Raging bull

I've grown weary of my husband's sudden fits of anger. What can I do to help?

By Garrison Keillor
September 21, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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Sept. 21, 1999

Dear Mr. Blue,

I love my husband deeply. Most of the time he is a funny and kind
man. However, when he is under stress he is prone to fits of rage. They
are never directed at me and they don't last long, yet he feels the need
to rant over trivial things. He feels that I am not being supportive if
I don't commiserate in his woes.


It is starting to affect his job and our relationship. I'm afraid that
most people do not get to see the good side of him, but only the overreacting beast who emerges in times of stress. I don't know how to help
him or if I can. Is this something he should be getting professional
help with?

Weary of the Anger

Dear Weary,


Yes, I think so. Anger is often a leading symptom of depression, especially in men. And it
doesn't heal itself. And there are plenty of consulting psychologists who specialize in
anger-management counseling. The problem, of course, is how to persuade the mountain to
go to Muhammad.

You love this man and you are the best authority on how to encourage a little introspection
that might let him see the problem. First of all, read up on the subject of anger and its
management. You might find something in the literature that your husband would be willing
to read. At some point, ask him to set aside a couple of hours for a family discussion --
schedule this, so he has time to think in advance. Is there a close male friend of your
husband's, perhaps a brother or cousin he's close to, who might be willing to sit down with
you and your husband and discuss his behavior -- his "emotionalism" or "crabbiness" or
"explosiveness" or whatever term he'd be willing to admit to -- and how it affects other
people. Somehow, in a calm way, you need to bring this to his attention and ask if he's
willing, for his own sake, to work on controlling his anger. He may need to crash
and burn before he's ready to get professional help, but you might be able to arrange an
emergency landing.

Dear Mr. Blue,


I am not unattractive, not unintelligent, not terribly
eccentric and only mildly shy. I've been on many first and
second dates. I have made small talk, made eye contact, flirted,
had a good time, thought my dates were having fun, but the second date always feels just
like the first and there is rarely a third. Why can't I connect? I have made
an endless string of acquaintances in my dating life but not a
single friend (and obviously nothing more). How do "normal"
people get to really know each other? How do they transition
from small talk to big talk? Why do I keep getting lost on the
road from Point A to Point B?



Dear Hoping,

You're asking me how normal people do it? Me? A guy in St. Paul who sits in
his garret chuckling to himself as he pens made-up stories about an imaginary town? Well,
OK. It strikes me that something in you resists making that transition from "Lovely weather
we're having" to talking about yourself, your life, your family, your hopes and dreams and
fears, which is how people connect. There is a confessional stage, where you fill each other
in on your respective histories, and each of you is avid to hear about the other. Avidity is
hard to fake (and why would you want to?), and it's hard to fake a connection that isn't
there. So perhaps you're saving yourself time by cutting these folks loose. But who is lining
these dates up for you? A computer? Your Aunt Agnes? Whoever is scheduling your social
life is not working on all six cylinders. Get a new appointments secretary. Don't date dolts.
And if you date intelligent and attractive and interesting people, and you're still not
connecting to them, then let's talk again.

Dear Mr. Blue,


My husband is an artist and fine-art framer and works at an up-and-coming art gallery with a
friend, where his own work hangs and has been selling well as of late. His friend, however,
is not the best of managers and short-sells my husband's work, never offers positive
comments and keeps my husband out of the loop. When the business was in danger of
closing at the beginning of the year, my husband took a fairly steep cut in wages. Now he's
getting paid just a bit above minimum wage and has no benefits. He can't just quit, because
he has a muscle condition that makes certain motor functions difficult. Fortunately, I'm in
a good job and I have insurance. We live simply and are very happy with our books, CDs and
camping trips. Sometimes I feel angry because I want him to get paid what he's worth.

He would like to make more, too, but his happiness at his job seems to outweigh the
unhappy aspects. How do I best support him? How can I urge him on to find better
opportunities without making him feel nagged or inadequate?

Droopy Magnolia


Dear Droopy,

Forgive me if I'm leaping to an unwarranted conclusion, but it sounds as if
neither your husband nor you has actually spoken to Mr. Legree and asked for a better deal. It
sounds as if you've only groused about it to each other. Maybe you should approach the
man, as your husband's agent. Artists tend not to expect much in the way of financial
reward; they are entrepreneurs but seldom shrewd at business, and that's where agents come
in. Put away your anger entirely, and speak to the gallery owner about raising the price of
the work and paying a better wage. Sometimes all you need to do is ask. If he says no, then
look for better opportunities.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am living with my boyfriend of four years but am starting to feel it's time
to move on. I no longer desire him sexually and think of him more as a friend
(a really, really good friend who I will probably lose). Problem is, we have a lease till next
May, and no way can I afford paying half the rent plus rent for some other place that I
would move into. I have no savings and a lot of debt. So do I
stay living with my boyfriend, even though I feel like a fraud and he can tell
something is wrong, or do I just say fuck it, move away and see where the chips
may fall?


Ready To Fly

Dear Ready,

If you're old enough to live with your boyfriend and cosign a lease, then you're
old enough to figure this out. The correct answer is not A or B. It is C. It means that you'll
go a little deeper into debt and your really, really good friend may become simply your good
friend, but it's the right thing to do.

Dear Mr. Blue,


As a child, I adored listening to my parents' classical music, pretending to be
a hunchbacked fiend slouching around a moonlit graveyard during Saint-Saens'
"Danse Macabre," for example, or an entire Andalucian regiment
marching over North African hills to "Bolero." Then I dropped it entirely
and listened to nothing but rubbish for nearly 30 years. Suddenly it's all I want to hear
again. Yesterday I heard Rachmaninoff's "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini" for the first
time, and at one point there's this big, bold, proud, gorgeous theme, and I leapt to my
feet, shook my fist in the air and yelled, "YEAH!" my heart pounding.
I just wonder -- what on earth happened to me all those years, and what's happening to me

Late Romantic

Dear Late,

There is a gigantic marketing machine in America that exists to sell rubbish, rubbish being
easier to produce than quality goods, and you came under the spell of the machine. Big
corporations create and promote rubbish, magazines write about the new craze, it is here, it
is now, it is edgy and awesome and sweeping the country, everyone is talking about it, and
then when sales drop, suddenly everybody is talking about something else. And after a while,
a person wearies of being sold rubbish and then the spell is broken. You got over it, that's
all. You fell out of the machine's clutches and now you're going back to music that bears
repeated listening, that evokes strong feelings that change over time. The difference between
the Spice Girls and Chopin is that the Spice Girls will always be a souvenir of who you were
when you were 8 years old and Chopin is continually new. Invest in a season ticket to see
your local orchestra and enjoy your maturity.


Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a 41-year-old woman madly in love with my 39-year-old husband of eight
years. We have two beautiful little boys, ages 5 and 1. Rather than
glaze your eyes over by describing my husband's many sterling qualities, I'll cut
right to his one quirk that drives me insane. Chronic tardiness and

Not a week goes by in which he's not late to work at least one day; sometimes
more. If he's really late, he'll call the office with one excuse or
another before he goes in. He rationalizes this by saying he works hard
and does a good job, so what's the big deal about being a few minutes late?
Just the same, I worry his boss will get fed up and fire him. If he has an
appointment, he often shows up 15 to 30 minutes late. If he has any
kind of a deadline to meet, he procrastinates until the very last
second, tells fibs to get extensions, then procrastinates on
the extension until the very last second. Forget social occasions; if we
get there before it's over, we're on time.

I've tried reasoning with him, telling him that arriving late to appointments screws up the
other person's whole schedule, that he is letting people down who are
counting on him. I also worry about the example this is setting for our
boys. Already our 5-year-old only wants me to pick him up at school because he's
afraid Daddy will be late.

My husband and I have gone round and round about this for years. He really
thinks it's no problem. If it's really crucial that he be on time for
something, I find myself nagging him and I hate that. I already have two
little boys and I don't want to treat him like one. Any suggestions?


Dear Exasperated,

It's you I worry about, not your husband. He's obviously got the world
by the tail if he can be so cavalier and keep a job and keep his friends. But obviously it's
driving you nuts. I frankly don't think that retraining is an option here. He has probably
learned how to read people and situations and figure out exactly how much slack he has.
Chronic procrastination and tardiness are complex skills at your husband's level, and so don't
worry about him at work: There's nothing you can do about that. The solution lies with you
learning to deal with your anxiety and learning to live by two clocks, real time and husband
time. The test of a first-rate mind is the ability to hold two contradictory ideas, said
Fitzgerald, and this is a mental test. Don't worry about the kids, they've already learned to
make allowances for Daddy. If it's important to you to be on time, arrange for yourself to go
ahead on your own. Do more entertaining at home. Whatever you do, don't continue to harp
on this. Make yourself stop. It's a dreadful, dreadful role, the drone, the nag, the shrew, it
has no good lines, so don't accept it. Take the role of goddess of learning and love: much
more satisfying.

Dear Mr. Blue,

The federal government conducted a massive study to find out something that
Moses knew thousands of years ago: Children growing up without their
fathers are at a serious disadvantage. One of those disadvantages is being three times more
likely to be fatally abused than children in father-headed families.

By encouraging an increase in the number of children living
in fatherless households, you are DIRECTLY responsible for murdering them.
You may claim that you play only one-tenth of 1percent of a role, but
that's no excuse for encouraging murder, is it? Maybe it takes only 1,000
like you to set the fire that destroys our social fabric.


Dear Outraged,

I trust that you are writing to me in good conscience, knowing that you are
doing your utmost to protect and provide for fatherless children. Meanwhile, how do you
manage to live in America, going around being outraged at anyone who ever was divorced or
accepted the idea of it?

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm a sportswriter from Northern California, now living in a Midwestern city, and my
once happy social life has hit a losing streak. There was the recent divorcie who sent me
dirty e-mails after our
first date and called me "Baby" on our second. There was the lanky
Russian imigri turned redneck. There was the voluptuous bartender who jumped me on our
first date, then blew
me off when I told her I'm not that kind of boy. What's to be done? Move back West? Quit

Gathering Dust

Dear Gathering,

You are hanging out in the wrong place, maybe in a sports bar with giant-screen TV and free stale popcorn with that yellow napalm topping, and so you have
encountered a covey of aggressively needy women who need to throw themselves at men in
order to distract them from the Bears game. Try a new location, like the Unitarian church.
Not a redneck in the bunch. Unitarian women are sexy but incredibly thoughtful and
sensitive and also passionate about ethics. They won't try to jump you on the first date;
they'll want to know how you feel about economic justice first. They are not voluptuous
because they often fast in protest of something or other, and when not fasting, they eat things
made from tofu and exotic mushrooms. You will need to learn to folk dance and sit through
lectures on American foreign policy by speakers from third world countries, but this is a
small price to pay for happiness. If you can't find Unitarians, try Methodists. They're
Unitarians trying to pass for Christian.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm a writer, just starting out, struggling, having a little success here and there, and I am
plagued by temptations to plagiarize. I come across great stuff and think how easy it would
be to just sort of rearrange it a little and use it in a story of my own. I haven't done this yet,
but I think about it seriously. A friend of mine says that this sort of thing goes on all the
time among writers. What do you say?


Dear Green-Eyed,

Your friend is wrong. Writers don't do this all the time. Some writers do
it once or twice and then hate themselves for it and repent in tears and agonize over it for a
few years. Plagiarism is a large dead bird that when it is hung around your neck, nobody
wants to be around you for a while. People who plagiarize are amateurs at heart: They don't
want to write, they want to have written. Yes, there are frivolous accusations, particularly
directed against very wealthy songwriters and authors -- somewhere, someone has a
manuscript in a suitcase that they swear John Grisham gets his plots from -- but the real
thing is hard to conceal. And it's embarrassing. And if it becomes public knowledge, and
eventually you become a big successful author, it will follow you all your life and be
mentioned in the third paragraph of your obituary. Don't do it. If the temptation persists,
stop reading good stuff and stick to trash.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm a 40-year-old woman who tends to idealize men (and life in general).
In each of my serious relationships, I have attached deeply and quickly,
given a lot, overlooked a lot, felt deliriously happy. Then when he wanted out, I was
stunned, and retreated for a long stretch, years, rehashing the past, before
venturing into a new romance. I've begun to feel like some half-crazed Tennessee
Williams heroine.

The crux of the problem, I guess, is that I try to "earn" love instead
of believing I deserve it. How can I overcome this insecurity?
How do I know when I'm being a doormat? Can you help me understand the rationale behind


Dear Available,

The rationale? I don't know. Everyone who falls in love gives a lot and
overlooks a lot and is deliriously happy, and sometimes it happens quickly. And if it ends,
one feels stunned. If this has happened to you more than twice, then take a break from big
romances and look around for a man who makes you laugh and who is considerate and who
you're comfortable being with. Don't idealize him, don't covet the future: Just enjoy his
company whenever he's available. Rediscover the simple pleasures of conversation and ease
and affection, and resist deep attachment. Every time you say goodnight, don't expect to see
him again. Keep it light, and see what happens. No doubt you're wonderful to be with;
perhaps you need to see what a simple thing love is. It's not a concept; it's a procession; it's
a string of days and nights that two people put together.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am 23, fresh out of college, close to
finishing the first draft of a novel I've been writing for the past six months. I am growing increasingly nervous about getting it published. The challenge of finding an
agent and publisher seems more daunting than writing the book. I
spend my days on Wall Street and my
nights at a word processor. I hate my high-paying job
and want to get into this low-paying publishing biz. How do I
make it happen?


Dear Suit,

Don't try to peek around the next three corners. Just finish the first draft, and
then set it aside for a month or two, and start on the rewrite and take out the overripe stuff
("He beckoned to her insidiously and she suddenly felt hot as a toaster") and fill in the gaps
in the narrative (Why did Lisa have the magical hallucinatory vision of Eric after she
finished her latte? Whose Tibetan prayer scarf got left in Chad's BMW?). The rewrite is
where the book takes a long leap from marvellously adequate to something the reader picks
up and doesn't put down. And that's all you need to think about. Talent is unmistakeable on
the page, and no agent or publisher will refuse you, once you get yourself down on paper.
And if you don't get published? At least you had the experience of pushing yourself hard to
reach this goal, and that's good training. And you learn about yourself in the process. And
you'll never be one of those people who goes through life wondering what if he had tried.
Good luck with the book. Something about your letter makes me think you're an author.

Dear Mr. Blue,

Frank is a dear, dear friend of mine. We have known each other for three
years, rented rooms in the same house as students in France, dated
sporadically and still remain great friends, or so I think. My problem
is he never e-mails me. It's been a year since we left France, and
occasionally I think of him and drop him a short line, or we meet
accidently in real life. He always responds with a long, funny letter
filled with anecdotes and terms of endearment and colorful metaphors
about how much he misses me. So then I send him back a similar letter,
and I don't hear from him again for months, until I initiate contact
again. His letters are such uppers for me. I thrive on them, and save
them like a schoolgirl to read later when I'm feeling down. So why isn't
he writing me? I would think if he wasn't interested he'd write shorter
and more boring letters. How do I get him to write more?

E-mail Girl

Dear E-mail,

Apparently you need to write two letters to get one from Frank. There
probably is a reason for this. My best guess is that letter writing demands a focused effort
that Frank can manage only on occasion and he has only so many letters in him to write and
you're getting what he has to offer. Shakespeare only wrote those plays and no more,
everyone has his limits. Frank is busy living his life and having experiences to write about in
his letters. Be grateful for as many as he writes; that's all there is, g-g-g-g-g-g-girl.

Dear Mr. Blue,

For years, I have taken an annual trip to the deserts of Nevada, to take
photographs and to revel in the solitude. Each year, I've asked my wife to
join me, just once, to share this experience, and she has always declined the invitation, which
hasn't bothered me much since, after all, solitude is one reason
I love to go. This year, I finally persuaded her to join me; we leave in October. Her attitude
is that this is a loathsome chore. She says she hates the desert and that I'm trying to force
my taste on
her, and that I should love her as she is. It bothers me that she won't take a "what the hell"
attitude about this. I wouldn't mind a little good-natured grumpiness, but this genuine hostility
to the idea strikes me as unkind. Should I just be glad that she's agreed to come, or am I
justified in wanting a better attitude as well?

Afraid We're Drifting Apart

Dear Afraid,

The bad attitude is yours, Sahib: You leaned on this lady too hard and she caved in to pressure and now your desert idyll must bear the burden of her rightful
unhappiness. You ought to let her off the hook. Set her up in a fancy hotel room in Reno, let
her lounge by the pool and read good books and eat calamari and drink gin and tonics, and
you go off to the desert and enjoy the rocks, the lizards, the loss of your canteen and car
keys, the disorientation, the hallucinations, the mirage, the large black birds circling in the
sky. Evidently, solitude wasn't revel enough for you; you craved a pupil, someone to show
off your revelry and solitude to; you impressed your wife into service and she will make you
pay dearly for it. Next year, you can gratefully return to the solitude. I agree with your wife.
I loathe being forced to enjoy myself doing something I don't want to do. I can affect good-natured grumpiness, but down deep I honestly loathe it.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a designer for a low-budget, non-Equity play. I know most of the people involved and
it's a beautiful piece of writing, so I agreed to do it for no pay and have financed some items
personally. But now the director has decided to go against me on a design concept, the
appearance of one of the actors. I strongly opposed this, and he went ahead and did it
without even telling me. Ouch. So I told the producer that I want my name removed from
the program. Do you think this is wrongheaded of me?


Dear Undermined,

No, not if this one costume is that important to you. (It doesn't seem that
important to me, but I'm not a designer.) Dropping your name won't change the director's
mind, or the producer's, but it's a decent way to make an emphatic point about
professionalism. It's not the director's difference of opinion that's the problem, of course;
it's the going ahead with the change without telling you. That's rude, and professionals avoid
rudeness to colleagues, and if they are rude, they need to be called on it. Your other choices
are too disruptive -- to throw a fit and have a big scene, or to walk out -- and would hurt
innocent persons: Removing your name from the credits is quiet and wastes nobody's time
and makes the point.

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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