"Ready for dinner"
Mr. Blue was in the Berkshires last week, visiting Tanglewood, the music school and concert park near Lenox, Mass., as a kindness to Mrs. Blue who has rich green memories of being 16 there and a violinist and sitting up late summer nights and talking about Art and Harmony and the Purpose of Life. I miss those conversations, too, though mine took place in more prosaic places, in and around southeast Minneapolis. Not far from Lenox is Hancock Village, a beautifully preserved Shaker settlement, where the Shakers’ conversations ended long ago and now all we have is their taste in design, like trading in the prophet Jeremiah for Martha Stewart.
The Shakers did fairly well with celibacy, all told. Any who wanted out could walk away and the prevailing view of the community’s rules was pretty cheerful. They were a progressive lot, given to innovations of all sorts, the last Shakers fascinated by television and the latest appliances, and were they still around and shaking today, they’d be deeply into computers, a mystical commune of celibate programmers. Probably there are many celibate programmers out there, but without Shaker theology to prop them up, they tend to feel ashamed of virginity, a badge of a warped and unworthy person. That and other persistent grievances found in this column the Shakers dealt with by the simple means of maintaining a powerful communal life. Within it, the notion of career advancement didn’t register, nor disappointment in love: You turned your eyes to Providence and got a vision of Eternity and Perfection and Harmony and that sufficed for you. And you were guaranteed the love and care of your fellow Shakers to your dying day. And you lived pretty well. Shakers were not a penitential order.
I recall the conversations of my youth about the Purpose of Life as breathtakingly grand. Magical, even. I sure wasn’t cut out for a normal life as I understood it back in the ’50s, so I rejected a test I could not pass, and set my sights on something higher. This solved all sorts of problems.
Now, as a besieged 58-year-old man pedaling hard to turn the grindstone that his nose is pushed against, I miss that clarity and idealism. But at least I got a taste of it when I was young and recall some parts and can impersonate it when necessary.
I’m 36, living in Los Angeles, and it suddenly hit me: I have no friends. I used to, when we were all fresh out of college. I used to host dinner parties for 12, there was always a holiday barbeque to attend, and my birthday often found me with so many invitations that the celebrations spread out over two weeks. But now that my friends are married, they seem to be allergic to socializing with an unmarried woman. They have simply disappeared. Somehow, singles and couples don’t seem to mix in this town. I have never, ever been invited to do anything at all with a couple.
I’ve tried to widen my circle; I joined a synagogue, I bought film festival tickets and I’ve volunteered at more events than I care to think about. No matter where I go or what I do, all I seem to find are other couples and here I am, still single, still friendless and very, very lonely. Calling the few couples left in town does no good. “We don’t go out anymore because of the kids,” I’m told. Not so long ago, I made half a dozen phone calls to various people I know, and not a single one of them bothered to call me back. That’s when I realized: I need new friends and I need them badly.
Is it me or is it them? When we were all single, I was very popular. How do I start all over at my age, and find a good core group of friends?
A Friend in Need
My wife and I often hang out with solo women and solo men, but I don’t know what they do in L.A. It’s the nature of life in these times, though, that the bond of friendship isn’t strong enough to withstand the outgoing tide and it snaps. This happens all the time between perfectly decent people: Friendships that once seemed permanent simply melt away for reasons that have nothing to do with ill feeling. Things change. And frankly, most friendships are fairly shallow and based on some fizzy table talk and youthful enthusiasm and some common experience that fades pretty quickly. A true friend is someone you could call up and say, “I’m a wreck and I’m coming over and staying with you for a couple days.” Or you could say, “I’m sorry to call you at 3 a.m. but I’m sitting in a truck stop confused and missing my pants and need you to come get me.” Not many people have the sense of loyalty to get them over the dry stretches and be real friends. A person is lucky to have two or three of those in a lifetime, and when they die off, they’re hard to replace. As far as dinner party guests, you can find those pretty easily. Just ask people. You don’t have to know someone well to invite him or her to dinner. If someone doesn’t return your phone calls, call them back, and if they don’t return the second call, scratch them off your list.
Dear Mr. Blue,
My husband and I are friends with another couple in their early 30s who seem to be a normal married couple, but one night the woman told me that she and her husband don’t have sex anymore. She wants it; he says she’s unattractive and it’s her fault that he doesn’t want it. Consequently, they have sex about two times a year. He refuses to go to a doctor or a psychologist or a marriage counselor. I’m floored by this. I couldn’t live with a man who said I was unattractive. The woman always wants to discuss this with me. I find myself becoming angry at both of them. I want to shake her and scream, “You’re too young to resign yourself to biannual sex! Leave him! You’d be so much better without him!” But, in the interest of being a good friend, I stifle myself. Should I be giving advice like the above? Should I tell her that I really don’t feel comfortable discussing it when she brings it up? What to do, what to do?
I’m in favor of frankness in this case. The woman confided in you and, though you’d rather not know what you know, you should feel free to speak your mind. Frankness is good for friendship: It weeds out puny friendships and strengthens the healthy ones. Tell her what you think and let that be the end of it and don’t think about it anymore.
Dear Mr. Blue,
You and I and everyone else, when presented with a hopeless situation and asked for advice, advise the asker to cut her losses, move on, develop other interests, etc. We say this because, the situation being hopeless, there’s nothing to be done except look forward to that time when we no longer care so much, and hope it will come soon. But do you really believe we can change what we feel?
Three Years Later and I Still Want Him Back
Yes, we can change our feelings. Sometimes at a glacial pace, but change is possible. Box up the letters and put them in deep storage, and start flirting with interesting other men, and the Dearly Beloved will fade. Clinging to a hopeless situation is not the sign of a healthy, inquiring mind. And when we change our circumstances, our feelings follow.
Dear Mr. Blue,
I have been married, more or less happily, for 20-plus years to a man I love and who adores me. I like my life simple and it has not been that for a while. Most of my friends have always been men. Sometimes there was a mutual attraction but never have I acted on it. But for the last few years I have had a close friend with whom I have developed more than just a friendship. A few months ago we very nearly consummated our feelings. I could not do it because I knew that ultimately everyone involved would be hurt. He seems to have moved past this but I am still in love with him. I really don’t want to remove him from my life; I like him and he has two children that I truly love. But I need an unbiased opinion. Do I end the friendship, or do I bite the bullet and hang in there hoping that the feelings I have will eventually fade?
Removing him from your life might only exacerbate these romantic feelings and turn an ordinary nice guy into the Distant Unattainable True Love and Light of Your Life. You know how it is. I think these romantic outbursts can be harnessed and doused with cold water and calmed down and that life can go on. But you may need to move him to another corner of your life, a more casual corner, and find a trustworthy friend who you can tell what has happened to you.
Dear Mr. Blue,
I am writing my first novel and am pleased with it so far, after about 9,000 words, and am thinking about showing it to a woman friend who asked to read what I had written so far. I am tempted to let her. I value her opinion. What is proper? Does an author let friends read a first draft? Second draft? I would hope for constructive criticisms and encouragement, but I have been burned in the past. How do I know if I am on the right track if I keep it under wraps?
Don’t expect a friend to do hard work and tell you a terrible truth. If you’re pleased with these 9,000 words, then go on and write 30,000 more, live in your novel a while longer, and then maybe think about showing her something. But she’s not responsible for putting you on track; you are.
Dear Mr. Blue,
I am 32 and my husband is 37. We have been married for 11 years and have two delightful children, one biological and one adopted. I love my husband. I’m crazy about him, want to bite him when I see him, talk with him all night and just hang out with him. We have a great life, jobs we love, amazing children and a little disposable income we use to take lovely vacations, even with the kids. And we want another child. We have searched our hearts and decided to adopt again. And we plan to eventually have another biological child, which would bring our total to four. Four children!
Mr. Blue, what’s going to happen to me with all these kids? Will my husband and I ever have a moment alone? A dinner without mashed foods? Another vacation? I came to this town in a miniskirt and will be leaving in a minivan. I’m not the vain type, it doesn’t take me an hour to dress myself and I don’t spend money on my fingernails, but I do feel strangely proud when someone is surprised to find out that I’m 32. I get carded when buying alcohol and mistaken for the baby sitter when I’m with my kids, but there’ll be no mistaking me for anything but a suburban matron when I take my brood to Wal-Mart in the minivan. Help!
You didn’t search your heart thoroughly — you still have a lot of qualms in one ventricle — and why not address them? Having more children might tip your canoe, so you’d best consider this in a realistic light. How much slack is there in your life? Do you have room for a third child who might have problems? Are you and your husband prepared for a bout of sleep deprivation? Remember that? You can go for weeks and weeks, in a zombielike state, with little interest in the elegant life, all because of a child who wakes you up four times a night. On the other hand, if you’re managing two of them, what’s a third? And if you’re in a zombie state, you might get even more pleasure out of biting your husband.
Dear Mr. Blue,
I am 33 and my grandmother died two weeks ago. She was my best friend, my role model and in many ways my savior in life when everything else was down. She was the ultimate Jewish grandmother who cooked 10-course meals for me, even when she was ill and frail. She cooked for her doorman and went to the kosher butcher to buy fresh chops for her dog. She sewed beautiful clothing, but didn’t want people to know she made it — instead, she sewed designer labels inside, being humble about her own work. She was a flirt and would go out dancing even when she was in her 70s. She made sure I bundled up in the winter and laughed enough in the summers, even when she was living in Florida and I in Maine. She did so many wonderful things for me and the people around her. Then, she became very ill and suffered profoundly before she died. Fortunately I was there with her during her last few days, by her bedside. I love her so much, and don’t know how to go back to living without her. I miss her horribly and don’t understand how such a vibrant woman is suddenly gone. Mr. Blue, what are your thoughts?
You are the continuation and resurrection of your Jewish grandmother, having picked up so much of her in your 33 years, and so you go on, as her living legacy to the world. You’ll miss her every day of your life and there’s no getting around that. But she gave you precious gifts and you bear them onward. I don’t know about the sewing and the 10-course meals, but the dancing and flirting and generosity to dogs are all good examples to follow.
Dear Mr. Blue,
I have been dating a man for two months. I am 39; he is 44. We hit it off very well and have fallen for each other. I think I found my soul mate. He was married for 13 years. He and his wife split up three or four years ago. And this morning I found out they are still married. I was stunned by my discovery. I asked why he hadn’t been honest with me from the beginning. He said he didn’t think it was a big deal or he would have told me about it earlier. He assured me he has no intention of ever going back to her and that I am the woman he loves and wants to be with. He told me it was only a piece of paper and no big deal and that he will take care of it “right away” if it bothers me, and that he has delayed only because he is lazy, etc., and just never bothered to do anything about it. For the past two months, he has been very loving and generous and I have fallen in love with him. Suddenly, I find myself confused and hurt. Am I overreacting or am I justified in feeling misled? We have plans to spend part of this weekend with some friends at his place in the mountains, and I don’t even feel like going now. I honestly have no idea what to do or where to go from here. Please advise.
You’re justified in feeling bad and I don’t know what you should do this weekend. I do think you could give him a chance to make things right, without any further prompting on your part. His story is thin and yet not without plausibility. He simply found it easier to put the matter of divorce under the rug. It does bother you, so he should take care of it right away. Let him do that.
Dear Mr. Blue,
I moved to this country with my family when I was 15, half my age now. While many people I know compliment me on how slight my accent is, I often come across those who at first speaking with me ask me where I am from. I often respond with, do you mean where do I live or what I am? They mean no disrespect, but it makes me feel like a new arrival, a foreigner, a stranger. I’m a successful journalist, happily married to an American man, and in my everyday life don’t think of my “foreignness” frequently. I feel rather at home in this country and have no plans to go back to my native land. Those questions always throw me off. Often the question is followed by, “Where in your native country were you raised? Are you a good cook of your native food?” Sometimes I just want to think of me as another American. This is especially hard when I’m on the job, and my interview subjects turn the tables on me. Is there a good way to respond that isn’t rude?
The native-born are fascinated by foreignness, especially we in the big flat part in the middle, especially those of us who haven’t traveled much, and when we ask, “Where are you from?” it’s pure curiosity. Small talk. And curiosity is not easily stifled. We honestly wouldn’t wish you to rid yourself of that accent. It isn’t a problem for us. If anything, it’s a social asset. We attribute greater intelligence to the accented, and greater sexuality, and a woman with a slight accent has an ace up her sleeve. You’re an American and of course you don’t feel foreign inside, nobody does, but you have this interesting past — interesting to some of us — and it begs acknowledgement. I have a friend from Poland and another from Hungary; the first has an accent and arrived here around the age of 16, the second has no accent and came when he was 12. So maybe the age of puberty is the determining factor. But I like them both very much and enjoy their company. And being their friend, I never ask them where they are from, because I know.
Dear Mr. Blue,
I am the father of three teenage boys and am horrified by the inroads made by gangster rap in their lives, the filthy language, the contempt for women, the casual references to violence. This is a nice home in which we listen to public radio and have thousands of books and intend our children to go to college and learn to appreciate the finer things. I know enough not to be a censor but good God, this stuff is ugly. What can a father do?
Dear In Pain,
Your boys are slumming and they have no more interest in ghetto gangster life than blues fans have in hopping a freight to the Delta and picking cotton. They’re fascinated by the alien and maybe they enjoy sticking the music in your face. So get it out of your face, for starters. It’s your home. Tell them they can listen to whatever they want to in their own space but not around you. And then take a good hard look at how much time you spend with them individually and how close your relationship with each boy is. Kids can get lost in our busy lives and drift away and they need to be recovered. Gangster rap is the music of fatherless young men asserting their masculinity, having no real idea what that is. Don’t let your boys be fatherless.
Dear Mr. Blue,
I am a woman, 28, the first one in my family to go to college and leave that little town I grew up in, and for the past five years, I’ve been living in Europe and have changed immensely from the girl I was before. I enjoy my life, have a fantastic career and a wonderful partner who just happens to be fairly wealthy. I go visit my family twice a year and love to be with them but also am overwhelmed by the differences and am relieved to leave my parent’s loud, crammed, kitschy house, to go back to our sleek, modern apartment in Europe. It is my home now.
My problem is this: My parents are visiting me for the first time ever. While I am so excited to see them and show them around Europe, I am afraid that they will be overwhelmed with the way I live. They will see how drastically different my place is from theirs, and perhaps feel ashamed. My boyfriend’s family wants to have them over for dinner and wine — my parents have only ever drunk cheap beer! It will surely be one of those “Pretty Woman”-like moments, with them not knowing which fork to use. I am not embarrassed by my parents — I could truly never be! And I’m not afraid of how my partner or his family will react to them. I am afraid of how my parents will react to all this MONEY. How can I show them that, despite my living a continent away, with a completely different lifestyle, I love and respect them more than anyone else on this planet?
Yuppie in Europe
You sure make me curious about how you two live over there — are we talking gold faucets and mink bathrobes? Wolfhounds? A butler named Helmut? I think your parents can probably handle sleek & modern. I think they can deal with wine, but your boyfriend’s family could have a six-pack of Miller Lite on hand, just in case, and serve it in NFL glasses. As for love and respect, that’s something you communicate directly in your manner and your small talk and all the other little ways, and you’d do it the same way if you were living at the Ritz or residing in prison on a six-to-10 for forgery. But look around at your apartment and if you’re embarrassed to have your parents see you living in it, find a small, crammed, kitschy apartment and trade with the occupants for a couple weeks and learn to like cheap beer.
Dear Mr. Blue,
I’m a young woman living alone in New York, unemployed since last fall when I lost my job as an illustrator at a major dot-com when its IPO failed to happen. I am struggling along on unemployment, sending résumés hither and thither with no success, missing my family, feeling lonely in the big city, despite my friendships. My attempts at dating have been pretty laughable and now I’m wondering if I should take my penniless self off to start somewhere else. Chicago? St. Louis? Miami? I’m tired of this inertia, both professional and personal. Tired and a little scared. What do you think?
Hate Being Whiny
You’re not whiny, you’re brave and resourceful and seem pretty well-balanced, and yes, by all means take yourself out of New York. It’s a big country, the U.S. of A., and you don’t want to get depressed, trapped in a tiny apartment that starts to smell of failure and rejection. You can go back to New York in 10 years when you’re a big shot, but right now it’s a good idea to find a new milieu. Soon as the unemployment runs out, cobble together a nest egg, and go west, young woman.
Dear Mr. Blue,
I am a gay man, 31, with a nice career and a comfortable life in the big city, living with a great guy, 25, who is bright, beautiful, funny, silly, a great lover and loyal. I have no doubt of his love, and that’s a first for me.
The problem? We have little in common. I am from a very large family (nine siblings, all with kids and spouses) and he is from a small family, mostly estranged, far away. I thrive in a crowd; he prefers to be alone or with one or two people. Being Irish, I enjoy a bout of drinking now and then; if he has one drink, he’s a fall-down drunk. I love the movies, he doesn’t. He has a terrible fear of heights; I love roller coasters and want to try skydiving. He loves Starbucks; I hate it. I love to play billiards and card games with family and friends; these things are boring to him. He loves going to the beach and hanging out in the sun; being Irish, if I spend too long at the beach, I spend the next week in sunburn hell.
I’m worried about what kind of life we can build together, and if that means a slow estrangement from those people and things that I love. His reaction to my family has been lukewarm: He says he doesn’t know how to handle a family dynamic this complex.
I’m afraid to let him go. I’m pretty certain I’ll never find anyone better. But I just can’t see us building a life that can keep us both happy. Are we doomed, wise one?
Paddy in Love
There’s only one real issue here and that’s how to fit your partner into your family. All the other stuff about heights and Starbucks and the beach is small potatoes, and any couple on earth could write up a list of differences as impressive as yours. The crucial thing is your family, which to your lover is probably more like a strange fraternal lodge than a family, with mystifying rites and symbols and a whole secret language of glances and nods and throat clearings, and it takes time to induct the lad into this great Hibernian tumult. Lukewarm? I would be terrified for my life in such a mob. So he’s doing pretty well if he’s able to be in their company for a few hours at a time. Be grateful for that, enjoy your life and don’t sweat the small stuff. Give up billiards, learn to like Starbucks, take a big umbrella to the beach, give the lad a root beer and ride the roller coaster by your own self.
Dear Mr. Blue,
I got a big crush on this woman a few years ago and we’ve dated off and on since, but she keeps getting cold feet and calling it off. I really like her, and everything seems great; we’re that couple that disgusts all the jaded persons around — just way too happy looking. Then, out of the blue, she calls it off again, saying she just didn’t feel romantic enough to be involved. We’ve done this I don’t know how many times. We are attracted to each other. We go out on dates and it’s very comfortable and close and enjoyable. But when it seems to get too close, she disappears, only to come back a week or two later. I can’t figure out her motive. Sometimes I want to ask her what is really going on, and sometimes I feel like I should just let this play out its natural course, and then, there are times when I want to just forget about her and the whole thing. Any advice?
Bring some plain clarity to the situation and decide that you and she are friends, not lovers, and that the road to romance is simply not open to you. There’s a tree down and you keep running into it. You can enjoy her company as a pal — have dinner together, take hikes, ride bikes, listen to your blues CDs or whatever — but without the cellos and oboes throbbing underneath.
Garrison Keillor is the author of the Lake Wobegon novel "Liberty" (Viking) and the creator and host of the nationally syndicated radio show "A Prairie Home Companion," broadcast on more than 500 public radio stations nationwide. For more columns by Keillor, visit his column archive.More Garrison Keillor.