Could I have been any more inept?

First I fell for my wife's friend. Then I put it in writing. Now my life is sheer hell.

Published October 26, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Mr. Blue's mailbox was stuffed this week. Many readers had sensible things to say about
Unhorny Hamster, the woman who has lost her sex drive, and most recommended that she
see a doctor and find out if her problem might be due to birth control pills, depression or
thyroid problems. Many women readers felt that I gave insufficient thought to the complaint
of Jealous, whose boyfriend had a habit of checking out attractive young women in Jealous'
presence: The women felt that his behavior was boorish and that my advice to Jealous (to
look to her own self-confidence) was way off the mark. And many women readers took
strong exception to my response to the young man who felt guilty about having read his
girlfriend's diary, that I let him off too easy. They were offended at my suggestion that a
person who leaves her diary out in the open is, in some small part, responsible for the

This is a lesson I was taught in childhood: Thou shalt not create temptations for
other people. Lock up your bicycle. Keep your money in your wallet. Keep your diary in
your drawer. Of course it's wrong to open the book and to read the innermost thoughts of
your true love ("I sit looking up at the clouds & think of all the unanswered questions in my
life -- so much beauty and yet sadness everywhere & I too am a seeker, longing for
something true to my heart, the essence of my being, the source of the passion deep in my
soul, my dream of riding happily on the wind"), though it is a darn near universal urge. My
advice to the guilty miscreant was: Shut the book, stick it in her clothes drawer and don't
worry about it. And if you're writing something you don't want anyone to read, make sure
you put it in a place where nobody will innocently stumble upon it.

Thanks for your mail. Onward.

Dear Mr. Blue,

About a year and a half ago, I told my wife of 17 years that I was having
unwanted feelings of sexual attraction to another woman. I asked
her to go see a counselor with me. She refused, saying she didn't think it
did any good, that it was my problem. Well, stupidly I took this as
abandonment and fired off a letter to the other woman, telling her I admired her, etc., etc.,
but also that I love my wife because I was certain she would tell my wife about the
letter since they are good friends. Bingo, I was right. The other woman
presented my wife with the letter. That led to 18 months of sheer hell, which is where
I am now. My wife still feels very rejected and hurt and says she just
can't get over her anger. (And she still won't see a counselor.) I tell her
I love her and she is the most important person in the world to me. Help!

Pining Away

Dear Pining,

This is truly the most inept attempt at adultery since Jimmy Swaggart went to
the motel with the hooker, and your wife should have taken pity on you for your innocence.
Most Boy Scouts would have been able to arrange an illicit liaison better than this. First, you
fell for your wife's friend, then you told your wife that you had and then you wrote it all
out in a letter. Incredible. I believe that you do love your wife, that you need her and that
18 months is way too long for her to be angry. Tell her you can't bear this and that if
she can't forgive you, you will have to absent yourself from her wrath: A man can't eat anger
for breakfast and sleep with it at night and not suffer damage to his soul. And then find a
temporary place to live until she comes to her senses. But not her friend's house, please.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm a reasonably good-looking professional man who suffers from paralyzing shyness and so
has had little dating experience. I recently met a very
attractive woman who I've gone out with a couple of times, and things look promising. But I
am extremely nervous about when it gets to
the stage where we might want to go to bed together, even though I'm very
attracted to her. I'm afraid that my lack of experience will be obvious, and that this would
turn her off. I don't feel comfortable discussing my past with her; I'm afraid of coming
across as pathetic or weird. How do I alleviate these
fears without making a fool of myself?

Longing but Nervous

Dear Longing,

Forget about your lack of experience and focus on the experience you're
having now, enjoying her company, talking to her, holding her hand, kissing her, holding
her shoulders. Sex is not a mechanical act that fails for lack of technique, and it is not a
performance by the male for the audience of the female; it is a continuum of attraction that
extends from the simplest conversation and the most innocent touching through the act of

Your lack of experience and your shyness say nothing whatsoever about your future
as a lover: You might well be a great lover -- for one thing, you're modest, and that's a
good start. Don't push, don't be anxious and do learn to enjoy this woman's body as she
comes to trust you and invite you to be close to her. Enjoy the sensation of sitting beside
her, your arm over her shoulders. This will take time to fully relish, so don't be in a rush to
reach the next step; there is no "next" -- she is one and the same woman, you're the same
man. Enjoy lying next to her fully clothed on the grass looking up at trees and feeling her
hip, thigh, leg adjoining your own.

Then there's the delight of walking with a woman, your
arm around the small of her back, your finger hooked into her belt loop, your arm riding
along loosely and feeling the sway and thrust of her hips. Eventually, if she and you wish, it
leads to a dim room and a bed and the two of you naked, embracing. This moment is a
continuation of the other moments. It isn't the Goal, and she's not the Trophy: It simply is
your conversation entering into the realm of dance. You're ready to do this when you're able
to be with her and happily lose self-consciousness and feel emotionally joined to her.

Dear Mr. Blue,

Recently, I was reprimanded at work for not paying attention to
detail. I accepted the criticism graciously, but I was stripped of some of my duties and I feel
like an idiot. (I've been in this job for a year.) I have two
master's degrees and a B.A. from a prestigious college, but I feel I've been labeled
"incompetent" and have ruined any chances for promotion. It's a public-service job and the
pay is low and I am far away from my family and I have an onerous student
loan debt and no friends here. I'm finding it hard to get motivated and wonder if I'm
just not cut out for this line of work. Please help!


Dear Depressed,

Look for another job. Leave this one while you can still get a good
recommendation from them. Think about finding a job in the private sector, one that pays
more, maybe in another city, maybe one closer to your family. A move can have a great
tonic effect, and believe me, a bad work situation tends not to get better, it tends to sour and
fester. So many people get trapped in a cave of a job and the effect on their spirits is
disastrous. Good luck, kid. Don't let the bastards get you down.

Dear Mr. Blue,

After a few years seeing a wonderful man, most of it long-distance, it
turns out he cheated on me while stationed in a lonely and bleak
place. It happened soon after we got serious. I found out about it by
accident, reading a detailed (and beautifully written) account
of the affair. I believe him when he says it was a brief affair that has ceased to have
any good memories at all. Now it's the deceit that bothers me more than the actual
transgression. I feel incredibly weak for wanting him back; am I just looking
to get hurt again by doing so? Do you think we can get over this
and move on? I'm 26 and it's my first significant relationship,
so I fear I'm being naive.


Dear Heartsick,

I'm sorry you had to read a beautifully written account of your boyfriend's
unfaithfulness, which must have hurt terribly and which surely makes his transgression all
the more memorable for you. Were I in your situation, it would just about kill me, I'm sure,
so I don't think it's weak of you to want him back but rather a sign of strength. Yes, I think
you can get over this, but who knows if you should or whether this relationship can stand
up? A long-distance romance consists of a little information and a lot of fantasy, and you're
young, and you need to know him better. Deep in your lovely young heart you know
whether his company is delicious and lovely to you or worrisome and problematic, and that's
your immediate guide.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am 19 and have been writing fiction for over a year now, during which time I've racked up a
grand total of 65 rejection slips and zero acceptance letters. Is this normal?

A fair number of editors have written to tell me they think I have talent and
want to see more of my work. Two said they turned me down only
because of space constraints. So what do I do? I've thought of moving
to The City with my paltry savings; I've thought of joining the Army. I've
thought of throwing in the rag, but the fact is that writing is in my heart. I'll starve, I'll
beg, but I won't give up. Any advice?


Dear Reject,

I'm in awe of your ambition and industry. At this rate, you're going to wear
out your mailman. My advice is to slow down the rate of submissions and focus on the
writing for a while and live your life. Don't come to The City to be a writer: It's too
expensive and will eat up your substance, and there are too many writers there already and
the raw material it offers you has their fingerprints on it. The Army isn't a bad choice for a
writer at all. For one thing, it puts you in intimate daily contact with an interesting segment
of society that begs to be written about. Imagine going to a writers' conference 10 years from
now: Everyone else has an M.F.A. and is writing a novel about a young academic having an
identity crisis and you're writing about a platoon of rednecks and homeboys slogging through
the swamps of South Carolina. But you can figure all of that out. You know you want to
write, you're writing, you're on your way.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I recently had an affair and my husband discovered it. After confronting me and finally
agreeing to the marital therapy I had suggested before the affair, he went through my
computer and my office and discovered my writings about the affair. He now routinely
reads my e-mail and requires me to carry a cell phone and a pager.
The affair is over and I do want to save my marriage, but I find his
obsession with violating my privacy difficult. It makes me angry. I
understand that he is wounded, but I also believe that he focuses on the
affair and not our problems that led to such unhappiness.


Dear Prisoner,

You're right to resent this, and so would anyone, but you're right to be
patient and understanding, as you seem to be. The man is wounded and angry. Having been
unfaithful, you are not in a strong position to demand trust and privacy. Let the anger blow
over. He'll get bored with the surveillance eventually. I assume that the marital therapy is
still going on, and that this is doing some good, helping him focus on the main issues. He
can't let the affair become his permanent bone to pick. There has to be a time limit. Be as
patient as you're able to be, and then put the pager away and change your e-mail password.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am 27, making good money, and am a terrible employee. At work, I have the attention
span of a 7-year-old desperate for Ritalin. I chose this day job as a technical writer in order
to support my true passion, which is fiction writing. But my passion finds its way into the 8
to 5, and I feel guilty for it. I'm with a wonderful company that treats us like kings and what
do I do? I make my deadlines, but while everyone else's head is cocked over the keyboard,
immersed in the latest technology news, I am busy jotting down passages in my notebook. I
feel guilty that I am unethical to my company because I work about 40 percent of the time
I'm paid for. Sometimes I feel like these amazingly decent people deserve better. Am I the
lazy con artist that I feel like?


Dear Irresponsible,

You do your work, you make your deadlines, and that's good enough.
Don't feel bad that you're not Employee of the Century. You're not working hard but you're
working smart. You're keeping your mind fresh. You're keeping your morale up. Forty
percent of your time may be worth 80 percent of someone else's. Anyway, let the
company set up the hurdles, and you just do your best to jump them. And someday, those
old burnt-out technical writers hunched over their computers will look up and see, on the
bulletin board, a clipping of a review of your new book and a photo of you looking
glamorous and successful and an interview in which you speak glowingly of your old
employers at TechnoPassion and how understanding everyone was. This will bring tears to
the old burn-outs' red-rimmed eyes and they will bless you. They will be proud to have had
you in their work area.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I feel at the end of my rope. I am a 41-year-old woman, never married, no
children. Two years ago I fell in love with a 29-year-old man, handsome, very
charming, seductive, noncommittal, consistently late, doesn't call
when he says he will, self-absorbed, careless with others'
feelings. I told him goodbye but I am still very much in love with him after
a year.

On top of this unrequited love, I've been suffering from depression
(am taking medication, seeing a therapist). My father, grandmother and aunt
all died in the past two years and two of my best friends have moved out
of town. I feel so lonely, lost and bereft. I am a shy person and am
trying to meet new people. I am dating, and corresponding with some men over the Net, but
my heart aches and I want this man. I realize the loneliness is
probably driving me, but I just can't seem to come out of this. I suppose I
want to hear he may come around and that I won't feel this way forever. I belong to a
meditation group, study Buddhism, work out at the gym and volunteer, but my energy is
dissipating and I feel I don't have much more in me to keep on trying. And I still come
home to an empty apartment and an empty heart.

Lost In D.C.

Dear Lost,

Some people spread out their troubles over a stretch of time, and you got to pay
your dues in one big balloon. It shows your strength of spirit that you're keeping busy and
tending to your spiritual life and doing your sit-ups and flirting with guys on the Internet.
First of all, the unrequited romance with the young prince is an absolute killer. Oh, Baby, I
wish you hadn't. I wish you'd fallen in love with some old Republican bull moose or a drone
at the Federal Reserve, instead of this particular spider.

Your description of him is telling --
we all know the type -- and I hope he doesn't come around again, Baby, because he's only
an actor and you're for real. You have a heart to give, he doesn't. If he comes around,
you're back at square one. You've put in one year of hard time without him, and the next
year is going to be easier than the last one. I know that's not much consolation.

I assume that
the depression is under control, that the therapy is working for you. Is it possible for you to
take a small step or two toward relieving that daily loneliness? This is a burden for shy
persons, and you might consider alleviating it by taking a roommate or finding a living
situation that gives you some society and conversation and laughter at the end of your day.
(Just make sure it's someone who can make you laugh.) It's a small step, but it helps to
break that big silence.

You're not messed up, you've only absorbed a lot of punishment, and
it'd be good for your spirits to have other people in your life, nonromantic ones, steady
ones. Is this possible? I'd also suggest that you be careful not to get run down -- it sounds
like you're busier than I am -- and be watchful of the depression. Medication needs
monitoring. But you know that and now I'm blathering. I just want you to stick with the
program for a while and let the waters subside and wait for the trees to bloom again. Your
40s will be a good decade, and your 50s even better. Your father, grandmother and
aunt depend on you to carry forward the family banner. Take care of yourself. And quit
hanging around royalty.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm 31 and my husband of five years is 32. I was raised in the suburbs
and he was raised in a cornfield in Iowa and can't adjust to the sounds of the city, like
subwoofers on car stereos, for example. And he can't seem to find a job he is happy in or
hold it for very long, as his co-workers find him standoffish and not team-oriented. He is a
good worker who does well on his own, and now he's back in school and working on a
second master's; he brings in a small monthly stipend.

We are ready to stop renting and buy our first house (on my income alone; the loan will be
in my name only), and I have found the perfect one. My dad, who is handicapped, can visit
and get around in it, and it has all the amenities we want. My husband is stubborn as a
jackass, refusing to consider it, worried that he won't be able to sleep
in our new home. He refuses to go to a sleep clinic. Advice?

Beside Myself

Dear Beside,

It isn't perfect if your husband doesn't like it. To bring him along on this move
you need to find a house that is demonstrably quieter than whatever you're living in now.
Quiet has to be a main consideration. Sleep is crucial to a person's well-being. Heavy
sleepers tend to pooh-pooh sleep problems, but you shouldn't. The fact that you're the main
breadwinner doesn't mean you can bulldoze over his objections. Be patient and try to
navigate this rough spot with all the kindness you can muster, and try not to cause hard

Dear Mr. Blue,

I need a male opinion on a sensitive topic. I am a 54-year-old
female, slim, attractive, single for years. In my youth I was very well endowed. As I get
older I started to look matronly, and now I have chronic neck and shoulder
discomfort. My physician and insurance company have OK'd breast reduction
surgery, which would transform my saggy DDDs into perky Bs or Cs. It also
involves scars, which fade but never disappear. What if I get lucky and meet that man of my
dreams and have a chance at a sex life again? Would the scars be a problem?


Dear Droopy,

No. A man who is looking for Barbie is not going to look at you in the first
place. The man of your dreams is a man of more sophistication than that. He'll have his own
scars. It's a shallow life that doesn't give a person a few scars.

Dear Mr. Blue,

My wife of three years is one of the most beautiful, intelligent and caring people I know,
and we are very much in love. Recently, we had the fight to end all fights,
and I'm confused. She asked me if I'd had any contact with an old girlfriend of mine (from
10 years ago) and when I admitted that I do correspond with her -- I haven't seen her in
five years -- my wife blew up. What could possibly make her feel so threatened? How can I
convince her that the ex is an important old friend whose advice is important to me?

Scratching My Head

Dear Scratching,

Jealousy is powerful and often irrational, and your beloved wife is in the
grip of hers. You can try to convince her, in a quiet and thoughtful moment, that you need
your old friend, but to show your good faith you may need to offer to drop the friend if your
wife continues to be troubled by her, and don't be surprised if this is a non-negotiable issue.
She wants the old girlfriend to have never existed in the first place, and how do you
negotiate that? You may have to do a painful thing, sir, and dismiss the friend. A spouse
does not have executive powers over the other spouse's social life, but there are certain
irrational demands in marriage that must be respected.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I have my own business, based at home, and support my family with it (my wife is a
musician) and also do the cooking and a lot of the housework. (My work bores me to tears.
But who said it would be easy?) We live a simple life, have no desire for a posh house or
nicer cars and my children seem to be thriving and successful in school and socially. My wife started graduate school last year, and she has been gone a lot. At the
same time, my income took a dip, and although we are financially
comfortable, we still owe money we should take care of, and college is
looming, and the responsibility is still mine. I finally admitted to my wife
that I have a serious problem with alcohol addiction, and we are
working through that together; there is a strong element of depression, which
does run in my family; and I'm isolated, of course, and end up
talking too much to grocery store clerks.

My wife wants me to get a happy
pill, as she puts it; but I think that
some depression is situational. I haven't had a vacation in 11 years. She
is smart and compassionate and aggressive and has kept her figure and loves me
and we read the same books and love the same movies and have inadvertently raised
outstanding children, and I love her back, but she doesn't understand this, that I need a week
off, and soon. How do I explain to my family, who are used to me always being around,
that I need a week?

Burning Out Quickly

Dear Burning,

If you went berserk tomorrow and walked down the street arguing with
lampposts, your family would find a way to shovel you off to the loony bin and cook their
own dinners and clean the bathrooms, and your clients would be patient for at least a while,
so arrange an emergency landing, rather than crashing, and take your week. Take it before
the holiday season. You're not proposing to run off to St. Kitt's and live at the Ritz; it's
probably enough just to get on a train and ride somewhere and get off and walk around and
spend a couple nights in a hotel and come home. Or take a bag of books and register at a
B&B overlooking a large body of water and sit on the veranda and read. Not a big ticket
item. You absolutely should do this. Better to apologize than to ask permission, in this
situation. Find a plausible destination (New Orleans, Chicago, Seattle, Savannah, San Diego,
Duluth) and tell your wife and kids you're going. Everyone has an obligation to take care of

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am 25 and have been dating a wonderful guy for the past year and a half. He is kind, a
great friend, supportive, fun, someone with similar morals and upbringing, my
friends like him, as does my family, he would make a great husband and father.
I am wondering if he is the right guy for me. And I'm thinking about heading off to Europe
for a year or two to teach in an
international school. Next year would be the year to do that. He's not so
thrilled about this. I'm afraid of always seeking for just one more thing
before I get married and then never settling down, and
missing out on a wonderful guy. How do I choose?


Dear Thoughtful,

You're so right about next year being the right year for you to head for
Europe. And it's a good thing to do, to be on your own in a foreign city and find out that
you can manage and adapt and make a life for yourself. The man you're seeing is a
wonderful guy all right but we're not interviewing for a girls' softball coach here, we're
talking about whether he is Your Guy, and what you don't say is that you love him with a
crazy passion that wakes you up in the middle of the night smiling. You're not sure of your
feelings for him. These are tricky feelings to sort out, the emotional spectrum from
friendship to romantic love, and you don't gain anything by leaping, not at the age of 25.
You gain a great deal by showing the strength to refuse to say you're in love with someone
you're not sure you're in love with. It's too early for you to worry about missing out on
marriage. Go to Europe and have a great year.

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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