Lovers and Writers by Garrison Keillor

Published March 2, 1999 8:47PM (EST)

Dear Mr. Blue,

I have been married to a wonderful man for 15 years. We are both
professors. We share many of the same interests; however, due to my
husband's weight problem, complicated by diabetes and hypertension, we
have not shared a sex life. We are affectionate, but we have not had
sexual intercourse in seven years. I feel just terrible about this. He
doesn't seem to think it's a problem.

Over the past 18 months, while writing my second book, I
fell in love with my editor. He published my book but rejected me. All
this unhappiness exhausted my health and spirit. I was diagnosed with
diabetes. I then developed bleeding stomach ulcers. I lost 50 pounds,
regained my health and now control my diabetes with diet and exercise.

I love my job. I have the respect and admiration of my students,
colleagues and community. I am not ugly, but I am sexually frustrated
and lonely. I have a right to be human and have a tremendous thirst for life.
Must I live with this considerable ache? Where do I go from here?


Dear Rejected,

Nobody would blame you if you divorced your husband on
grounds of incompatibility. Seven years of marriage without physical
intimacy is sad to contemplate. If you can't bring yourself to do that, then
your second option is to seek sex outside of marriage, which is not so
difficult, certainly not at a college. A discreet relationship, whose purpose
is mutual comfort and sustenance, in which the lovers respect each other's
situations, might suit you very well. Of course your third option is to learn
to accept life as it is, which is also possible. If your husband has accepted
it, I don't think that changing him is going to be an option.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am 31 years old and have been happily married for eight years to a
wonderful man. Two years ago, while working online, I did a search on
an old boyfriend's name for kicks. We had had an exciting, yet extremely
troubled relationship, and I hadn't thought of him in years. I found out he
is completing a
Ph.D., quite the academic, and married. Now I find myself trailing him
online, looking for more clues about his "new" life, and wondering if
he ever thinks of me. Why my obsession with some guy (who wasn't
all that wonderful to begin with) I dated in the '80s?

Online in Austin

Dear Online,

It's just human curiosity, ma'am, which most of us suffer from, and it's especially strong in regard to former loves. Where are they and
what are they having for breakfast and who are they having it with? You
do no harm trailing him so long as you only browse and don't start
making impulsive phone calls at 2 a.m. or send e-mail asking, "Do you
ever think of me?" A person can only live one life at a time, and you have
one already. Keep Mr. Wonderful in the foreground and keep Mr. Trouble
in the Yesterday bin.

Dear Mr. Blue,

How can you tell if a writer is good or might become decent with a
little guidance? And how can you tell if you're potentially attractive or
hopeless? Would counseling help, or should I run away to the desert and
live the life of a recluse hermit-poet, living on lizard
spines and cactus juice, where my writings will be discovered a thousand
years from now? I write almost every day, but a little advice would be


Dear Shaky,

A young writer may have to write his way through some bad
stuff, and there's no point worrying about the quality of it -- it's bad,
that's all, false and pretentious and clumsy, but somehow you sustain
yourself on blind ambition and the love of writing and a certain arrogance,
and eventually you come into the clear. Don't worry about whether you're
good or not until you start to tire of the game and are ready to lay your
cards down. As for whether you're attractive or not, it all depends on who
you're with and whether you want to attract them or not. Avoid the hermit
life if possible. The price of it is usually insanity, and that's no picnic.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm an empty nester alone in my nest, trying to keep busy. My
husband I see irregularly; he travels a lot for work and spends time with a
group of buddies from work. Both of us have aging parents in town who
require care, and that leaves little time for us. So I'm feeling neglected.
He says I'm his No. 1 priority, but it doesn't feel that way. This
week he's in the mountains skiing with the guys. I had a tantrum when I
heard that they invited some female colleagues up to ski for the day with
them. Am I being selfish and unreasonable? Please advise.

Mrs. Lonely

Dear Mrs. Lonely,

Nothing wrong with being selfish and unreasonable,
but your problem is bad strategy. Don't try to maneuver your husband into
paying attention to you. He's got his life worked out, and you need to get
a life of your own. A job, a mission, something to give yourself to. Jump
out of the nest and have an adventure. Travel on your own, with your own
friends. Hire some help to care for the old folks. Don't sit at home
listening for his key in the door. Let him get curious about what you're up
to and come looking for you.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I live with a woman who is dear to me, whose well-being I would place
above my own. It makes me feel good to see her smile and laugh, and the
thought of hurting her makes me physically cringe. She suffers from poor
self-esteem at times and has a hard time making friends, so I feel like I'm
the whole show.

The problem is that I'm falling for a woman I've known and been
friends with for a year or so. We've spent more and more time with each
other. We've talked about how we feel about each other, but apart from a
few stolen kisses at a New Year's party we've acted as we always have.
She's planning on moving away in a few months, and I feel my time with
her quickly slipping away.

I don't want to hurt someone who is dear to me, yet I feel like I have a
dishonest relationship with her. I want to spend time with Woman X, but I
know she won't change her life plans to stay here with me (especially
since I'm with someone else), and I feel like I'm setting myself up for a
hard fall when she skips town. I feel totally unequipped to deal with the
situation in which I've wedged myself without causing emotional damage
to three people I hold dear.

Mr. Cake

Dear Mr. Cake,

My advice is: Be a dear and do nothing precipitous. Stay
friends with Mlle. X and go on living with Mlle. Y and deal with your
situation one step at a time, in your own good time. The first step is to
figure out this "dishonest relationship." Don't let restlessness rule your
heart. But if you don't love her, then tell her it's time to part and deal
with it together. You're not her whole show, but you're important, and
you ought not simply run away with Mlle. X, whom you may be using as
a wedge to pry yourself free of Mlle. Y and her neediness. Let Mlle. X
move away. If you feel strongly about her in six months, you can go
looking for her.

Dear Mr. Blue,

About nine months ago, my lover (who is married but not to me) decided
he couldn't handle the confusion and ended our relationship of eight years.
He and I are colleagues;
he's a playwright and I've been his director, editor, dramaturge and
sounding board. We've continued to work together -- there is an enduring
friendship and trust between us -- and about two months ago, I started
dating a sweet guy. We get along great. He's starting to feel serious, a
little more quickly than I am. I know that my soul is with the old boyfriend. But I'm also committed to continuing this new relationship. My old lover and my new lover are now jealous of each other, and I'm torn in
two. My old lover is working on a piece that examines in great detail
the emotional difficulties he's been through lately. I'm trying to stay
honest with both of them, and the time is coming when they'll have to meet
each other. I'm both dreading it and looking
forward to getting it over with. I need them both in my life. Help.


Dear Torn,

You have stepped into a play of your own, and if you took a
good look at the story, you'd see that it's a classic comedy. You're in the
middle of it, and you can influence which way it will turn, toward farce or
a comedy of manners or a romantic comedy in which the new guy wins
your heart with the old guy's blessing. Anyway, you should be proud to
be part of something so interesting and possibly distinguished and enjoy
the show as it plays out. You're in the second act now, and it's about time
for the meeting.

Cher Monsieur Bleu,

Thanks for the advice you gave last summer to the young
woman who was getting over a failed romance. I was in the same boat
and took your advice, too. Learned a new language, took up watercolors,
cut my hair, lost weight, made new friends, started teaching writing,
even. All well and good. But here's the thing. Since my breakup with
my young(er) man (I'm 34, he's 24), I've dated, but it seems like a part
of my heart has shut off. I try to be warm, kind, a good friend and
conversationalist, but there's never more than a flicker of attraction.
This is very unusual for me.

I think that my Very Young Man, who seems to be missing compassion in
his suitcase of attributes, did a number on me. It wasn't the failure
of romance that hurt so much; it was the growing sense that once he'd
had what he wanted, I wasn't a person to him at all. Since then, I feel
frozen. I keep thinking it will happen again. Is this a warped form of
grandiosity? Any thoughts on this?


Dear Bewildered,

Cruelty from a lover is a shock to the system, like a bad
car crash, but you're up and walking, and you'll get over it. Meanwhile,
the heart protects itself, and you can't make it leap until it's ready to. And
then it does. Thirty-four is a good age for romance, maybe your prime of
life, but at your age it may come along gradually, subtly, not accompanied
by saxophones and Eau de Magnolia. I knew a woman who was 34
and had given up on the idea of ever being in love with anyone again, and
one day her phone rang and it was a man who knew her sisters and who
invited her to lunch. She went, and was warm and kind, and he fell in
love with her and pursued her, and gradually she came to love him. They
married and had a baby, something else she had given up on. These things
happen all the time -- it's a world of romantics out there -- and it'll
happen for you.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm a happily divorced mother of a teenage daughter, and one of my best
friends in the world is a single guy from my church, a tender spirit,
educated, musical -- and early in our
acquaintanceship we dated for about two months. Dating didn't work out;
he's working on some heavy baggage from childhood and is in therapy,
but we have a fine friendship.
And he has gradually taken on the role of surrogate father to my daughter.
She adores him and we do family things together -- dinner, movies, even
vacations. The problem is that our relationship, at times, is very much like
a marriage, we are so closely attuned to each other. It frustrates me. I
haven't had a date in months and am starting to wonder if it's worth even
trying to meet another man. How can I explain this guy's role in my life
to another man?

Part of me wants to give this guy the boot and try to have a normal life,
most of the time I want to hold on. Can he ultimately resolve his
long-standing problems and deal with making a real relationship? I
believe in God and I believe that all things are possible
with God. What do you think?

Betwixt and Between

Dear Betwixt,

It sounds to me as if dating worked out fine for both of
you: You formed a close and beneficial relationship, he's good company,
your daughter adores him, and if (most of the time) you want to hold onto
him, then what's wrong? You don't need to explain this guy's role to
another man; there is no other man. Yes, God could make him fall
passionately in love with you and beg for your hand in marriage, but God
has Kosovo and Y2K and the Republican Party to deal with and may not
have time to arrange your personal life. I have my doubts about this guy
trying to make a "real relationship"; he probably feels he is in one right

Mr. Blue,

Twelve years ago a teacher told me that you should never start a sentence
with the word "so." Ever since I've been terribly inhibited because it
seems like every other sentence I write wants to start with that awful
word. Was my teacher wrong, or have I in fact been
subjugated by an oppressive regime of Grammar Police?

Grammatically challenged in SF

Dear Challenged,

"So," as it might be used at the start of the sentence, is a conjunction that
notes consequence. So a sentence that starts with "so" is probably an
incomplete sentence. So what? So many people use incomplete sentences,
and do so to good advantage, that your teacher was foolish to state this so
absolutely. So let us push forward and write English freely and
expressively and with pleasure. So say I. Sew buttons on your underwear.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I have been in a committed relationship with a wonderful man for eight
years. We are each other's best friends and have loved and supported
each other through many trials. Our only problem is my continued lack of
trust in him. After we had been together for about a year and a half, he
cheated on me with a man. This behavior was largely due to childhood
sexual abuse, which he has worked through with counselors in the
meantime. We did break up for a while, only to get back together again.
He has never cheated since and has very patiently put up with my paranoia
about this. He is the only person in the world with whom I could imagine
living my life. We would like to get married sometime, but a part of me is
still scared of being betrayed. I have never discussed the situation with
anyone but him until now. How can I overcome this last bit of mistrust?

Needing advice

Dear Needing,

You do trust him. By living with him and loving him, you
say clearly that you do, you just have this little dagger of suspicion that
keeps poking you. It's impossible for me to know how sharp it is: Only
you know. A big love affair is often accompanied by little jabs of paranoia
-- isn't it natural to fear losing what is dear to you? Some of us have a
greater predilection for it than others. You need to weigh your feelings in
light of the situation. If you love each other and want to spend your lives
together, I don't think you need to expunge every last twinge of jealousy.

Dear Mr. Blue,

My mother, wise woman that she is, maintains that when she was young,
one could date, say, two or three men at once, keep it all light (i.e., no
sex) and break no hearts in the process. If, after a few dates, the
couple discovered they liked each other, they could decide to go steady,
and if not, they could drift on to other people. Now, I think this sounds
like a fine idea. I'm 31, divorced, starting to date again, and like the idea
of using dates as a way to get to know someone, not as a guaranteed
prelude to A) sex, B) heavy relationship, C) heartbreak. However, I find
that after a few dates, men want to either have sex or "talk about us."
What's a tactful way to say, "Really, I like you but I'd like to just spend
some more time together before we go on to something else."?


Dear Bewildered,

Date men in the company of other people. Go to lunch
with them. Go to movies in the early afternoon. Invite them to church.
Talk on the phone. Write letters. Plenty of ways to get to know a man
while avoiding the dramatic romantic evening with little road signs
pointing toward your bed. If you need to dissuade a man who is leaning
on you, panting, tell him sweetly that you're beat and you have a big day
tomorrow and you're going to bed, and if he's not easily dissuaded, it's
your cue to say goodbye.

Dear Mr. Blue,

A psychoanalyst once told me that "in every relationship, one person
always loves more than the other." She said it so matter-of-factly that I
didn't question what she said; she was a very sensible shrink. But
thinking about it later, I see that that is a pretty
radical statement! It goes against the entire accepted idea of what
love is! What do you think she meant, and do you think that's a valid

No Longer on the Couch

Dear No Longer,

Surely she's right, if only because no two things can be
exactly identical or equal. And any two persons will have different
capacities for loving, though these will likely change over time. I don't
think that equality is the "accepted idea of what love is." As important as
love in a relationship is the ability to receive love, and maybe every
altruist needs a selfish lover to feel truly happy. I don't know that one can
judge this from the outside. One sees what appears to be an unequal love
affair: a strong cheerful woman and a needy man beset with gloom, she is
constantly propping him up and arranging a social life for him and
surrounding him with a measure of grace and elegance, and what does he
do for her? Not much, that one can see. But perhaps, in their naked
intimacy, they make a bond that is based on knowing that life is fragile
and the situation could easily be reversed.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm a senior in high school, and my social life is a
mess. First off, I'm in love with a wonderful guy. He's not perfect, but
when we're together I never seem to notice his faults. Unfortunately, he
has a
girlfriend. They are devoted to each other and intend to get married. In
light of this, I
decided to just be friends with him, though the emptiness doesn't seem to
I don't have many friends at school. My family is remote and unstable.
I've always wanted a friendship, as Victor Hugo described it, "like two
fingers that touch." No one I know wants that. To make matters worse,
still a virgin and no one has even kissed me yet. I'm truly frustrated, and
the only guy I want to kiss is the aforementioned one. Don't tell me to see
a therapist, because I've been seeing one for five years.


(sometime to sometime)

She tried

Dear Somebody,

You sound like me at the age of 18, except I was in love
with an exchange student who flew back to Europe after graduation and
my family was stable and I wasn't in therapy. (People didn't go into
therapy back then unless you were seeing faces in your oatmeal and
getting in arguments with streetlights.) But the frustration and loneliness
were the same. One thing to realize, for whatever comfort it gives, is that
you are not alone; believe me, other people around you are in the same
boat. They may put up a glossy veneer of hip disdain but down deep
they're feeling bad too. A good step is to offer your friendship and trust
and affection to classmates you care about, knowing that they too
must crave a fingertip to touch. Be a friend. Dare to show people the
affectionate aspect of yourself, and somebody will return it.

Dear Mr. Blue,

A good friend just told me that she and her husband of two years are
getting a divorce. It seems like she needs me to talk to. She married
early -- she's 21, I'm 23 -- and is going through major upheaval. As it
happens, I'm very attracted to her and think she has feelings for me. I
don't know how or when to approach her about that. Any suggestions?


Dear Unsure,

It's a privilege to be a confidant, and don't abuse it. Take
care of your friend and hear her out and offer what help you can, and
leave the romantic overtures to her. Right after the woman falls off the
roof isn't the time to court her.

By 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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