Is politeness required?

After dumping his longtime wife, my friend has taken up with a much younger woman. Do I have to be nice to her?


Garrison Keillor
January 4, 2000 10:00PM (UTC)

Jan. 4, 2000

Dear Mr. Blue,

A friend has just dumped his wife of 30 years to take up with
a woman 35 years younger whom he is now introducing to
his friends. She seems nice if a bit vapid, staring at him,
grabbing his hand, hanging on his every word, etc. His wife is
distraught. He seems happy if tired and seems aware of the
oddness of the situation. What is our role as friends? Do we
support him, or tell him he is an idiot; do we talk to the girl
and ask her what she thinks she is doing, or do we smile politely
and engage in conversation and be ready to pick up the pieces
should the thing fall over in a heap?

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Friend Indeed

Dear Friend,

You smile and say polite things and ask the girl how
she likes this weather we've been having and compliment her on
her shoes. You keep in touch with the wife, if you had a personal
connection to her, and if your real connection was to the
husband, then you don't. You don't tell him he's an idiot unless
he asks, "Am I an idiot?" and then you say, "Yes, but I like you
anyway."

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a talented musician, a not-so-bad writer and an aspiring
actress, among other things. But I can't concentrate on one
thing long enough to pursue it, and if I start to pursue one
thing, I start to hyperventilate after about a week, with fear
that I'm ruining my life by not pursuing the other things. In
the meantime, I am painting houses, which, in need of paint though
they may be, is unfulfilling work at best. I'm 34 and am afraid
of turning into one of those "if only she hadn't wasted her life"
people. I'm in a pickle. Should I go to a remote corner of Maine
and try to write a novel? Should I move to Italy and rent a
piano and write songs? Is it better to be around other artists,
or be by yourself? If a person commits so fully to their art,
what becomes of them?

Drowning in My Life

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Dear Drowning,

My dear young lady, put down your paintbrush and
give yourself a sabbatical. Can you take six months? Or two or
three? No need to go to Italy. Home is fine. But arrange your
days to give yourself time to sit and think about the future and
write and play music and get yourself calmed down and in focus. I
suggest you give yourself an arbitrary assignment to complete, a
task of several months' duration. For example, you could write
down everything you know about house-painting; write about the
people you learned from and the difference between good work and
shoddy and the life histories of the people you've worked with
and your impressions of the clients and see if this might lead
you toward something larger, perhaps a work of fiction. Work on
it at least a little bit every day for your sabbatical and try to
pass through the hyperventilation stage and keep going. It's
easier to start projects than to stick with them, easier to make
promises than keep them, but you can outsmart this jitteriness by
simply making yourself keep going, as runners do, and writers,
and as anybody does.

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Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm 31. About four months ago, my boyfriend broke up with me
because he was in love with someone else. We had been together
for two and a half years. He was my first lover, and he
was everything I could've asked for, funny, charming, sexy,
attentive, all that. A woman he worked with kept visiting us,
finding things to do with him and acting like she was my friend.
It freaked me out, I could see what was happening, but he assured
me he didn't feel anything for her other than friendship. Then,
in August, I took a vacation, during which he called me up and
told me he wasn't sure that he wanted to keep living with me. I
was devastated and moved out. I don't want to lose his
friendship -- he still calls about once a week, just to chat, and
we have good conversations, just like we always did. My question
is, can I still be friends with this man? It hurts like
hell to see that I've been replaced so quickly. How do I learn to
forgive him for the pain he has caused? How do I transfer
those feelings of love into friendship? Is it possible?

Jilted

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Dear Jilted,

You can't get there from here. You've been rejected
in a weaselly way, and I hope you told your boyfriend how
devastated you felt and made his ears burn. But you don't say you
did: You go straight from "I moved out" to "I don't want to lose
his friendship." Don't be a doormat. If you haven't done it
already, tell this charming man, "I loved you, you miserable
weasel, and the moment I turned my back, you used this brainless
bimbo to extricate yourself from our relationship because you
didn't have the balls to deal with me honestly. Is this going to
be the pattern for the rest of your sorry shitbird life? If it
is, then you're not going to have any friends left, including me,
numb nuts." Or use your own words. You can't be friends with
someone you're afraid to express anger to. Rock the bozo with
some lightning and thunder, and drive him weeping to his knees
begging for forgiveness, and then consider friendship.

Dear Mr. Blue,

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I'm a 26-year-old writer in love with a wonderful 30-year-old
woman. We've been together just over a year, and she is
anxious to get married and settle down. When we began spending
time together, this seemed
acceptable to me as well, but now I find myself resisting it more.
Suddenly I have a growing list of doubts and have almost talked
myself into the conclusion that it would be better to end the
relationship. Do you have any thoughts on the limits of sacrifice
for love? And how much fear should one feel about marriage?

Entangled

Dear Entangled,

This doesn't sound good. People contemplating
marriage should be happy and imagining a beautiful life, deciding
whether to put the Ping-Pong table in the dining room or the
bedroom. They shouldn't be brooding on the subject of sacrifice.
You'll have to sacrifice plenty, but that comes later, and it
sneaks up on you. It isn't a heroic deed that you embark on now,
like Nathan Hale going to the gallows. You marry to find the joy
and richness of your life, no matter how many sad stories you may
hear. Don't take another step, sir, until your fears abate and
your doubts diminish.

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Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a 30-year-old woman writing up a doctoral dissertation in
cultural anthropology and living with my boyfriend of eight
years whom I'm still wild about. He's a stubborn nonconformist,
very loving, and an ace traveling companion. We used to have an
apartment near my university. We were the only straight couple in
our building, and it was a fantastic neighborhood, with great
foreign restaurants, art galleries, independent movie theaters
and drag queens casually shopping in the grocery stores. Then my
boyfriend's father bought a house for us and we moved in.

I love the house but now find myself in the middle of suburbia.
There are no drag queens in the market here, only young women
burdened with small children in their shopping carts. This new
environment, combined with turning 30, is putting me into
an existential crisis. I feel like I can't make any friends here
because our values would be so different. I find myself wondering
whether I should want marriage and a baby and wondering why this
is all bothering me so much. My mom went through menopause at
about 40, and I feel like the walls of free choice are starting
to close in. How can I decide what I really want without worrying
about what other people want or expect from me?

Fish Out of Water

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Dear Fish,

Don't judge those young suburban women with the
shopping carts so severely. What sort of anthropologist are you,
to leap to conclusions based on no interviews whatsoever, just a
glimpse of people shopping? Those young women have long thoughts
and elaborate lives and delicate pleasures all their own: Just
because they don't choose to camp around like divas doesn't make
them inferior to you. But if you wish to make your life among
drag queens, that's fine. The choice is yours. (I hope you find a
good babysitter.) How can you decide what you really want? You do
what all of us do. You endure the vagaries of fate and stumble
into what seems like a pretty good deal and find yourself in a
whole vast set of circumstances that you then rationalize as a
choice.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I used to be able to write. I could write little stories, and my
letters were always eagerly anticipated (and saved) by their
recipients. Everyone told me I needed to write, instead of
dithering my life away on other things. I took the writing for
granted, as it came easily, but always assumed that someday I
would do something with it, and then I became a graduate student
in a social science. And now several years later, I find I've
completely lost any and all ability to write, much less think. I
can barely string two words together. And I'm very sad about
this. So here I sit at 1 a.m., wondering: Is this a permanent
condition? Has graduate school caused permanent brain damage? Or
is my muse just annoyed with me?

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Sad and a Little Drunk

Dear Sad,

One of the beauties of the craft of writing is its
power to take us out of ourselves, to heal our damaged hearts, to
restore our faith and even to restore our ability to write. When
you're sad, a little drunk, worried about the state of your mind
or your soul, you can sit down and patch yourself up a little by
writing about it.

Dear Mr. Blue,

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I am a woman, 32, in a three-and-a-half-year relationship with a wonderful
man, almost done with my Ph.D. I am Indian, he is European and
we've had to deal with lots of obstacles in our relationship and
have been fairly successful. But I have stayed in touch with an
ex-boyfriend (also Indian) who, of all the men I have been with,
is the one who stands out. He understands me better, and both he
and I wish things had worked out differently for us. Do I risk my
future with a wonderful man whom I don't love nearly as much, for
a possibility of reclaiming the great love of my life? I am quite
afraid of hurting this wonderful man. I thought I had all the
answers, but I guess I don't.

Confused

Dear Confused,

This wonderful man you're with has worked with you
to make a good relationship but you don't seem to be in love with
him. The old love still burns brightly, and it sounds as if you
must take the risk and go find the great love of your life and
see how he looks up close and if he feels the same about you.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am in a terrible mess, but then aren't we all? I've been
married for 15 years to a lovely woman, whom I love and care
for, but I am desperately unhappy. We have no communication or
shared interests, and our sex life is nonexistent. We bury
ourselves in work and leave little time to run into each
other at home. Life just seems to go on and on and on ... and on. I
find myself thinking about divorce and fantasizing about
Something More. I want children, I want passion and I want to be
IN LOVE. My wife has had a difficult life and when I find myself
considering the Big Escape, I am smacked by guilt and cannot bear
the thought of causing her pain. To make matters worse, I met
someone six months ago, a woman who is attractive, intelligent
and compatible, whom I've grown physically and emotionally
attached to, and when we had sex it was a joy and relief in ways I
can't begin to describe here.

I've always considered myself a
good person and don't like having an affair, but the friendship
this woman provides is the only positive thing in my life at this
point. Divorce terrifies me, yet I can't bear the thought of
continuing to live like this: unhappy, dead to the world, my
feelings and thoughts bottled up, masturbating in the shower
every other day. Is there hope for me? What do I do about my wife
whom I don't want to hurt? What do I do about my girlfriend whom
I don't want to lose? What do I do about my inability to make a
choice? I feel like I'm standing frozen, staring at the
headlights of doom. I'm 35 and can't help but think I could have
a grand life ahead of me if I could just ... do something.

Miserable

Dear Miserable,

You married awfully young and made the wrong
choice. Many people choose wrong and struggle and eventually
learn to make a sweet life together, but somehow the years have
not brought you and your wife to a closer understanding. You
can't hang onto this dreadful life simply in order to spare your
wife pain -- she is already in pain -- and if there is no
shared life at all, then it's hard to see where reconciliation
can come in. As a matter of decency, however, you must discuss
things with your wife, either on your own or through a
counselor, and you must give her the chance to tell you what she
has gone through. This is important, for the good of your soul.
Don't flee the marriage before you bring about some process of
gentle confrontation and confession and reminiscence and remorse
with your wife. You can't take 15 years and simply throw it
into a wastebasket without a decent requiem.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm an American man living on an island off the western coast of
France in a high-paying, offshore kinda job and in an intense,
passionate relationship with a very vivacious Welsh woman. We
live together, are together all the time, go to sleep together,
wake together, eat together, drink together, play together, and I
love her dearly, but feel I'm being smothered by all her Welsh
passion. My only means of escape from her, outside of work, is
running ... and she's getting faster! Should I train harder?

Marathon Man

Dear Marathon,

Nice to hear from you. Asphyxiation at the hands
of a naked foreign woman is what many of us American men dream
about as we ride to and from work at our low-paying inland jobs.
Enjoy your tragic fate and let us know if you need witnesses.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am married to a man who is the soul of reliability, a tireless
worker and a loving (if reserved) father to our two teenage
children. He was my professor back when I was 21 and he was 32,
and everyone thinks we were the perfect match. We are both
bookish and intense, but he has evolved from a man of
few pithy words into a man of virtually no words with me, apart
from letting me know whether the dishes in the machine are clean
or dirty. He seems to have two modes -- working (usually silently,
alone) or reading (also silent and alone). I find myself angry
and resentful at being alone yet married, and yet I am unwilling
to leave because it would be so disruptive to the kids. Do
you have any suggestions?

Bookworm's Spouse

Dear Spouse,

Your mate is engrossed in, or obsessed by, his work,
and he needs to be interrupted. These habits of his can be
powerful, but don't accept the arrangement. Even if he is
Melville in the throes of writing "Moby-Dick," he needs to have
some pleasant time with you talking about life and children and
books beyond his ken. You're angry and resentful and this
exacerbates the problem. Somehow you need to astonish him with a
display of charm and affection and lure him from his lair into a
restaurant where the two of you can talk. Break the ice, but
don't use explosives; use warmth strategically applied. Then
conspire toward a weekend together, then a week. Leave the
children with relatives. You're not his student anymore, you're
his equal, and you need to place yourself, smiling, in his path
and engage him in talk.

Dear Mr. Blue,

It has been four months now since my heart was broken. She was
"the one," or so it felt. As a middle-aged male, I'm wondering if
I'll find a love like her again. The sense of loss is as great
today as when she left. I spend much time with friends and have
started dating, but despite my best efforts, the sadness and the
tears are still with me. I find myself overwhelmed with emotion.
How does one recover from such a loss and regain hope about the
future?

Melancholy

Dear Melancholy,

You're doing the right things and keep on
keeping on. But of course you won't find a love like her, so
don't look for it. You can't replace what you lost; it's
permanent. But once you accept that, be prepared to find
something new that is beautiful on its own terms.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm 43, separated-and-almost-divorced (it's not yet final, but
there's no turning back), mother of two young boys. My husband
of 13 years was an addict and a workaholic with whom I was
very depressed. What has saved my sanity since our separation is
going back to school. I'm amazed that this particular lifeboat
floated by at the point when it seemed I might have drowned. My
problem is that I adore one of my teachers. He's kind, smart,
funny and physically magnetic (to me). I know he thinks I'm
smart and funny and we chitchat about things, but we haven't really
developed a personal friendship. He is divorced. I'm so drawn to
him and would like to take things a step further. Life is too
short to ignore it when you find someone irresistible, isn't it?
I've been tempted to ask him if he'd like to have dinner.
What's your take on this, if you'd be so kind?

Waking to a Second Life

Dear Waking,

Ask him.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I often feel awkward when I talk to people, even good friends. I
feel I am intelligent, thoughtful, sometimes even funny, but
when I talk to someone whose opinion I care about, I find myself
searching for the "right" response: a funny punchline, the most
tender words, an insightful comment. My mind goes blank. I want
to say the right things, want my boss to be impressed with my
intelligence. How can I improve my conversational skills?

Loss for Words

Dear Loss,

I share the feeling. A good technique, when searching
for words, is to ask the other person about himself, his opinion,
his take on the situation, which he is almost always thrilled to
provide; this simple gambit buys you some time, like a batter
stepping out of the box to knock his cleats, and often it's
enough time to come up with the response you want. But do
remember that nobody bats 1.000 and that one hit in three at-bats
is a pretty good day.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I've been in a relationship with someone I love very much for
over a year now. We are good friends, but if I say to him that
I'm sad, I don't want to go out, he gets very distant and doesn't
know what to say or how to handle it. I am baffled why this man,
who claims to love and care deeply for me, cannot deal with
emotions. My mother and my friends say ALL men are this way, and
I have to admit, my experience holds that to be true. I don't see
the point in being in a partnership if I can't share my
occasional misery as well as my frequent joy. Am I being unfair?
Can he find a way to expand his emotional threshold?

Curious

Dear Curious,

Perhaps he feels a personal responsibility for your
happiness, The Guy As Home Entertainer, and he takes your sadness
as a reflection on his abilities to charm and captivate. I don't
know. But what's wrong with his giving you some room when you're
sad? Where is his inability to "deal with" your emotion? And why
is he supposed to handle it? It's your sadness. You're a grown
person, you deal with it. "I'm sad" can very easily be understood
to mean "Leave me alone." If you want him to put his arms around
you, ask him to. If you want to tell him why you're sad, tell
him.


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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