Have I become one of those people William Bennett scorns as having no moral compass?

By Garrison Keillor
Published November 3, 1998 5:10PM (EST)

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm a sensible sort who never expected to be in the middle of a Jerry
Springer episode, but last year, somehow, my orbit collided with that of
an old friend, a man who was living with another woman. They weren't sleeping
together at the time (he said), though she had a child by him after a casual
affair; his marriage had ended after years of infertility and he was
desperate to have children. Things started to fall apart between him and
his lover and then she got pregnant again.

So here we are, in love and him with two kids, avoiding the subject of
what comes next. I know he loves his children, but he avoids being home
whenever possible, using a heavy work schedule as a buffer. I tell myself
he'd see more of his kids with me than he does now, but probably I am
rationalizing. I divorced when my own children were small, and I know
what pain they go through in a breakup.

I'm 44, he's 48. We both were cranky, sarcastic sorts with hidden hearts
who softened and blossomed with each other. I have never been so happy.
Am I an awful person for wanting to break up his home, unhappy though
it may be? One of those people William Bennett scorns as having no moral
compass? Is love, even a sweet and tender midlife love like this, a good
enough reason to cause people pain? Or is love a good enough reason to
stop causing yourself pain?

Philadelphia Philanderer

Dear Phil,

You have tumbled for a man whose life is something of a
mess, and now your happiness is heavily mortgaged to his situation. Try
to step back and take a clear look at where you are. Try not to be so
available, so comforting, so wonderful. Be a little removed. And try to
direct your attention (and his) away from how happy you two are and
toward the fortunes of these two children. All the happy b.s. about wise
breakups being good for children in the end --- you can skip that. If, as
you say, this man has been avoiding home and his fatherly responsibilities,
don't make excuses for him. I am sorry, Philadelphia, but he has got to
face up to his situation and deal with it before he can make a life with
you. He can't make you happy in the long term if he is a man who blows
off his children.

Dear Mr. Blue,

Interesting women seek my friendship, but don't respond to my occasional
romantic overtures. I fear I've been typecast as a "nice guy" or, worse, a
"safe male." How can I generate a false dark side? I also can't plot my
short stories. Is there a single solution to both problems?

Somewhere in Mississippi

Dear Somewhere,

Romantic overtures are always being dropped; barrooms
are littered with shards of overtures. But if you're flirting with plausible
women and they turn away, maybe you need to update your look. May as
well start there. A man glances in the mirror in the morning and doesn't
notice what's looking back at him: the waxed flattop, the beige-tinted
aviator glasses, the goatee, which women read to mean that he's a right-wing nut. If you have a woman friend your age whose taste is adventurous
but sure, ask her opinion. Try some new clothes. As for plotting short
stories, the trick is to figure out where the middle is and start there, not
the beginning.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am 45 and married to a wonderful woman who is 17 years younger than
I. I have three teenage children from an earlier marriage who share our
household every other week, and everyone gets along swimmingly, teens
and my wife, me and my ex, teens and her husband. I am deeply in love
with my wife, and life couldn't be better. My wife wants us to have one child,
maybe two, which I'm open to, but I'm worried about changing the
status quo. I like babies, but I also know how much work it is to raise
them and how children change your life. Any advice?

The Overpopulator

Dear O.P.,

You're having the normal trepidations a person ought to have
before you beget a baby. Yes, having one does change your life, but life
changes anyway, with or without one. You have a wonderful family to
bring a new child into, and a wife who wants it, and a pool of baby sitters,
and at 45 you'll be a terrific father. So accept your good fortune and go
be fruitful.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a 25-year-old student with a full-time job and a
live-in boyfriend of almost six years, and we are beginning to
think about marriage and buying a house. I am steaming
toward earning an MFA in poetry and am happy about how my writing
is coming along.

In 1997 I was diagnosed with a neurological malformation
with an uncertain prognosis. My symptoms are increasing,
and it looks like I will need brain surgery.

Here's the thing: I need to take two more classes and then finish my
thesis. I was going to finish in the fall of 1999, but I had to take a year
off in '96, which really crushed me and ruined my self-confidence. If I have surgery this winter, I will be facing that again, along
with three months of recuperation. But if I wait until May, I may damage
my health. My doctor says that nothing is certain and I should have
the surgery when I am ready to have it. What to do?

In Diagnosis Hell

Dear I.D.H.,

If I were your dad, I'd want you to have the surgery, once
you got it clear in your mind what is involved and what might come of it.
Your health has to come first. You have to march into the hospital and
wage the good fight. Yes, it's a depressing prospect, to interrupt your life
when it's going so well, but your academic year probably won't be a
cheerful one with this crisis hanging over your head. Of course you can
get a second opinion, but if you yourself are aware of your symptoms
getting worse, then you should act right away.

Dear Mr. Blue,

My wife has been gone for two years now and I'm over her.
It's the concept of marriage that I can't let go of. I feel as if
I'm headed for a life of gold chains, cocaine, nightclubs and
a three-week second marriage to Liz Taylor if I cut the cord.
A steady wife would be a nice addition now that the nights are
getting cold, but would one even be interested in me? Or should
I just concentrate on bar chicks and relationships that vanish
as quickly as the foam on the beer?


Dear Floating,

That life of gold chains and nightclubs only exists in
Nevada and New Jersey and parts of Los Angeles. It's not to be found in
the heartland, or in the South or the Northwest, so if the thought of
transient relationships and inappropriate neckwear troubles you, get out of
harm's way. But first get the divorce, which is the logical step after two
years of separation. And then something else may happen. Perhaps a valiant
woman walks into a room and a cloud of pheromones appears. She may
not be a reliable source of heat or wish to become an addition to your life,
but you can work that out between you.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I think you can tell a lot about a person by how he or she drives. And I'm
deeply in love with a man who drives like an idiot. His other qualities are
wonderful, but his driving is becoming a real problem and slowly eroding
my respect for him. I don't want to dump him, and I don't want to die in
a terrible crash. What am I to do?

White-knuckled in Boston

Dear Knuckles,

A man can change how he drives. Tell him it bothers you,
and tell him he must either take driving lessons or drive as if he had.
Don't give him this message casually. Soften him up for it with a period
of coolness and distance, until he is moved to ask what is wrong, and then
tell him. He'll think you're kidding. Tell him again. This is a basic
expectation between human beings: that we not endanger each other.

Dear Mr. Blue,

For 15 years after a cruel divorce I searched for the
mate of my dreams, and just when I had resigned myself to being a
bachelor, I found her. After dating for several months, and some gentle
prodding from her, we got married.

But part of me now misses being single and traveling, reading, writing.
I love her, and she and I are uncannily well-matched. Why am I
cherishing those old times?


Dear Restless,

Maybe this is just a little emotional backwash. Every happy
resolution generates some perverse negative reaction. Don't worry about
it. It will pass. But there's no reason to give up reading and writing. Or
solo travel. Each marriage has to work out its own terms of solitude. If
you need more, now is the time to gently bring up the subject.

Dear Mr. Blue,

For the past seven months, I have been best friends with this guy
I met at my old job at a weekly newspaper. We have been
inseparable, seeing each other daily and, yes, at times we
have ended up in bed. A couple weeks ago, he mentioned that his
sister wanted to set him up on a blind date and he was considering it.
When he told me, I felt my world falling apart. I tried to break
off with him. He pleaded with me not to, because my friendship was too
valuable to lose. Well, now I don't know what kind of
relationship it is, a friendship, a romance or a farce. How can I resolve this

Schizo in San Francisco

Dear Schizo,

You have a friendship, which you have mistaken for a
romance. You resolve this in your own heart, without any help from your
friend. You start to do this by seeing less of him. Much less. And you
start looking at other guys and think about becoming emotionally entangled
with them.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I've been writing a novel for a couple of months. I carry the ideas around
in my head until I write, but my writer friends say that keeping notes is
much more effective. What is the benefit of using notes?

Construction Writer

Dear Construction,

Most writers would choose to commit notes to paper
because they distrust memory to hold a complicated arrangement of
information that is in a transitional state, and also because notes promote
the sort of ferment that's necessary in composition. You write down one
thing and then it changes in your mind and when you look at the notes
later, you can see where the writing needs to go. For most writers, this is
facilitated by note keeping, journals, first drafts. But you should do what
works for you, of course.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I met a woman in May whom I fell deeply in love with, which was
probably a mistake as she had plans to move across the country
to go to graduate school in August. During the course of the tumultuous
summer, I thought about moving to New York to be near her, which she
thought was a wonderful idea, but after my first visit a couple of weeks
ago it became painfully apparent that she no longer had room in her life
for me. I got angry and told her I didn't want to talk to her for a while and
haven't, but I miss her terribly. My brain tells me to give up and move on
while my stubborn little poet heart tells me to hang on.

Resisting Cynicism

Dear Resister,

It isn't cynicism, just change. Things changed for her. It
was a summer romance. The saxophones played, the breeze wafted
through the lilacs, the candlelight flickered, and in the enthusiasm of the
moment, she encouraged you to follow her to New York. She has now let
you know that was a mistake. Don't make her say it twice.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I work far too much at my university's student newspaper. I barely make
it out of the office long enough to feed my cat -- never mind finding the
time to develop friendships outside the newsroom. Over the past year, I've
had flings with three of my cohorts. Not good, I know, but my attempts at
dating outside the newsroom have been disastrous. I like to imagine that
I'm an engaging young woman, but my life is the newspaper and most of
my conversation centers around it. I'm excited as hell about my chosen
field, while most of my peers have trouble summoning up enthusiasm for
anything beyond next weekend's football game.

Wire on Fire

Dear Wire,

You sound like an engaging young woman, and it's great that
you're fired up about journalism -- great for you and great for the news
business. Now is the time in life to get engrossed and to throw yourself
into your endeavors. You're feeling a little trapped by it, though, and
maybe you are. That is, maybe there's a degree of insecurity behind your
fervor -- you're afraid that if you leave the newsroom for more than a
few minutes, if you don't work harder than anybody else on the planet, you'll sink. Extending your
orbit would boost your confidence. Try meeting some people whose common interest is, say, sports, or
stargazing, or something less noble than journalism. A journalist is
interested in the outside world -- that's what you're out to cover -- so
you have to be able to travel and blend in with the civilian population.

Dear Mr. Blue,

Just when everything seems to be going great, I find myself deep in a
rut. I'm 27 years old. I've been with a man for three years who seemed
like a real soul mate after I divorced my high school sweetheart. I met him
here in Tokyo, where I came with my husband. Next year I plan to move
back home and enter grad school (he says he'll support me) and we'll make a
life together. He's a great guy -- generous, fun, considerate, dependable --
but the physical attraction (on both sides) has gotten lost somewhere along
the way, and I have a nagging feeling of boredom. I feel like life
is passing me by. Recently, despite myself, I have gotten interested in
gorgeous, younger, "unsuitable" men. Should I leave my beau and please myself
for a while or should I try harder to rekindle our
relationship and "make it work"?

Tempted in Tokyo

Dear Tempted,

I don't think it's a good idea to ignore boredom, but there
is just a slight hint of flightiness here. And when you say that your guy is
fun, you do contradict yourself, no? At any rate, you're not in any rut that
I can see: You simply have made plans that you now are in doubt about.
Don't make a life with someone you're bored with. Come home and get
your own apartment and borrow the money to go to grad school and let
this relationship sort itself out one way or the other.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm a 32-year-old writer who makes a very decent living as a freelance
writer and editor, and I am close to finishing my first novel. I have settled
on a pseudonym to use -- I have a strong intuitive sense that I
need a protective wall between my day-to-day self (journalist, wife,
mother-to-be) and the vulnerable and private creature who writes fiction.
Does this sound nutty to you? Some of my friends have suggested that my
real problem is a fear or unwillingness to take full responsibility for my

By Any Other Name in Baltimore

Dear By Any,

The use of pen names is an old and honorable tradition, and
if you want to use one, do, and don't let the dark imagination of your silly
friends dissuade you. Why did you even bother to tell them? It's strictly
between you and the wallpaper. Your reasoning is quite sensible. To
create a separate person to be the author of your book might help you
avoid some confusion in your own mind between who you are and what
you do, especially if the book should be a (knock on wood) walloping
success. Of course you should be sure that your pen name is one you can
live with.

Dear Mr. Blue,

Every time something interesting comes along in life, I take a chance on
it, a philosophy that has taken me places and given me plenty to write
about. But now I'm in a weird situation. Very weird. I'm (mostly) gay,
and my boyfriend has married a lesbian who wants to have children. Now
her girlfriend wants me to marry her so we can have kids, too. They're
all a little older than I am, and they're French. I'm American and I've
only been here a year. I want a child, and I never thought I would have
one. Is this the chance I never thought I would have? Or a mistake? We
all get along well, and they don't seem troubled by the idea that I might
eventually decide to move home. Or at least they pretend not to be.
What should I do?

Undecided in Paris

Dear Undecided,

Having a child is not a party game. Time to put on your hat and come back to reality. If you want to be a father, do it on your terms, in a way that promises some stability and security for your child. Weirdness isn't a
good indicator of that.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I know a wonderful man with whom I share values, interests, dreams,
physical attraction and a sense of comfort and fun when we're together.
We dated in the spring, but then I rode my bike across the country, and when I
returned he wanted to stop "seeing" me in the romantic sense. He says he
doesn't know why. However, he says he still wants to spend time with me
and get to know me better. I figure he's just not ready for anything
more serious, and so I've decided to try to just be friends with him and
date other people. But I'm confused. This has happened to me before --
what's the deal?

Puzzled in Oregon

Dear Puzzled,

The gentleman may be involved with someone else and not
know how to tell you. Or he may be genuinely confused about his
feelings. But the confusion is his, not yours. You say that you share
values, etc., but you don't say that you're crazy about him, so don't
worry about him. Go back to the dance and find a new partner.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a 25-year-old woman who has had a couple of serious relationships.
Right now I am dating around and am drawn to one man in particular who
seems dependable and calls regularly; we see each other about twice a
week. He has other qualities I like -- but we have yet to even hold hands!
I find myself confused at his behavior. I've asked him about it and he said
he's in the process of changing a few things about himself. He said he also
wants to fall in love with a woman instead of the IDEA of a woman.
Fair enough. His intentions seem noble to me but I suppose I'm looking
for another man's opinion on this situation. Any ideas?


Dear Mystified,

When you date a man, you shouldn't have to have a
discussion about hand holding. Holding hands is pretty basic in dating; it
simply says that the other person doesn't repel you or fill you with dread.
It's a simple sign of affection and a graceful way to walk or sit together.
It's reassurance that the other person isn't pissed off. Your young man is
thinking too hard, and it doesn't strike me as particularly noble, but hey,
you're the one who has to walk next to him, not me.

Dear Mr. Blue,

After three years of marriage, my wife fell in love with another man about
three months ago. She told me immediately and has since moved
out. I feel terrible regret for having taken her for granted and losing her.
Our first year together was the happiest of my life. At the end of it, we
moved together to a foreign country, and the isolation and stress caused us
to grow apart. I closed up emotionally. Now she has left and I find
myself hoping to win her back. I have a hard time moving on with my
life. Should I give up on her or not?

Abandoned in Ausland

Dear Abandoned,

It isn't up to you what she does right now, and it wasn't
all your fault that she left. She left on her own, and if she comes back, she'll
do that on her own. Start rebuilding your life, and start by coming back
home, as soon as you can, if you haven't already. Change the small details
of your life: what you eat, what you do in the evening, the music you
listen to, the people you see, how you celebrate Christmas. Clean house
and dispose of unnecessary reminders of her. And fall back on the good
graces of your old friends, who are waiting to help you through this

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm a 19-year-old computer science student and I have no idea how to go about
entering into relationships or pursuing them. Whenever I meet someone
who I think I'd like to ask out and I talk to them for a while, I suddenly
realize that this person is, well, dull, and my interest in them evaporates.
I know there is no formula, but how does one go about falling in love?


Dear Lonely,

Falling in love is a natural, though thrilling and miraculous,
outcome of ordinary social life, in which we are drawn toward people
whose company cheers us up. Eventually, you run into someone who more
than cheers you up, who makes you slightly dizzy and who you keep
wanting to call up on the phone and whose approval you crave and whose
laughter is beautiful to you. And when you do, you throw yourself down
on the ground and wave your arms and legs and hope that the beloved
notices. And if she does, you do almost everything you can to make her
happy. Dullness is a sign that you are not yet in her vicinity.

Garrison Keillor

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.

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