if you had not told me that you can have a career anytime but you can only have a baby now.

  7. Joe E
    Joe E says:

    Dear-end jobs aren’t dead-end if you have fun at them and/or if you are learning skills (including how to deal with people) and/or if they give you schedule flexibility and/or if college is your passion or at least the thing you should be focusing on.

    Everyone needs a few jobs like that for all the above reasons and also bc it’s fun to commiserate about them years later.

      • Azura
        Azura says:

        I’m also reading for so many years. I don’t always agree, but I very much enjoy reading and thinking about what you say. I’m telling you this so that you know about your long time readers – people like me who is commenting for the first time.

  8. Jesse
    Jesse says:

    Early on in my career I heard a quote from Brian Tracy that said “if you don’t love what you do, run away from it like a burning building”. I have lived by that and still love everyday of what I do. Thanks!

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      So happy you asked!

      My company pitch: A better solution to Autism testing. Right now there’s a two-year wait to get an Autism test covered by insurance. If you get the test privately the cost is $2000 – $5000. We have a very fast testing alternative with superior results that will cost parents $100 per test.


      • JulieFromCA
        JulieFromCA says:

        Hey Penelope,

        The testing startup sounds amazing!

        Not only does “I think my kid’s not neurotypical” testing cost a lot of $$, it also exhausts the kid and the schlepping/scheduling/driving parent (as well as the non scheduling/schlepping/driving parent who has to be present for the presentation of results) and takes multiple sessions (plus said presentation of results – in itself a test of endurance for parents, especially those with audio processing and sensory disorders like their kid’s)

        And if you live in a densely populated area you have to wait for an appointment and wait 6-8 weeks for results. In my experience it’s entirely private pay unless you’re one of the lucky ones for whom the school antes up — which I’ve heard they do when they don’t have to create an IEP or when they have graduate students shadowing the school psychologist. Or if you live in a state where they actually fund the schools, like Georgia.

        As a funny aside, my nearly 20 year old kid’s in university overseas now and the school wanted to verify her diagnosis. Same test, nearly ten years later, with similar results. She was eager to learn something new about herself — she was disappointed to end up with an IQ number (we’d never gotten one before) and not much else.

  9. harris497
    harris497 says:


    What would happen if you opened up to Nino and told him how you feel? Or is writing about it your way of doing this?

    What would happen if you both went to a good relationship counselor and hashed things out?

    Is it possible that you two aren’t meant to be more than friends? Would it would be worth it to you both to sort this stuff out before it isn’t worth it to do so.


    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I am not sure I think there are unhashed things. I say everything.

      I have been to so much couples therapy. And I have coached hundreds of couples. And it’s clear to me that couples therapy is not necessary.

      My advice: If you want to tell your partner something, say it. If they don’t want to listen, going to therapy won’t make them want to listen. You can’t change someone. Instead, ask yourself why did you chose someone who doesn’t listen to what you want to say. Maybe what you’re saying is unnecessary. Maybe just take responsibility for choosing this marriage and suck it up. Seriously. The marriages I’ve seen that were saved by coaching were not hours of couples — it was mostly one person working on themselves.

      I think Nino and I get along now because I’m not trying to change him. I’m not dragging him to therapy to get him to listen to what he doesn’t want to listen to.

      I know I’m not a god of judging whether someone is great for me. But I talk to THOUSANDS of women about how disappointed they are with they marriage they have, the guy is not what they expected, etc. And it’s every marriage. Life is disappointing. And couples therapy is just a way to focus on what is disapointing as if it’s a surprise, or like there’s something wrong with you if the person is disappointing. But it seems totally normal to be disappointed. Whatever. Just acknowledge it and keep going. Disapointment is nothing compared to the despair, loneliness and stupidity of divorce.

      Okay. Diatribe. I just went on a diatribe. I should just write blog posts instead of ten paragraph comments.

      Thank you for your comments. They help me to know what I care about most.


      • harris497
        harris497 says:

        Perhaps the ability to engage in honest introspection is a wonderful thing if we learn to use it as a learning tool… a guide. You seem to write as a form of catharsis, eventually though, when the contents of the abscess is expressed, the healing needs to begin. Are you ready to heal? That is hard and lonely work.


  10. ru
    ru says:

    i am almost embarrassed to say I didn’t quite understand how the post links to the title until i read the comments. thank you fellow commenters who fill in the gaps.

  11. Leonie
    Leonie says:

    You really need to remove the vendetta tab from your website. It makes you look crazy.

    I love your writing.

    • Minami
      Minami says:

      I think you can delete the vendetta because when you Google Cassie Boorn, one of the first things that pops into the results is your 2019 post on how Cassie stole money from you and others. You can probably just write a post on Katie Anderson as well. Turn it into something about how being a scam artist doesn’t work out for people.

      I think what would be really compelling would be a post on you and Cassie’s overall relationship; how she suckered you in over the years with her sob stories and how the relationship ultimately fell apart. There’s a lesson in there about how to treat people who try to help you if you actually care about relationships (Cassie clearly doesn’t).

  12. MH
    MH says:

    My mother was a waitress and she loved the job. She got to talk to people and make them happy, and she loved that. It felt meaningful to her. Remember what with different types, what’s meaningful to you may not be meaningful to someone else. Maybe this restaurant job is what’s meaningful for Z. Plus he’s a sensor. He doesn’t need a huge job to make him happy. Just staying busy in something he doesn’t hate is probably good enough for him.

    Z will probably need to get handicapped accommodations. He may be able to get enough to live on. Then maybe he can volunteer somewhere or just do his hobbies.

    Re: Nino – I don’t know if this is reassuring or not, but people will assume that if he’s not your husband, then he’s your boyfriend.

  13. samantha
    samantha says:

    thinking of you on your bday so checked in with your blog and caught up. so much love and respect for your courage, transparency and great writing. forever your friend, sam

Comments are closed.