Murder, she wrote

The victim in my wife's latest mystery looks suspiciously like me -- a middle-aged man who left his wife for a younger woman.


Garrison Keillor
November 9, 1999 10:00PM (UTC)

Nov. 9, 1999

Dear Mr. Blue,

A couple of years ago, I had one of those midlife crises and left my wife for
a younger woman who I thought was my soul mate, my lost half. Well, it
didn't work out. I came home to my wife, who was pretty sporting about
it, and life went back to normal, only now I appreciate "normal" much
more.

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The problem is my wife's new book. She's a pretty successful mystery
writer, and I just got a look at the first chapter. It's about a middle-aged
woman whose husband dumps her for someone younger. The someone
younger has a name close to the name of my someone younger. Out of the
husband's mouth comes a lot of nonsense about soul mates and lost halves.
And he's the one who gets murdered.

I don't know what to do. What if this becomes a bestseller? All our
friends will recognize the situation. The husband resembles me enough
that I think even our children might guess. I really thought she'd forgiven
me. This is just bringing up all the mess again.

Foolish Man

Dear Foolish,

You are the victim of a very witty joke, a delicious and
clever and richly deserved one, so smile, be sporting, and when the time
comes, tell everyone that you think this is your wife's best book ever.
Hard feelings are never good form, especially in this situation. Your wife
was gracious about the nasty deed you did her, but she is also clever. And
how better to forgive you than to make the nastiness into an amusing read.
Hope for a bestseller. If it sells well, send her a bill for research
assistance.

Dear Mr. Blue,

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I always thought of myself as a good writer and editor of workaday
reports, not a creative writer, and now I find I have a sort of knack for
writing pornographic stories. In my humble opinion, my stories are better
than most things out there, stylish and very naughty without being
disgusting.

Does writing porn make me a bad wife? I love my husband a lot and I
don't want anybody else, but I feel guilty about the fantasizing that is
involved in this kind of writing. Second: How can I get published? I
wouldn't mind getting paid for what seems to me like a pretty fair talent.
And third: How can I keep this a secret, and should I? I'd be mortified to
have my husband, or anyone else I know, read what I've written, but I've
mentioned to him that I wouldn't mind getting paid to write porn and he
seemed fine with it.

Scheherezade

Dear Scheherezade,

Having an active sexual fantasy life doesn't make you
a bad person, or a bad wife, and as for the morality of the writing, each
writer needs to decide this for herself. If you believe that your writing can
dispel shame, offer pleasure to mature people, perhaps give courage, then
you needn't apologize for it. You get published by sending a chapter, or a
story, to a legitimate book publisher with a reputation for sexually explicit
writing and waiting for an answer. And you create a pen name, like
Sharon DeSade. Eventually, if you sell your work, your husband will
suspect what's up and you'll want to tell him. Good luck.

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Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a chronic procrastinator. I just can't follow through. On
anything. This has been going on for years, and I can't seem to stop,
maybe because I've always gotten away with it. I have a master's degree,
a good job and plenty of friends and colleagues who like and respect me, but
I have an overdue assignment at work, my apartment is a mess and I can't
bring myself to clean it. I put things in
envelopes with stamps but don't take the final step to drop it in the
mailbox, even though I sit and look at the damn envelope for days.

I'm wondering if I'm acting out some sort of quiet, childish defiance, but
against what? It makes no sense. I'm scared it will come
back to kick me in the ass. How do I make myself
complete tasks?

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No Follow Through

Dear N.F.T.,

I'd like to feel concerned about you, but I'm afraid
everybody suffers from this to some degree. Everyone has stamped
envelopes sitting around their messy apartments. My desk is so messy I
can't even find my envelopes. You seem to be doing OK. You remember
to pay your rent, right? You bathe, you stop at stoplights, you go to the
dentist, you file your tax return more or less on time? Sorry, but if this is
your major problem, you haven't been getting in enough trouble.

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Dear Mr. Blue,

I am eking out a living as a painter at the tender age of 24. Every grant I
apply for requires that I furnish a little piece of prose called an Artist's
Statement. I am absolutely flummoxed. My work contains no elephant
dung, it does not portray my alcoholic father hanging on a cross made of
American flags, it's representational and it doesn't require explanation. If
I could say it, I wouldn't need to paint it. Are writers required to submit
little pencil sketches of themselves in order to get their novels looked at?
Could you help me write one of these things? I need
something weighty, pretentious and impenetrable. A big, leathery
beefsteak of prose. You can see the paintings if you want on my
Web site

Bombastically Challenged in Vermont

Dear Challenged,

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This is great, a letter from a painter, a first for Mr.
Blue. I must confess to some lingering resentment toward the visual arts,
based on my visits to Washington to lobby in Congress for the
NEA in the wake of a big outcry over photographs of men with whips up
their butts and so forth, but never mind about that. That's all urine under
the crucifix now. As for the A.S., no mystery about it. Jurors like to hear
the defendant testify, that's all. They sit in a committee room, wading
through big envelopes of slides and prints, and their eyeballs glaze over
and they'd like the bozo who committed all this art to say a word or two.
I mean, you can learn so much more about a person that way. Painting is
all very nice if you're into decoration and home furnishings and so on, but
it's the use of language that separates the men from the boys. So sharpen
your pencil and sit down and do it. You don't need to explain your work,
just put forth a few lines that suggest, in a serious but not pretentious way,
what is new and different about you and your work, your ethos,
your sensibility. Sensibility is a good word to use. Luminous might be
another. Just set down some artistic principles that your own friends could
read without falling on the floor and choking to death and that would bring
tears of admiration to the jurors' eyes and give them reason to award you
the Hermione Loomis Gould Fellowship for Vermont Landscape Artists
Under 30. Honk your horn, Brush Boy.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am 33, married to a wonderful, kind, loving man, both of us writers
living in the Big City. I've written fiction for more
than half my life, and have had the good fortune to have a good deal of it
published. Writing has gotten me through the most difficult moments of
my life; I've consistently used my life experiences to draw from when
writing. But this summer I miscarried our first baby, and I feel
paralyzed by grief. I cannot bring myself to write about this loss. It's
been four months now and everyone thinks I should be over it. I put on a
brave front and no one but my husband knows how much I'm still hurting.
I haven't written at all, and I've lost interest in sex. I avoid friends (and
strangers) who are pregnant or have children.
My freelance lifestyle only exacerbates my feelings of isolation.

I'm terrified I'll never get over this. Writing has always been the most
solid support underpinning my life, but now it offers no comfort and
seems so trivial compared to what we've lost. How can I go back to
believing in it?

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Home Alone

Dear Home Alone,

Four months is not long enough to get over this. It just
isn't. You're quite normal and your reactions are normal. But you do need
to talk about this with people who know what you're going through. This
is the sort of problem for which support groups were invented, my dear.
The death of a child is a horrible blow, but your friends can't help you
through it because they never carried a baby inside them and felt it and
dreamed of it and believed in it and then had it snatched away, betrayed
by their own body. But a group of women who've miscarried and who
meet to offer comfort and advice can be of enormous assistance. Check
with a large church or synagogue near you, which may offer space to such
a group. Break out of your isolation; pick up the phone; track down a
group or, if you prefer, find a psychiatric social worker. You need to talk
about this for as long as it's looming in front of you. As for writing about
it, surely the experience will find its way into your writing, at least in
some submerged form. Writing is not a comfort, it's an art, and you
haven't lost faith in it; you're simply on the disabled list for a while.
People have landed on the disabled list for much less than a miscarriage,
believe me. I know people who've been disabled by a slighting review,
rendered inert, quivering, filled with mucous. Courage. Onward.

Dear Mr. Blue,

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My grandfather and another man founded the very successful construction
company where I have worked for 25 years. I'm 48, a woman. The sons
of the other man inherited the company, and I am employed by them. The
oldest partner is 73 and very controlling. He lost one son to stroke (stress),
and the other has had two triple-bypass surgeries. Recently I was told by
a doctor to cut the stress at work. The older partner got angry at me
and said he works from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day and can't
understand what stress is. I don't get paid vacation. I've never taken
more than three days off at a time in 25 years. I keep thinking that
if I can hold out until the older owner dies, things will be different (and
they will). I've tried to talk to the
younger partner, but it only makes the older one angrier. How would you
view this situation and handle it?

On the Edge

Dear Edge,

You are a slave working under inhumane conditions, and the
best way to deal with it is to marshal all of your inner resources and quit.
Do this to save your life. You're a key employee. If they want you back,
they can negotiate. But walk out the door and hold your head high and
wake up in the morning and take your sweet time with breakfast and read
the paper and go back to bed if you like. Take up languorous hobbies, like
reading, gardening, walking, cooking, and let some sunshine into your
life.

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Dear Mr. Blue,

My husband left me seven years ago. Wrote a note and was
gone. I had two children in college and a 16-year-old at home. We ran a
poultry farm and I had a sewing shop in the town nearby. All had to be
maintained, or so I thought, until my health suffered. My hair turned
white, my skin developed patches of white and my heart doesn't always
beat regular. Life has settled down now. My children have blossomed
because of what they've dealt with, and I shut the shop and walked off the
farm. But now, how do I start the social life? I won't go to a bar (I live in
a dry county anyway). Any ideas would be appreciated. Thank you.
P.S. I live out in the country.

Alone

Dear Alone,

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You know your dry county better than I, so you know if
there's much social life there for single, middle-aged, white-haired ladies. I
would doubt it, but what do I know. This is why cities were invented, to
defend against barbarians, to form schools and libraries, to create a ready
labor pool for capitalism and also to give single ladies a chance to look at
a number of eligible men and see if their eyes twinkle or not. But if you
are settled and feel comfortable there in the country, perhaps you should
start by inviting people you like to come to your house, for supper, for
coffee, for beer and whiskey, whatever you care to offer. You invite old
friends, acquaintances, people you'd like to know better, old or young,
single or married, anybody who interests you. It's a real skill,
entertaining, and it doesn't require linen napkins and vintage wines and
sirloin steaks; it's a matter of extending affectionate interest and curiosity
to a number of people at once, and holding up your end of the
conversation. It's like sword fighting or horse racing -- the more you
practice it the better you get and the more enjoyable it becomes. You
invite people to your home and they invite you to theirs, and somehow in
this social pond, maybe romance will spark up, if that's what you're
hoping for.

Dear Mr. Blue,

For 20 years I've been resigned to a life of solitude
and study, a dedicated professor married to
a man who passionately loves me when I see him, about 45 minutes
a day. He works all night seven days a week. We have a good physical
relationship, and we both work to keep our household running smoothly.

Recently I've been seeing an old love who is separated and needy. We
enjoy talking about books and ideas, which I have never been able to
discuss with my husband, a non-reader. Our friendship has begun
to get physical, and we are considering an affair. Must all deep friendships
between men and women end up in bed? I love this old friend
but don't want to hurt my husband. I also feel that I should be
helping my friend get back with his wife and young children. Somewhere
in all this, I am feeling even lonelier than ever. What is my role here?

Mrs. Reluctant

Dear Mrs. Reluctant,

You've been maneuvered by your old love into a
liaison you really don't want. You have a conscience and it's speaking to
you. You care about your husband, inaccessible though he may be. So cut
this out. Tell your old friend to work through his problems at home and
refuse to see him until he does. The alternative is a big mess. Nelson
Algren said, "Never go to bed with someone who has worse problems
than you do." Meaning, neediness is not a good basis for romance. I'll bet
you've already begun the affair and you're feeling bad about it. So stop.
You have no role here, until your friend gets his life in order.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am 18, living away from home for the first time, and have this older
brother, 28, who is always telling me what to do and not do.
He feels this odd responsibility to be my parent when I
already have two very capable ones. I feel that I should sort out my life on
my own. My brother says, "That's stupid" when he thinks I make the
wrong decision (for example, about my smoking) because he
wouldn't ever make that decision. I know he wants what's
best for me and I love him for it, but I know what I am
doing and know the consequences of my actions. How do I tell him this?

Watched

Dear Watched,

Your brother loves you in a helpless brotherly way,
watching you head into the dark forest like Gretel and wanting to take
your hand, and his powerlessness only makes him edgier and more
insistent. Greet this with humor. Agree with him ("Yeah, yeah, yeah,
yeah ...") or tease him or ignore him or change the subject -- or listen to
him, if he's making some sense -- but don't fight with him, for the simple
reason that you have nothing to prove and nothing to gain. You're a free
woman and you're strong, and so what's the prize? Play it for laughs, kid.
Fighting with him can only cost you. He's a loving brother, so keep him
around: You'll need him someday.

Dear Mr. Blue,

What to do, what to do ... I am not fond of the woman I've been dating for
the last three months, but I don't want to let her go because the sex is
incredible. I don't think she is fond of me either, but she just keeps me
around for sex. It's making us both crazy, but that just turns us
on even more! Make it stop!

Froggy

Dear Froggy,

Keep going. You're part of an experiment. If hostility is
the true cause of sexual excitement, then there are a lot of people who
need to know this now while they're able to take advantage of the
information. It is so much easier to find someone you dislike. You can
save many readers a lot of time. Report back in six months.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a writer and a mother of four, married to a nice man, a doctor, who
is supportive but busy. My days are full and happy and things around this
house are going well.

My father died three years ago, and my mother, who is 73, is living three
hours away on a mildly slippery slope of declining health. The town in
which she lives, my old hometown, is a place I have nothing but bad
memories of. I want her to move to our city where she could enjoy
my kids and be near a good health-care system. I know that somewhere
in the foreseeable future, she'll have a serious decline and it will all
fall on me, the house selling, the nursing-home placement, the everything.

My mother resists the idea of moving. How do I convince her?

Guilty Daughter

Dear Daughter,

You can plead, you can coax, you can threaten, but it's
her life, her home, her town, and she is likely to hang on to what she loves
as long as she possibly can. Try to respect that. Your motive is a little
shaky, wanting to corral her so as to make it easier for yourself, so give
this campaign a rest. Of course, eventually she'll need some assistance,
and you can plan for that day, and think about which specific rock she
should jump to. But she'll be less likely to come visit you and enjoy your
family if she senses a plot to cut the ground out from under her. Someday,
when she is teetering on the brink of disaster, you may need to get tough
with the old bird, but for now, allow her her independence.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm a writer, 22, who has just dropped out of a postgraduate program that
would have guaranteed admission to medical school, had I done well. I
may come back in a few years, when I'm ready, but meanwhile, I have
yet to tell my parents, who will be disappointed, to say
the least. How do I face the next two months? Should I go home to
California where I will be browbeaten by my family for being a failure?
Should I spend the winter as a ski instructor in Utah? Should I get a real
job in Chicago? I just need to establish some independence, squirrel away
some money and clean up these short stories.

Plan B

Dear Plan,

Don't go home, of course. And why get a real job? You're
young. Enjoy your life. If you want to spend the winter in Utah, teaching
New Yorkers how to navigate the deep powder, this is the year to do it.
You're 22, you can live on cold pizza and Pepsi and thrive on accidental
encounters and overheard conversation and a little romance here and there.
Write your parents a long letter and tell them exactly what happened to
you and how you feel about medical school and tell them you love them
dearly. And then go off and have a good winter.

Dear Mr. Blue,

A simple and yet extraordinarily difficult problem. This man and I are
quite mutually smitten. However, his breath is very bad. He has a host
of wonderful qualities and I want to pursue the relationship, but is there a
tactful way to handle this problem?

Holding my Breath

Dear Holding,

Your question takes me back to the Listerine commercials
of my youth in which the man was portrayed with stink lines spreading
like sonar waves from his mouth, people shrinking from him in revulsion.
Some things have changed since then, and now we accept a little more
frankness between friends. You can hint around, mention garlic, express
concern about your own breath, but in the end you may need to whack
him with the plain truth. Give him a box of pocket-size mouthwashes and
tell him, "My dear love, your breath has been sour lately, and I would like
you to start using these." He may be stunned initially, but deep down he'll
be profoundly grateful for the suggestion and take it as a token of your
esteem. Unless he's a complete dolt, in which case he'll resent it. It's
good to test him at this point for doltishness.


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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