An affair to forget

An evening of drunken passion has left me wondering if I'm still the good girl I thought I was.

Published November 30, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Nov. 30, 1999

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a young, innocent college student. Recently I got rather
intoxicated and had a romantic encounter with an equally drunk
young man. I haven't seen him since our encounter. I have
no qualms about what I did, but I want to feel OK about this and to feel
OK about being with other people, but right now I'm hung up on the fact
that it happened and that nothing of this sort has happened to me before.
Casual sex is something I never imagined myself doing. Am I still a
relatively good person?

Former Good Girl

Dear Former,

Yes, you are still a good girl, and Santa will not put coal in
your stocking. You've confessed your indiscretion to Mr. Blue and I'm
sure you've shared the news with the Almighty, and now you should put
your regrets in a small brown paper bag and toss it off the nearest bridge.
Mr. Blue had an evening of drunken passion a few weeks ago with two
sisters named Elsie and Glenda Prin, one a trombonist and one quite adept
at the castanets, the two of them wearing a black sleeveless dress slit up
the side -- did I mention that they are joined at the waist? -- and we
drank ourselves silly on black Russians and danced round and round on a
cafe table, and the next morning I felt like death on toast, but am I going
to let chagrin get in the way of my offering wise advice to you? No, of
course not.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm 25 and at a crossroads. I need to decide between writing for a living
and going back to my fractured family in the Midwest and helping out
with the raising of my 8-year-old sister and the care of my 30-year-old
bipolar sister. If I go back to them, I'll never have time for myself.
Writing makes me feel exalted; but I don't want to feel I've neglected my
family and
responsibilities. Can I have it all? Must I make a choice? Should I follow
my dream, whatever the cost?


Dear Stranded,

This is a false choice. You can be a writer and still be a
decent, responsible person. You don't have to flee to Paris and live in a
cold garret. So say I. Do some good for your family, especially that little
girl who is at a vulnerable age. Be a brother. This is easier to do if you're
in Milwaukee. But you needn't live under the same roof. If your family is
truly broken and troubled, it's better not to, for them and also for you.
And of course your family is your primary source of material, so taking
care of them is a form of research.

Dear Mr. Blue,

A couple months ago I met this pretty fabulous guy, a graduate student,
who I liked pretty much instantaneously and who seemed to like me. We
had a fabulous first date and have seen each other a few more times
(always at my suggestion). The last time, things got hot and heavy and he
ended up staying over. He
didn't call me the entire next week. Eventually he sent an e-mail but didn't
suggest we meet
again. I am a little miffed, and confused. I'm getting
contradictory signals from him. I am having a party in a
couple of weeks, which I invited him to, and he responded very
enthusiastically. Is he shy? Lazy? Cautious? Socially unskilled? Ambiguity
is OK, I suppose, but I wish I knew where his head's at.


Dear Befuddled,

You've thrown yourself at Mr. Pretty Fabulous, waved
your arms, jumped up and down, sung Gershwin, served brownies and
somehow the boy cannot bestir himself to show an avid interest. I don't
know what his problem is. Probably he's all absorbed in himself and is
fairly passive, being confident that his phone will keep ringing. In any
case, it's not your problem. Don't adopt a parental role with a romantic
partner. Don't do it. Let this boy live his life in whatever churlish style he
chooses and if he only sends some desultory e-mail once in a blue moon,
then so be it. Get off this bus and wait for the next one.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I've been paralyzed in my writing for four years, since my dear sister and
her fianci died in a car accident. A year before they died, I had quit my
newspaper job and started a novel. When I later returned to the book I
found a series of horrifying images, including a reference to a cemetery in
a distant city that I'd only driven by, but which oddly ended
up being the place they were buried. I'm spooked. If this is prescience,
then it is powerless, and it is infuriating in its uselessness. If it is
coincidence, then how can cosmic rhythms be so malevolent? What does
any of it mean? Meanwhile, my precious husband, family and I are trying
to rebuild our lives, finding joy in one another and learning to live with
terrible absences. But I am miserable as a writer. I am able to freelance
nonfiction stories and essays, but I find only marginal satisfaction in that.
I pile up nonsense tasks to keep me from fiction, and when I finally arrive
at the page, I freeze, afraid of what might come out. It's insane.
Everyone says to just give it time. Time hasn't worked. I'm 35 now, and
the prospect of fighting this another four or 10 or 20 years makes me
tired. How does one begin to understand, and therefore defuse, the

In Ice

Dear Ice,

To comprehend the incomprehensible is the deepest reason to be
a writer, but we must respect that there are limits to our powers. You and
I are fiction writers in the belief that the physical detail of ordinary life
and the everyday language of unremarkable people are the vessels of the
incomprehensible, and that one comes closer to comprehending it here
than one can in abstract language, such as "malevolence" or "uselessness."
Your fury at the powerlessness of your fiction to prevent the death of your
sister is misplaced: You have no such powers, nobody does. The reference
to the cemetery in your novel is pure chance, a blank fact, and it doesn't
suggest cosmic malevolence any more than the house number 666 indicates
the presence of Satan. It may be that your career as a writer has ended.
Such things happen. If it's true, there is another life after the writing life,
so don't waste time being miserable about not writing. You might try to
write about your sister, if you haven't, and try to comprehend her life by
denoting its myriad details. You would find yourself, in attempting to
bring her to life on the page, shifting naturally into fiction, and wouldn't
you want to see what comes out? Good luck.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am quite concerned about my son, who has only recently contacted me
for the first time in over a year. The reason for the separation? I
rejected his proselytizing about religion the last time he came to
visit. In fact, I believe I interrupted him and said something like, my
religion is my own business, and I didn't want to be harangued by him.
Can you help me to make it clear to him that we all miss him and would
welcome him, but if it comes to lecturing me, then ... He says if he has
to choose between me and God, he must choose God.

Confused Parent

Dear Confused,

At a certain point, you must take a child as he is, your
parenting is over, and if the child has gone off and entered into an
evangelical faith, then you have to accept some of what you call
proselytizing. The child has found something that he feels is of ultimate
value, and he cannot be in your company without letting you know about
it -- to compromise this, in the interest of social niceties, would seem
craven to him. He needs to let you know that God has touched him. This
will settle down eventually. The "harangue" -- or we could use the term
"impassioned witness" -- is only to establish his new identity with you. If
you're patient and don't make rules and ultimatums, the relationship with
your son could evolve into something comfortable for you both, and you'd
wind up with a friendship with a child utterly unlike yourself, which is a
great gift. Don't reject this son.

Dear Mr. Blue,

My girlfriend's mother has a habit of grossly overspending on her
and me, especially at Christmas. She cannot afford her generosity, and
we cannot afford to reciprocate. It makes both of us uncomfortable. She
dismisses our protests and pleas for moderation and says she wants us to
have nice things. No "nice things" are as important to us as reducing our
debt and saving some money and, although it's not our concern, we feel
that this
should be her priority as well. Is there a more effective way to insist on


Dear Overindulged,

If you can accept the gifts gracefully, do, and say
thank you and don't examine the motive or question her means. Maybe the
mother grew up scraping by and wearing hand-me-downs and always
getting the cheapest brand and her love of nice things springs from this. It
is a sort of protest against the meanness and sadness of poverty, and
Christmas is when she can freely express it. Of course if her spending
becomes of pathological dimensions, you must intervene and not permit it,
but you don't suggest that it's gone quite that far. Her gifts do not require
reciprocation, and you shouldn't try. Try to give her things that you make,
that are personal -- a poem, a story, a photograph, a piece of handicraft
if you're handy, some personal service -- and give her things that show
evidence of thought and selection and appropriateness. The rightness of a
gift more than makes up for its modesty.

Dear Mr. Blue,

My parents face a dire problem. About 20 years ago, my father had a
relationship with another woman, and when my mother learned of it, it
nearly demolished the family; they lived apart for five years after that and
we kids shuttled between the two homesteads.

Lately all has seemed well and I was so proud to see them apparently
rebuild a rewarding relation. Two days ago, Mom discovered a romantic
note to the other woman in Dad's handwriting. After several weak
denials, Dad finally admitted he's been writing this woman for some time.

The crux is this: More than sex, my mom craves communication with her
husband, and he, being a tight-lipped 70-year-old Swede, rarely gives it.
But now that he's giving it to someone else, she feels totally rejected and
cast off. I gather that he feels she never really forgave him and is just
unable to talk to her.

If you were me, what would you say or do?

Puzzled Son

Dear Puzzled,

This is a grievous situation and I feel so sorry for both of
them, the hurt old woman and the stubborn old man. What you can say to
them is that you love both of them and that you are sorry for the pain.
There is nothing really for you to do, other than listen. Your mom and
dad must be full to their eyebrows with churning, unexpressed thoughts,
and if they choose to express them to you, then you should sit still and
listen, and reserve comment. Life is a struggle. Nobody gets through it

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am 32, working in Europe as a writer for a year. I am supposed to
return to the U.S. at the end of the year, but about two months ago I met
a guy, and the relationship has completely taken me by
surprise. I really like him, and am seriously considering staying. I don't
know if I want to live in Europe for an indefinite period of time, but I
don't know if I want to wonder if I left the love of my life either. How
can I figure out what to do?


Dear Confused,

Come home, dear. The liaison with the alluring foreigner
will be all the lovelier for its brevity. Live, love, laugh, be happy, dread
the day of parting, have a last tearful dinner, say goodbye in the gate area,
kiss him again and again and again and again, weep for the vagaries of
fate and citizenship that have severed the slender thread of romance, and
then get on the plane and come home to Des Moines. Romance between
people of different cultures is a noble idea and extremely expensive to the
human spirit. After the first glow dims, simple things suddenly become
difficult. It takes a sort of dogged saintliness to make it work, and even at
its best, there are frequent periods of desperation. For example, the simple
matter of humor, which makes life bearable: You don't know how crucial
humor is until you're hitched up with someone who Does Not Get The
Joke. It makes you insane. You don't seem wildly in love with this
foreigner to justify staying and investing a lot in the relationship. It's a
very risky investment.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a church pastor who writes fiction, and I keep bumping up against
taboos. Church folk just can't accept a pastor writing about drugs,
drinking, sexual promiscuity and so forth, at least not in a full and honest
way. How can I be real as a writer and maintain my pastorate among folk
who don't expect their pastor to know about such things?

Afraid to Publish

Dear Afraid,

Don't fight your church folk. Recognize that you are about
two entirely different lines of work and do both under two different
names. A pen name is a very useful device for a writer. I, for example,
use the name Mr. Blue, whereas in fact I am Rev. G. Mitchell Timmy,
youth pastor of Bethel Pentecostal Church in Bemidji, Minn. The
folks who entrust me with their teenagers on camping trips would not be
comfortable with my writing about sodomy and rough sex and such things
that pop up from time to time among the Salon readership. You should
consider doing the same.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I saw you a few months ago on a flight to Detroit, sitting in first class and
reading a paperback and not too subtly picking your nose. My question is
this: How does it feel to be famous and know that your every move is
being watched?


Dear 8C,

I haven't been through Detroit since the summer of 1996, and
that was en route to Nova Scotia in the company of my wife and my
mother, whom I would never pick my nose in front of. I'm afraid you
must've seen Bill Gates, who is often mistaken for me. I'm sure that he
finds it odd sometimes to be famous and under close scrutiny, but then he
goes home to his house in Redmond, which is about the size of the
Merchandise Mart, and he roller-skates on his coffee table, and life starts
to look jolly again.

Dear Mr. Blue,

Last night I went out with my girlfriend to a restaurant here in Santa
Monica, a loud one, and at the table next to us was a female couple on a
cell phone relay team and on the other side was a woman describing her
dates to a friend ("I liked that he KNEW
stuff ... ya know?"). I'm laffing and writing it down on the sly
because I'm a writer, and my girlfriend gets all moody cuz she feels I am
being rude to her, and I say this is what writers do, we eavesdrop to get
good lines, and she says, Why
don't you go sit with them then? Was she right? Was I thoughtless?

Guilty Guy

Dear Guilty,

I like that you write stuff down. Ya know? A writer can't
turn off his ears or disengage his intelligence, and where there's good
material, there needs to be note taking. Tell your girlfriend to cut you a
little slack. Life isn't a line dance. Living with absent-mindedness is a
small price to pay for the honor of hanging out with a writer. If she thinks
it's too high, then let her take up with a doctor or lawyer. These guys are
at the office from dawn to midnight six days a week, so she'll have to
learn how to enjoy eating alone at Woolworth's lunch counter, and on the
rare occasions when they're around, they sit stunned by overwork, quietly
masticating their broiled salmon and writing on a notepad some ideas
about the Marston case. Don't apologize for being a writer, pal. You set a
bad precedent that way. But your girlfriend's line is a great line. She
sounds like a Minnesota girl to me.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I have a bunch of snippets I've written that I like. I meant to write a
novel, but is there anything to be done with say, three paragraphs times
80? I can't seem to string them together.


Dear Piecemeal,

The market for snippets is pretty good if they're the right
snippets. Look at the "Chicken Soup for the Soul" factory that cranks out
trite faux-inspirational snippets like Kraft makes cheesy noodles. These are
bathroom books: You put them on the toilet tank and you reach for one as
you drop your trousers. I suspect that your snippets are snipped from a
more literary brand of cloth than the Soup books, and I'm a little dubious
about such a book, but probably this is an indicator of its tremendous
potential. Before you issue your paragraph collection, though, do see if
you can't string them on a narrative. It makes it so much easier for the
poor reader.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I've been dating my boyfriend for over five years now, and he's
wonderful except for the fact that he can't make a decision about whether
he wants to marry me. I believe that he loves me as deeply as I love him,
but when the subject of marriage comes up, he says that he's not ready to
make the commitment. I guess he feels haunted by bad decisions in his
past. We've had an intensely close, loving relationship for more than five
years, and it's hurtful to me that after all we've shared, he's still unsure
about planning a life with me.

Recently he told me that he thinks about marrying me a lot but
just can't seem to make the decision. I said that I didn't really believe
that we would ever get married, and he said that I was being unfair.

Am I being unfair? I want to feel that the man I marry wants our
marriage as much as I do, but after being put off for so long, I wonder if
I'll ever feel that security with this man. I'm not in a hurry, but I'd like to
think that I'll be able to have a family
and grow old with someone I love. I still harbor the hope that he will
surprise me by proposing.


Dear Waiting,

Marriage is a tremendous commitment and a person ought
to experience some tremors over it. The soul should be searched, one's
life examined, one should stand on tiptoe and try to peer over the hill
ahead and see where the road turns, one should contemplate poverty and
ill health and various dark scenarios, and ask serious questions. But they
need to be answered promptly. If you need to brood for years, then the
answer is probably no. This man is thinking too hard. I think you should
withdraw the question.

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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