Oral history

He says he did it once and didn't like it. How can I get my boyfriend to go down on me?


Garrison Keillor
August 31, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

A number of you took umbrage at my response to the woman who was
in love with a man taking a solo vacation to Alaska who
(according to the woman's friends) would surely take her along
"if he were really in love with you." I asked her if this
truly dumb take on the situation didn't come from her women
friends. Some of you wrote in, wounded and betrayed, 'buked and
scorned, and whipped the word "sexist" around like a car antenna,
but indeed the woman in love wrote to me and said 1) the advice
cheered her up, and 2) yes, they were women friends. I enjoyed
the righteousness of the letters, though. The missive of chilled
dudgeon is an American achievement -- the righteous disdain, the
shocked innocence, the vow to shun the sinner forever -- and the
letters I got brought back sweet memories of strolling around the
Upper West Side with my stepdaughter back when she was 17. She is
a sweet kid and liked to hold hands while walking. The censorious
looks of passing middle-aged women seeing a cheesy old duffer
walking hand-in-hand with a beautiful teenager were truly
wondrous to behold: I wish I had them all on video, we could all
sit and laugh ourselves sick.

On another matter: I gave bad advice to the Ph.D. candidate who
was having trouble with her dissertation committee, going through
a long and convoluted rewrite process, comprehending their
vagaries: The following two letters convinced me I was off the
beam.

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Dear Mr. Blue,

About your advice to the woman Ph.D. candidate getting the runaround from her dissertation committee: Rather than an isolated
and possibly illegal case of discrimination, her story sounds
quite typical of the Ph.D. candidate in today's highly
politicized and bureaucratic graduate schools: paranoia-inducing
bureaucratic delays, needless nit-picking, the setting of hoops
("That's good; now let's try it again a little higher ..."),
personal animosities and jealousies, petty infighting, redundant
forms and copies and endless revisions, elusive committee
chairs ... the list goes on. It is a ritual ordeal. But contrary
to your advice, she should not be tempted by the futile tactic of
a lawsuit. Universities have bottomless wells of money for
litigation and will humiliate her in court. She must do as the
system tells her. Eventually they will tire of beating her
slumped and bleeding form and award her the Ph.D. in order to
move on to fresh meat. And if she persists in academia long
enough, she may get to serve on a thesis committee herself, and
show that she can dish it out as well as she could take it.

Masked Doctor

Dear Mr. Blue,

The purpose of the dissertation is to get the piece
past the committee in such a way that the members
support you on the job market. That is the sole
purpose of a dissertation. Usually there is a definite
form that most committee members have in mind. For my
dissertation, I did six drafts. That's good training. When your
committee says this or that needs to be changed, you trot away
and do it. No tears,
just do the job.

The process burns people out. Half don't finish their
dissertation. But if you do go through it you (may) get good
letters of recommendation and get an academic job and summers off
and tenure.

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A professor can write no letter of recommendation, maybe say
he'll do it, but "forget" to do it. There is no law or rule that
says s/he must write one. Or the professor can write, "Ms. XYZ
completed the requirements for the Ph.D. in our
department in September 1999. Sincerely, Prof. Blank." This
says nothing bad, and it's a killer. Or the professor can write a
two-page letter about the significance of Ms. XYZ's work and how
she's completely original and God's gift to scholarship. In the
ultracompetitive job market today, that's what you need
for a job. If you can't do the work, you don't belong in the
game.

I did my graduate work at MIT and let me tell you, MIT was an
intellectual Marine Corps. You were told to do
something and you went and did it. You felt crappy, but you
listened to the profs and you did what they said, as precisely as
you could. It was brutal (the writing phase), and I wanted to kill
myself much of the time (literally). Here at SUNY, when you tell
a student to revise, s/he's as likely to have a heart attack and
quit as do the work. It's a constant struggle to get something
into shape without the student giving up. There's not as much
steel in the spine.

Professor Blank

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
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Dear Mr. Blue,

Please don't use my name!!!! I want your advice on how to get a
guy to participate in oral sex. My boyfriend of nine months is
fine with receiving it, but he will not reciprocate. I've tried
being seductive, begging, withholding, rationalizing, but he
still won't do it. He says he did it once and didn't like it.
I'm starting to become obsessed. Please help.

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Hoping

Dear Hoping,

You don't "get" a guy to do this, he does it on his
own steam and for the same reason he performs any other erotic
feat, because it excites him and it gives you pleasure and your
pleasure excites him further. You could recite to him the old
limerick: A young lady got on her knees/And said to her lover,
"Oh please!/It will heighten my bliss/If you do more with
this/And pay less attention to these." You could ask him if he'd
like you to trim your pubic hair. You could suggest things
involving food -- chocolate or strawberries or whipped cream or, if
he's Norwegian, herring. Or you could put this question on the
shelf and give him the chance to perform without a cue. Men
respond to cease-fires. You nag and nag and nag without result,
and then stop, and a few months later, voil`! the garage gets
cleaned, or the screen door gets patched, or the cunnilingus
starts, whatever it is you need.

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Dear Mr. Blue,

I have decided to write a novel, a big novel. I have the
characters. I have the plot (more or less). Here's
my problem: I am absolutely clueless when it comes to knowing
what to write NEXT. I finish a scene and have no idea
what the next scene should be and feel overwhelmed and spend a
lot of time at the keyboard frozen like a deer in the
headlights. Is there any hope for me?

Stunned

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Dear Stunned,

The problem may be that you've plunged into writing
narrative before you've gone far enough in the discovery process,
the process of gathering the facts of the novel -- who the
characters are, where they've been keeping themselves for the past 10
years, what brand sneakers they wear, what time they go to
bed, why they comb their hair that way, and so forth. This
marshaling of factual material helps give you a sense of
authority in telling your story. You say you have the plot "more
or less" -- perhaps you need more, an outline, say. An outline
sets out a narrative path and represents your clearest
intentions; you're free to diverge from it later, but only as the
story dictates. And if plot is crucial to this tale, as your
troubles suggest, then you ought to construct the outline
backward from the denouement so you feel a gravitational
inevitability pulling you toward the end.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I can't take the whining of the wannabe artists and writers who
seek your advice each week. "I think I could be a great writer
but I can't seem to find my muse." "I want to write my novel but
I am sooooo tired after a full day of work." What a pack of
whiners! They don't understand these simple facts: Writers
write. Painters paint. Artists make art. They just do it. Every
day. They don't wait until they aren't tired or until they feel
like it or until the muse seduces them. They work when others
hate the results. They work when they hate the results. They
work because if you don't work you will never create anything,
good or bad. These people aren't tough enough to write, to
paint, to draw, to dance. They don't want it badly enough.
Period.

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Painting While the Muse Sleeps

Dear Painting,

Fair enough. You're right, of course. Though I am
reminded of a painter I once knew who kept working without the
Muse's help and produced immense canvases, one after the other,
and his friends lived in fear that he'd give them one, and of
course he did, and sometimes two or three, and if you got one,
you had to keep it around, at least in the basement, though they
were truly awful. If only he'd had a moment of self-doubt,
someone could've encouraged it, but he plowed ahead for years. A
book of bad poems is no big imposition on the world, but a bad
painting, 6 feet by 4, is a real headache.

Dear Mr. Blue,

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I've been dating my current boyfriend for almost five years now.
For the first few years it was great, but lately, serious
problems have caused us to separate several times. He had
an affair, which was very shocking for me, and things haven't
been the same since. I don't feel attracted to him anymore
and have no interest in sex whatsoever. About five months ago I
cheated on him with another guy a number of times and then I got
caught too ... so, my life is a big mess now. I love my boyfriend.
He would do anything in the world for me and is a truly
wonderful person. He desperately wants us
to work things out. His rationale is that we've been together for
five years. I'm just very confused. I can't stand it that I'm
not even interested in sex or attracted to my boyfriend anymore.
Can I get what we used to have back, or is it too late?

Confused

Dear Confused,

The situation is confusing but your feelings seem
clear: You're not attracted to him anymore. You may love him and
think he's a wonderful person, but the music has stopped and the
lights have come on. If you had been together for 10 or 15
years and then fell out, you'd have a greater chance of bonding
again, assuming a happy history, but this relationship is brief
and troubled, and your declaration of unattraction is so clear
that one has to wonder if what you're feeling isn't some last
lingering nostalgia before you move on.

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Dear Mr. Blue,

Six years ago I had a brief affair with a man I met on an
archeology dig. He was manly, gentle, brave and intelligent, and
I fell intensely in love with him. We went our separate
ways, and I had fantasies of a life with him until I heard he had
another girlfriend (whom he has since married). Obviously, I was
wrong. But it's been soooo long, and I am still plagued by flashes
of intense desire for this guy, although I haven't seen him now
in years. Obviously I am nuts. But
what I want to know is this: A) Why am I still at the mercy of
this passion? B) Will I ever know such intense desire for anyone
else -- i.e., is this evidence more of his attractiveness, our
chemistry or my own obsessive tendencies; and C)
How do I make it stop?

Obsessed

Dear Obsessed,

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You don't say what you've been doing or who you've
been seeing for the past six years, a crucial detail, but I'll
assume you're busy, have a bevy of friends, have had other
affairs with intelligent men and are not sitting around Miss
Havisham-like in your wedding gown at a table covered with
cobwebs. A) These flashbacks recur because the romance was
intense, and who could forget something so beautiful? You are
excited by thinking about him, and surely that's a good enough
motivation. You're not nuts. You're teasing yourself. B) The
intensity of the romance has a great deal to do with its brevity.
C) Why must you make it stop? Be grateful for having known him
and relish the memory. It's your life, and you don't get to edit
it. So enjoy living it, lost loves and missed chances and all.
You tell me about yours, I'll tell you about mine.

Dear Mr. Blue,

About four weeks ago at a party I met a woman who took my breath
away. We exchanged numbers and went out a few days later
and subsequently spent several days practically joined at the
hip. I was/am falling for her; she is witty and warm and
possessed of boundless affection. During our conversations she
made several somewhat cryptic allusions to a "condition" she was
living with. One night she came over looking a bit frazzled and
over dinner she revealed that she has been living with a
low-grade form of lymphatic cancer for the last two years; though
it had been a "watch and wait" situation, she'd just received
some bad news from a test and would have to begin a
course of chemotherapy imminently. Thus, what was a wonderfully
light, new romance one minute became something entirely more
heavy the next. I care a great deal for this woman, but I am just
getting to know her, so I am very unsure as to whether I
should be occupying a central place in her support network,
whether a relationship can have a healthy beginning in
the midst of such an ordeal. Oh, and she lives on the opposite
coast. What do you think?

Confused and Desirous

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Dear Confused,

Low-grade lymphomas often respond well to chemotherapy: This
ordeal does not necessarily end in tragedy. That said, I think
you should look at this woman not as a cancer patient but as the
witty and warm and affectionate woman you met and started to fall
in love with. She didn't approach you looking for a caregiver, so
don't think of yourself as one. She is probably as taken with you
as you with her, and you should advance the cause of romance and
delight, I think, and give her what laughter and pleasure you can
at a distance, and let the chemo proceed. If you feel emotionally
inadequate to this drama, nobody would blame you if you allowed
the romance to expire, but why let a little lymphoma rewrite such
a sweet story?

Dear Mr. Blue,

I had a complicated on/off friendship/relationship -- high highs
and low lows -- with someone who over the years became one of my
best friends. He's the greatest in a number of ways. He is also
screwed up, rude and thoughtless, and now and then he hurts me to
the quick. We made a disastrous attempt to be a couple, but
that's over, and I thought we could be friends. The last time he
hurt me, I was helping my father to die, and I couldn't deal with
my friend, so I said I would get back to him later. Since then, I
have not responded to his communiques. I don't want to lecture
him, and I don't want to explain my absence. Do you think it's all
right to break my promise that I would contact
him? I do care about his well-being, and don't want to do
anything ugly. However, I can't imagine any words from me would
change anything, so whaddya say?

Silent

Dear Silent,

I think you should write him a note. You'll feel bad
if you don't. Tell him in a hundred words or less that you want
to take a break from the friendship, that you care about him and
that there's something destructive between the two of you; perhaps after a year or two of silence you can be true
friends. And then recall the happiest time you spent together,
and wish him well. And then, farther down the road, maybe
something else happens, who knows?

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am 29, divorced after a four-year marriage, and I have
fallen deeply in love with a woman (and she with me) who I dated
over 10 years ago. The problem is that she is Italian and lives
in Italy. I am a ho-hum American in the Midwest. We both love
each other and want to be together, but currently both of us lack
the courage (or whatever) to make the big move. At different
times in our lives, we lived outside our native countries and
truly enjoyed the experience. (Coincidentally, my
first wife was also a foreigner, who was miserable after leaving
her country, so I am quite conscious of the difficulties
involved.) I am truly intrigued by the idea of doing something
very different, and I'm wondering what
is stopping me from moving over there. Please help.

Frustrated

Dear Frustrated,

I know the feeling. It's like finding yourself
suddenly onstage singing in "La Traviata," and it's a great antidote
to the ho-hum life. The romance is not to be missed: The problem
is what comes next. It's not necessarily courage that leads a
person to leap -- to burn your bridges and get on a plane and
start making a life in Italy -- and it isn't cowardice or lack
of romance that makes a person hesitate. It's a firm sense of
reality. You're 29, a little old to become Italian, even if you
apply yourself -- you've got a life here, and do you want to
trade it for the expatriate life, and do you want to bring up
your children in another country. Deep down in your heart, you
know that a person cannot base his life on the love for another.
You can't live on wedding cake; your love for her, strong as it
is, is not enough; you need a life of your own; you can't spend
it adoring her. So you have a large decision to make, and you're
taking your time with it, which is only reasonable. Good for you
that you don't expect your Italian friend to solve the problem
for you by moving here. You shouldn't ask her to do anything you
wouldn't do for her, although I imagine her English might be
superior to your Italian. As for you moving there, I'll just say,
from my limited experience, that ho-hum Midwesterners transplant
pretty well: They have less attitude and a good ear for nuance.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I have been married for 15 years. My husband has been unfaithful
several times over the years. We have been going to a counselor
and all is truly forgiven. We have forged ahead in our
relationship and have come to a new understanding of each other
and our sex life has definitely improved.

Anyway, now I have met another man who is married and lonely as
I have been for such a long time. We don't want anything serious,
just a fling. I am tempted but don't know if I could live with
the guilt. It would also make me
a hypocrite. All the same, I can only think of this other man
right now and what could be: one night of
passion and sex. I love my husband and do not want to leave him;
would I be so wrong to have one night of pleasure with another
man?

So Confused!

Dear Confused,

There isn't a Bureau of Adultery to which you can apply for
permission. You're an adult, and you know all the arguments
against infidelity, having been on the receiving end of the lie,
so I won't harangue you here, but only suggest that it's never
ever a simple matter. If you go ahead and have your fling and it
is wonderful -- and why shouldn't it be? -- why stop then?
Imagine it goes on for three or four years and you're careful to
the point of paranoia and then, digging through your purse for
your address book, your husband finds the motel key and you must
go through some very tense weeks at the end of which he decides
he hasn't the strength to go through the rebuilding process again
and you find yourself, in your mid-40s, quite dramatically
alone, a woman in a small new apartment in a singles complex
ordering Domino's pizza for supper and watching a lot of videos.
Maybe it wouldn't happen quite that way, but before you board
this boat, do try to imagine where it's headed.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I have been happily married for four years to a smart and
strong-willed woman. I love her, and like her, we laugh together
a lot, but we don't have sex anymore. Four times so far this
year. She likes to watch TV at night to put herself to sleep, and
she has an aversion to kissing, and both of these bother me. TV
is a big distraction, and kissing is a stimulation I find
necessary. I feel that she essentially wants me to service her
until she is ready to be penetrated. This is not an appetizing
prospect for me. So we watch the news, turn out the light and
pretend to go to sleep. I want to make love with my wife. I am
fresh out of approaches.

Happily Married but Horny

Dear Happily,

Kill the TV. Stick it in the attic and tell her you took it to a repair shop.
And then offer to read her to sleep. Your choice of reading
material, but maybe the short stories of John Cheever, or Annie
Proulx, or Jane Austen -- whatever you read, lie next to her
and stroke her back with your free hand as you read, and if she
seems responsive, stroke her face and neck, and arms, and if she
responds, stroke her wherever she seems to want to be touched.
Let touching take the place of kissing. Very gentle, very slow,
not insistent. Chances are that one night she will be aroused by
this slow touching and want to have sex. It may not be the first
or second or third night, but maybe the fourth. Or fifth. I don't
know. (Leave the TV in the attic until she's asked about it at
least three times.) The sound of your voice and
the touch of your hand have the power to arouse this woman,
provided you don't try too hard. If you touch her shoulder
delicately, she will turn her breast toward you, and then she
will hike up her nightgown and invite you to touch her thighs,
and all in all, it may take you a while to finish Jane Austen. You
may have to settle for Emily Dickinson.

Dear Mr. Blue,

The man I married almost 40 years ago is not the same person
today. That youthful
soul, thoughtful and affectionate, has become a stoic person
enduring life's ups and downs. His main source of pleasure is
fishing. He will accompany me to any museum, film, festival, you
name it. But he doesn't share my passion for these activities;
he's only going along to keep peace. As Peggy Lee sang, "Is that
all there is?" Just asking.

Over the Hill

Dear Over,

Underneath that stoic exterior lives the same
thoughtful and affectionate guy you married. Skip the museums and
films for now, and try to find friends in whose company your man
feels happy and comfortable and can express his mind. Every
couple has a few true mutual friends, and they're a treasure and
crucial to your happiness. And think about travel. Don't drag him
to places you're intent on seeing -- the Louvre, the Tate, the
Prado -- but someplace that's at least partly his idea. Travel can
loosen up a stoic and excite that youthful soul within him. But
it has to be a journey for both of you. So there better be fish
there, too. How about Scotland?

Dear Mr. Blue,

My wife and I have been married for over 20 years, but I don't
see how the marriage can continue much longer. The only thing we
have in common is our kids, ages 10 and 15, who are wonderful.
We don't argue, my wife and I, we don't even talk to each other.
Of course we've tried marriage counseling and all the usual
things, but the relationship is simply dead at this point.
There's no question that we would divorce by mutual agreement
were it not for the kids.

Some people say a good, amicable divorce is possible and if the
parties cooperate, there's no reason why the kids would suffer at
all. Others say damage to the kids is unavoidable in a divorce,
no matter how amicable.

I would love to move on with my life, and feel my wife would be
better off if we divorced, too. But would the kids really be
damaged if we did?

Stuck and Confused

Dear Confused,

Yes, they would be. Of course they would be. Your children have a
home and two full-time parents right now. They lose this in a
divorce, which dumps them into loss, mourning, grief, anger and
anxiety. It is better not to give them this lump of coal, though
of course they will deal with it as best they can.

Amicable divorce is tough to achieve, the process being so
adversarial at heart, the lawyers stoking the fires, and plenty
of couples who intended to be amicable wound up in a WWF
wrestling match. You've had more than enough advice about your
marriage, so I'll just suggest that you and your wife move to
opposite ends of the house for a while and work on being polite.
Learn how to sit down and speak to each other in a collegial way
about your mutual life, particularly your children and your
finances, and eventually about your future. You have some
challenging child-rearing years looming ahead. You'll need to be
able to talk, whether you proceed together or separately.


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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