Poetry slam

She sent my husband laughable love poems and talked trash about me. He says the affair is finished, but how do I get over it?


Garrison Keillor
September 28, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Dear Mr. Blue,

While I was away at graduate school, my husband had an affair with a
woman in
her mid-40s. While, on one level, this is a comfort to me, since I now
have proof that he won't find me unattractive when I am middle-aged, on
another level, I want to kill him. They broke up a couple of months
before I
found out about it, and I never would have known about it at all if I
hadn't
found the condoms and the 144 e-mails she sent him (which I found by
accident! I wasn't snooping!). The e-mails were full of passionate love
poetry to him and nasty comments about me. She gave him lots of cards,
too,
and presents. (I threw the plants off the balcony.) But they broke up, and
he wants to stay with me. Should I just get over it, and be glad she
wasn't a buxom teeny-bopper who wrote good poetry?

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Can't Turn the Page

Dear Can't,

I don't know how you "just get over it," like you'd just get
over a scraped knee, but you sound as if you're inclined to keep him
around, so that's the right thing to do. Much depends on the quality of his
remorse. You might encourage this by hanging the worst of her love
poems around the house for a day or two, perhaps enlarged for
readability. Let him look at her words in the clear light of day. It'll give
you both something to laugh at. Probably the affair was only a sort of bad
poem, a forgivable offense, but bad poets do tend to make a habit of it,
and you want to nip that sucker right here and now. You need to heal this
breach and redeem this marriage. You have to get back to what drew you
together in the first place. Your husband behaved badly and you're entitled
to be aloof and wounded for months, years if you choose, but it won't
help anything. You have a fine sense of humor, obviously, and that's
good, because you're in an absurd situation. You need to push this small
dark cloud out of your mind and seduce this man and be passionate with
him. Discussion can accomplish only so much, and then a wife and
husband need to cling to each other naked in the dark and be silent in the
presence of the essential mystery. His body and your body are as one, so
you have vowed, and in this awesome intimacy, cruelty and betrayal don't
count for much. His affair with the poet was a thin impersonation of
something real between you and him. Find that and hold onto it.

Dear Mr. Blue,

My best friend is dating my ex-boyfriend. He was my first love and very
hard to get over, and even though I am in a wonderful relationship with
another man, and I am trying to be mature about this, it still bothers me.
Am I psycho? Aren't there rules about these things? I feel betrayed. It
doesn't help that she tiptoes around me all the time, either. What should I
do?

Chicago

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Dear Chicago,

The rules got rewritten, I guess. But if you ask me, you
don't need to be psycho to be bothered by cheesy behavior, and I say
forget about being mature: If you feel bad, go ahead and feel bad. But do
not under any circumstances let them know that you feel bad. Not in the
slightest. Be cool. Keep the feeling of betrayal strictly to yourself and let
it dissipate on its own, and if the sight of them exacerbates your misery,
put them out of your sight. Revise your Top 10 Friends and slip her back
to No. 3 or 4 for a while. And be happy with Mr. New.

Dear Mr. Blue,

Many years ago I was with a woman I loved very much. Though she and I
still cared very much for each other, she ended the relationship. I was
hurt, but I moved on. We remained close over the years, and
recently we have been spending much time together. I love her and would
be more
than willing to enter a closer relationship with her; she feels we are
too different in temperament. Which is true. Nonetheless, we rarely get on
each other's nerves and are great friends and companions. Is there a way
I could
make her see that what we share makes our differences insignificant?
Is it healthy to remain in such a close friendship, knowing it will probably
never be what I
wish it would?

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Happy but Hoping

Dear H.b.H.,

I assume you've told her recently how you feel and evidently
she has sidestepped your advance. Don't push. Don't try to make her see
things your way. You can't argue your way into her heart. Let it be as she
wishes. She is probably right. Not getting on each other's nerves is hardly
the same as being passionately in love, and she wants more than your
companionship, and as her friend, you have to go along with that. No,
there is nothing unhealthy about keeping the close friendship, but if it's
painful for you, then let the friendship take a vacation for a few months
and see how you feel then.

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Dear Mr. Blue.

My 30-year-old daughter is a development exec in Hollywood who just
lost her job with a typical Hollywood maniac boss. She's burned out on
the exec track and wants to turn to screenwriting. The subtext seems to be
that she needs someone to support her while she returns to school and
learns the craft. I want to be a good supportive father, but I'm somewhat
cynical about the plan, not to mention distressed at the potential financial
ramifications. Thoughts? Advice?

Good Old Dad

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Dear G.O.D.,

If your daughter was a movie exec, she should have
collected a few shekels, maybe even some herds of sheep and cattle, with
which to pay her rent and keep her in bran muffins while she segues into
the screenwriting gig. And even better, she should have picked up a few
hunches about how to write a script and, more important, how to sell it.
So rather than go to the University of Screenwriting Craft, she should park
herself in a bare room with a laptop on her beautiful knees and make art.
If she doesn't have the shekels, then she is not allowed to burn out quite
yet. You should be a good supportive father and explain that her childhood
expired a few years ago. She should get a job and spend her spare time in
the bare room and when she's 32 and fabulously successful, she'll thank
you.

Dear Mr. Blue,

The only thing I want to be in life is a writer. And yet I studied teaching
and got my license. I am now working as a teacher and am extremely
miserable, like the mother of 20 children who need a set of parents
each. This job makes me question my existence. I feel like killing myself.
I hate it. What job can I get that will use my writing skills that
doesn't involve teaching? And tell me: What kind of psychological
problem ever led me to think of becoming a teacher?

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Need Help!

Dear Need,

Look at what you wrote to me a week ago, and if you still
feel that way, quit your teaching job right now. Just walk into the
principal's office and do it. Don't wait until you find something else.
Leave the classroom just as soon as is gracefully possible. Then find another
job. It probably won't be a writing job and may be just something to
subsist on. But get a job that you can hold on to for at least six months or
a year, while you scope out something better. You've encountered a
defeat, but it's nothing final, nothing so disastrous, just an understandable
miscalculation, and once you get out of this hellish situation, you'll start to
feel better.

Dear Mr. Blue,

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I am a 42-year-old woman who still hasn't decided whether I want a
child. I've been with my husband for almost 20 years and he is
ambivalent as well, though he says he will support me in my decision. I'm
afraid I'm going to miss what life's all about if I don't do it, but then
I think if I've put it off this long it must not be for me. Oh, and my
doctor wants me to go on Zoloft for depression now, which means putting
off the decision for six months (making conception more unlikely). I
obsess about this; I've thought about it for years and am now seeing a
counselor. What do you think?

Ambivalent

Dear Ambivalent,

It isn't a good idea to conceive and produce a baby as
an experiment, to see if it's what you want, to see if this is what you're
missing in life. Parenthood is a long step into the dark under the best of
circumstances. It is a joyful catastrophe, and one shouldn't enter it except
with prayerful confidence. If, after 20 years with one man, you're still
not sure whether you want to have a child with him, then your mind is
trying to tell your heart no. Of course I could be all wrong about this.

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Dear Mr. Blue,

My boyfriend and I broke up over the weekend. It was really his idea.
We had a long discussion about our future. I'm 30 and he's 25.
He's not looking to get married till he is 30, and I can't wait five
years. So it was decided to part ways. He still wants to remain friends,
and I'm
wondering how long I should wait before we start doing things together.
I think he wanted to spend as much time together as before. That would
be
too difficult for me, plus there is the risk of getting back together,
which I don't want. What do you suggest?

Picking Up the Pieces

Dear P.P.,

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This is the calmest breakup I've ever heard of. The ones I
know about all involved long letters, buckets of tears, the slamming of
doors, shouting up stairways, some breakage of china and glassware,
phone calls from mutual friends, long lonely walks late at night, bouts of
grim remorse and listening to Chopin nocturnes over and over. You
broke up with this guy in the same spirit as one might return a raincoat to
Nordstrom's or cancel a meeting. You compared long-range plans and
noted the discrepancy and voided the agreement. Every breakup should be
so civil as this. I think you can start doing things with him whenever you
like and do whatever you like whenever you like to do it. But don't get
back together. Wait until someone comes along who is more than a
raincoat, someone who, if you ever had to break up with him, your heart
would break and you'd sit alone in the dark drinking bourbon and listening
to Billie Holiday.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm a graduate student and a teacher. I love my work. Still, I've
always seen myself as a novelist as well. Several times a week, I write
fiction, but as yet it's shapeless. Perhaps this is because I'm afraid
I'd have to give up one dream to have the other. I want the Ph.D. and the
novel too. Is it possible, or am I about to do a shallow dive into a bucket
of hubris?

P.S. I am unmarried and childless, so I wouldn't be bothering anyone
but myself.

Rewriter

Dear Rewriter,

Don't give up the ship. Perhaps the novel is still in the
Rummaging & Discovery stage and you haven't come to the real writing
yet. I haven't any idea what you're trying to write, so pardon me if I offer
a slight suggestion. Only a suggestion, based on nothing. A common
problem of writers starting out is overswinging, trying to hit a home run
and impress their old English teacher, Miss Postlethwaite, with a sensitive
and luminous novel about a young woman coming of age and discovering
her talent as a writer. This is not necessarily a novel we readers look
forward to reading. If you're burning the midnight oil to write this novel,
why not make it a novel that is amusing to write and that is constructed on
a strong scaffold of a plot and that is meant to entertain us? Shapelessness
may be a sign that you're trying too hard. (Of course I don't know how
long you've been at this, either.) It's only a suggestion, offered by a man
who recalls his early unpublishable novels only too well.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am looking for a woman who's really exceptional: smart, funny, good-looking, horny, loyal and strong. The women I've met so far aren't even
close, but is it wrong to date them anyway, knowing there's no long-term
future? Should I never go out with a woman if I think she's not "the
one"? I don't want to "settle" for someone, but I also don't want to waste
my time looking for perfection if it doesn't exist.

Looking

Dear Looking,

The exceptional women you seek are here in Minnesota.
Smart, funny, good-looking, horny, loyal, strong -- that, plus blond,
describes them to a T. They're all over the place; any man who could
walk four blocks down Nicollet Avenue without falling in love with at
least three women is either clinically depressed, or gay, or blind.
Minnesota produces tall sinewy women who can paddle a canoe, handle an
ax, dance the tango, manage money, write a paper on "Hamlet" and at the
end of the day do things that make a man faint from ecstasy. If you can
settle in Minnesota for a few months, you won't have to settle for
anything less than perfection. If you're looking somewhere else, you're
probably wasting your time.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm a young writer with a pretty good gig at an alternative
newsweekly (I also freelance for a number of larger publications), but I've
got to the point where I don't trust my editor with my work. I know
writers hate editors -- the inverse probably applies in some sense as
well -- but I'm not sure what to do here. The problem is confounded by
the fact that I'm in a great relationship and don't want to leave the
city where I live, even if there are few publishing outlets for writers
here. Your wisdom is appreciated.

Stuck

Dear Stuck,

This weekly paper is not the apex and capstone of your
career; it's only one stop on your trek, and what it has to offer you is
Experience, a precious commodity, including the experience of suffering
under a dense editor. Don't worry about your work. You'll do better work
further along, and then work even better than that. Use your time well and
venture into new realms and subjects, soak up new information, read
widely, look at what you don't know, practice curiosity, learn the art of
rewriting, study Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style" and deal with
this editor. You can learn more from your opponents than from your
allies.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I had a wonderful date two weeks ago with a man I really like. There
wasn't a second date. I ran into him a few times (we work at the same
place) and he asked me out but didn't follow through. (He did e-mail me
telling me his phone lines were down and he was
sorry we didn't connect.) Last week I saw him a few times in passing, and
he seemed happy to see me. I e-mailed him to say hello, but haven't had
a response. What makes men run away like this? (The opportunity
presented itself to sleep with him that first date, and I declined because I
wasn't ready to take that step. Could that have turned him off?)

Baffled in Bel Air

Dear Baffled,

What does that mean, "the opportunity presented itself to
sleep with him"? A bed rose up from the earth, an owl brought a pair of
jammies? I take it he asked you to have sex and you said no. Good for
you. Probably he's embarrassed about hitting on you like that. He's like a
guy who took a huge swing with his trusty No. 3 wood and missed the
ball and his hair fell off. Let him work out his embarrassment by himself.
Don't e-mail him again, and don't be quite so friendly the next time you
see him. The fact that he wanted to sleep with you doesn't mean he likes
you. It doesn't mean anything, really. Remember the old saying, dear:
Women are looking for a reason to make love, men are looking for a
place. If he wants to see you again, he'll ask you, and then you can decide
how you feel.

Dear Mr. Blue,

For two and a half years, I was seeing a beautiful, incredibly special
woman. She was crazy about me. She was the best thing that ever
happened to me. During this time, I did little to move forward in my life
from my marriage that ended before I met her, and now she's left me
because she doesn't believe she is the most important thing in my life.
I'm devastated and can now see clearly what I have been doing to myself
and to us. How do I convince her that I've seen the light and I'm the
man to make her happy?

Sleepless in Seattle

Dear Sleepless,

Start out by assuming she's right, that she wasn't that
important to you, that you were tossing and languishing over the failed
marriage, you were sleepwalking. You say you've seen the light, but take a
longer look at yourself. Take some time to think clearly about the past few
years. Try to put it down on paper, not as a form of pleading for love but
simply to clarify. Describe in detail what you did and what happened to
you. Take your time. Treat the emotional stuff as clearly and simply as
you can, and remember: You're writing this for yourself, so skip the
special effects. Do this with care, as a job, and when you're finished with
it, put it aside for a while. Meanwhile, if she is willing to see you, start
your courtship over and proceed slowly. Flowers, music, long walks,
champagne and oysters. Or, in Seattle, I guess it's champagne and clams.
But don't come to her in devastation; come to her with some resolution of
going forward. Put the past two and a half years down on paper and then
put it in a box. And then take her out dancing.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm recently married to a wonderful man who is hopelessly addicted to
cigarettes. We're talking first thing in the morning, last thing at
night and all times in between. He's tried to quit several times with
nicotine gum, but it never lasts long. He says he wishes he could stop
and is ashamed of the habit, but he doesn't seem motivated to make a
concerted effort. The reason it bothers me so much is that I want us to
have a long and healthy life together. We're young, and it tears me up to
hear him wheezing like an accordion in bed at night. How can I help him
to quit without being a nag?

North Carolina Bride

Dear Bride,

You can help by reading up on the effects of secondary
smoke: It's terribly harmful to you, the smoker's wife, and you shouldn't
accept having to breathe it. That's not nagging, that's common sense. It's
his business if he wants to smoke; it's your business if he smokes in the
room with you. Make smoking a little less convenient for him, and that
will facilitate his decision to stop. As for stopping, it is far from hopeless:
It can't be done by the nicotine gum -- that is only a prop -- but when he gets
tired of feeling bad and worrying about emphysema, he can stop. When
he's ready to stop, have him write to me and I'll tell him how.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a journalist who enjoys writing fiction on the side. My problem
is that I'm addicted to praise. I am incapable of thinking I did a good job
unless somebody tells me so. And I can be sent into a day-long funk by a
little criticism. How does a person thicken his skin and learn to be happy
with what he produces regardless of what anyone says?

Addicted

Dear Addicted,

Whenever you feel blue, go into a room where nobody
can hear you and give a brief speech accepting the Pulitzer Prize (either
for fiction or journalism, or both), and say, "Ladies and gentlemen, my
heart is full today," and go on to thank your teachers, your parents, your
editors, your readers, your mentors, your chiropractor, proctologist, dental
hygienist, and stop and listen to the roar of the audience leaping to its feet
to give you the standing O, and shake hands with the invisible man next to
you and accept the trophy and smile for the photographers. And then wipe
away your tears and go back to your desk. This actually works. Fake
praise and real praise are exactly the same and weigh the same and smell
the same: It's all imaginary. I've given myself the Pulitzer Prize hundreds
of times. If I ever got the real one, it'd be a huge letdown.


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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