Tying the knot

Can a selfishly hedonistic guy find true domestic happiness after a life of frivolity?

Published February 1, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm 48 and have been seeing a woman on and off for almost 12 years. I've
broken it off a couple times in the hopes she would find someone to give
her the stable relationship she wants, but we always get back together. I
love this woman. She is without a doubt my best friend. I'm a freelance
illustrator whose income is extremely sporadic and minimal. I make barely
enough to support myself. I am also cursed with wanderlust. I spend my
winters in Mexico near the ocean. I love to fish, camp on the beach, dive
and gallivant about in my van with my dog. It's a simple life that I love.

Recently she broke down crying, telling me how truly miserable she was,
and how it was all my fault. I thought it over and a couple weeks later
asked her to marry me. (She is thinking about it.) I told myself it was time
to step up and do the right thing. If marrying her will bring her happiness,
then I am now willing to try to make her as happy as I can. Lately, in this
optimistic aura, I am beginning to see how much this union will enrich my
life and wonder what took me so long to feel this way.

What I ask from you, if you would be so kind, is an outsider's view of the
situation. Is my reason for wanting to get married valid? Or am I kidding
myself that this will make us happy? Can a selfishly hedonistic guy find
true domestic happiness after a life of frivolity?

Out There in New Territory

Dear Out There,

After 12 years you two surely know each other better
than most people embarking on holy matrimony, and if you go ahead and
tie the knot, your marriage should be a happy and comfortable one. This
car has been road-tested. This wine can only get better and better. Are you
marrying for a valid reason? No, of course not, but it doesn't matter: You
love each other and know each other and want each other, and she trusted
you when she poured out her heart to you, and you proposed, and you're
feeling better and better about this. You may need to draw the line here,
though, and make it clear that marriage, for you, does not mean becoming
a suit and driving an Audi and hauling down $185,000 a year, all in the
name of making her happy. That the van and the dog and the beach may
be part of the future. Perhaps she knows this, but it wouldn't hurt to make
it clear. All of us suits trudging to work on the frozen tundra would like to
think you're going to hang on to the winters in Mexico, the fishing and
camping and diving. You owe it to us poor wretches to keep up your life
so we can envy you.

Dear Mr. Blue,

My freelance writing career is simply rejection after
rejection after rejection, for three years now. It's just so difficult to
penetrate the insular world of publishing, where talent seems to matter not
nearly as much as knowing someone or having a file of published clips. I
ask people I know -- published writers, former professors -- and they
say, "It's wonderful," which only twists the knife in further. It pains me
even more when editors respond positively to my queries, yet say they
can't publish it because "it's not right for us at this time." Most editors
only seem to want to work with writers they already know or who have a
more established career than mine.

I don't want to give up, but I feel my spirit being broken into pieces.
Please help me.


Dear Dejected,

I could smooth your hair and stroke your cheek and put a
cold compress on your forehead, but I'm not going to. Your spirit isn't
broken, you're simply discouraged. Take a moment and look at it from the
editor's perspective. Let's say I'm the editor. I'm 48. I expected to be
editing the New Yorker by now and instead I'm editing Grommet
Monthly and the New York Review of Lag Bolts. I smoke two packs a
day and drink 12 cups of coffee. I am in terrible shape. My boss the
publisher is a cheap vulgarian in an Armani suit who berates me daily
about not winning more awards. My writers are a slovenly sniveling
bunch who keep trying to fob off the same old re-refried beans. I want
humor, action, beauty -- the ancient elegant grace of grommets brought to
life on the page; the profound service that lag bolts have given to
mankind, far beyond the usefulness of Donald Trump or Andy Warhol;
but why can nobody give me this in writing? -- and I get sodden lumps of
manuscripts that by superhuman effort I wrest into semi-readable form.
And now you accuse me of being "insular"? My dear, if only there
were an island I could go to for refuge, I'd go in a heartbeat. And I would
give anything to read something about grommets that arouses even mild
interest and amusement. But yes, barring the arrival of a brilliant
newcomer, I prefer to work with the mediocrities I know than work with
new mediocrities. It's fine that your old professors think your stuff is
wonderful, but they're not the ones whose neck is on the block. Mine is.
Editors are a dime a dozen. There are thousands of editors who once
wielded power in corner offices who now toil as telemarketers in tiny
cubicles. Write me something good and I'll print it.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a 23-year-old male student who, when I meet a new woman, easily
becomes rather infatuated. But somewhere in the process, my intention is
miscommunicated or something does not go right, and I become just her
friend. It is a permanent exile. Am I too nice, too self-conscious? I have
all these woman friends and no lover. I am surrounded by water and not a
drop to drink.

Probably Shouldn't Be Bitching

Dear Probably,

You're right, it's not the worse thing to be surrounded by
women friends, and you should enjoy their company. Be a pal. You'll
learn a lot. Men who know how to be friends have a great advantage when
they find a woman they want to be amorous with. And when you get the
chance, in a moment of warmth and confidence, ask your women friends
why you don't have a lover. They'll tell you.

Dear Mr. Blue,

Is it possible for a person to be inherently unhappy? I'm 25 and at a
crossroads in a relationship and in my career. It occurs to me that I am
not and rarely have been "happy" for extended periods of time. I'm
beginning to think happiness is all hype. Am I guilty of selling short? Or
do I just need to lighten up?


Dear Gloomy,

So you want Mr. Blue's lecture on happiness, do you,
young man? Very well. Ahem, ahem. Happiness lies in small things,
passing experiences, accidental encounters, and yes, I think that some
people have it in their nature to walk out the door in the morning and,
even though beset by deadlines and anxieties, take a certain exhilaration
from the dew on the grass, birdsong, a dog going about his dog business,
the herd of children waiting patiently for the school bus, the aroma of sod.
And other people, even in the flush of success and ease and booming good
health, brood over old resentments and anticipate disaster.

You're young
and your life is starting to take shape. You get to make thousands of little
choices that of course affect your disposition, such as whether to drink
coffee in the morning or kerosene, whether to put a stone in your shoe or
not, how tight to tie the necktie, etc. And I believe that there are times in
life when a gloomy person can decide not to be and change. Maybe it's
when you get a big scare and mortality looms large and then things turn
out all right. The plane bucks and the meal trays bounce off the ceiling
and people scream and sob and an hour later you're walking through the
terminal toward baggage and your life has changed course. There's a dark
spot on your X-ray and you spend a couple of sleepless nights cursing fate
and then the dark spot turns out to be your nipple ring. Of course you
should lighten up. But just go live your life the best you can. And don't
feel gloomy about being gloomy. If you're going to be unhappy, be
unhappy in some original and witty way so you can get some pleasure out
of it.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am 30 years old, dating a man who is 50 and has three daughters. He
wants me to marry him, but I am hesitant about having stepchildren and
am somewhat uncomfortable about the age difference. He is putting
pressure on me to marry him, and I feel "paralysis from analysis" and am
lost and confused. I am in love with him, but cannot accept his
children at this stage in the game. I feel guilty for this, but this
is my gut feeling. Is our age difference too grand?? Is it abnormal to
have such a difficult time with stepchildren?

Feeling Lost

Dear Feeling Lost,

Unless the children are small, your relationship to
them will be slight. If, say, they are in their teens, they'll be capable of
ignoring your presence to a degree that might amaze you. So you really
only need think about him, the guy who is anxious to marry. Put him off,
in the kindest way you can. Tell him that you are in love with him and
that you've thought so hard about marriage that it made you dizzy and
now you'd like to have six months of happy companionship during which
you don't think or talk about the subject. Ignoring the topic, avoiding
using the word, may clarify things for you. If you are speaking to God
these days, you could ask Him. But don't proceed further without a little
more clarity.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I've been involved with a man for the past six years who is intelligent,
sensitive and caring, who I dearly love. We are both in our 40s and
independent. He is fearful of even little commitments such as planning a
date a week from now, believing it will take the joy out of the
relationship and make his life no longer his own. He was once married to
a very dependent and controlling woman. I am not that woman, but he isn't
convinced. We've talked about this issue until we're both blue in the face.
He is a workaholic who I believe uses his work to hide from the rest of
his life. I love him and so much of our relationship is joyful, intimate
and fun. Should I accept his faults and enjoy the good or get out of it?


Dear Frustrated,

Enjoy the good. Gosh, yes. I am all for that. Joyful
Intimate & Fun is the trifecta: What more does one expect? Transcendent
Bliss? As for his spookedness about committing to plans, ignore it
studiously, as you would ignore his hump if he were a hunchback, and go
ahead and make your own plans. Don't be a slave to his need for
spontaneity. If you want to have a dinner party two weeks from today, go
right ahead and enjoy it and if he wants to come be part of it, fine, and
equally fine if he doesn't. One person's spontaneity is another's prison.
Let the gentleman work as hard as he wishes, and you enjoy the J.I.&F.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a black woman married to a Jewish man, both of us university
professors. I am 37 and he 47. I am the first person in my family to
graduate from college and he comes from a long line of professors.
writers, artists, union leaders, etc. My husband and I waffle back and
forth about having a child. We seem to take turns each week on who is
more opposed to the idea. I think in the end, I am the one who wants a
child more, but even I have doubts. I still have not published my first
book and I do have dreams of some sort of academic career. Am I being
too rational? Selfish? Overly influenced by our society's notion that
you are not complete unless you are married with children?


Dear Waffler,

You're trying to come to a rational decision on a Large
Question that nobody decides rationally, or very few. Children are
conceived on the basis of powerful impulse, for the most part, and even
when people discuss whether to have one or not, the propelling force is
usually the assumption, perhaps stronger in one partner than the other, that
children simply are what one has, are an essential part of the normal
happy life. Nobody does a cost/benefit analysis on children. There are
costs, however, and as long as you're cogitating, you may as well
consider them. A child will put some strain on the relationship. It simply
will, no matter what, and it may put tremendous strain on it, so if you're
in a precarious situation at home, you should think twice. You give no
indication that you are, but one should consider this. And is this first book
of yours imminent, trembling, waiting to be written? Or is it off in the
haze somewhere? By the way, it might help you think about the Question
to spend some time taking care of small children. Children are not
themselves theoretical, so take an infant on your lap and change its diaper
and dandle it on your knee and see what it's like. Ask the infant if you
should have a child and put your ear to its little lips and maybe it will tell

Dear Mr. Blue,

We've been living together for close to four years. I am almost 24, he is
pushing 30. I am a successful Web site designer, magazine editor,
freelance writer and Ph.D. student. He has no degree and hasn't held a
steady job in two years. I go to work and school. He tries to invent
entrepreneurial schemes that will make him millions on the Internet. (I
have never supported him financially, though.) I am spiritual, optimistic
and love life. He has been plagued by depression for years. He has
many endearing qualities, is sweet and wonderful, has the most adorable
smile in the world; he is loyal and understanding, and completely worships
me; and I can't imagine my life without him. We broke up once for five
months and couldn't seem to stay away from each other, so we stopped
trying. Are these just normal jitters that everyone gets, or should I really
be paying attention to my fears?


Dear Questioning,

What's the question? What jitters? You're afraid that
it's not a perfect fit. Well, it isn't, but if you were unsuccessful at breaking up, then I guess you're together, so enjoy it. If I were depressed and
struggling, I'd feel phenomenally blessed to be with a successful woman
who loves life. And what's wrong with being worshipped? Every
relationship has to define itself, and an outsider like Mr. Blue isn't the
judge of it. You may be able to help your man with his depression, in all
the usual ways, and if you can't, this might be a burden, but don't
anticipate trouble. You can't imagine your life without him and there he
is, smiling at you. Next question.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am in love with a man I know I could marry and be happy with for the rest of
my life, and he seems to feel the same way about me. We've been together
for just under three years and are to be married this summer. My entire
family adores him. We are both about to graduate from medical school.
But I don't know if I'm ready to be married to anyone yet. Not even him.
I'm 25 and I've always dreamed of traveling the world and helping people
in remote areas. I always thought I would devote the first decade of my
career to immunizing kids in Africa or running a free clinic in Peru or
something. I feel I owe something to the rest of the world for giving me
the opportunities that I have. I was born into a smart, goal-oriented
family, and as a result, I am fairly successful. I feel that if I settle into
wedded bliss, live in relative luxury with a wonderful husband and start a family, I
would be giving up a noble pursuit for my own selfishness. I could not
imagine losing him, but at the same time I don't want to be saddled with
guilt for the rest of my life over letting go of my dreams so easily.


Dear Dreamer,

Do I detect a hint, however faint, that your successful
goal-oriented family is pressing you toward this marriage? If this is so,
perhaps it's what is unnerving you. There is no harm in postponing the
wedding if you feel unready to go through with it. Know that it's your life
and you have charge of it; you can't appoint a trustee and expect to be
happy. It's not selfish to want marriage and a family: These too are noble
pursuits. I'd try to separate the question of the marriage from the question
of humanitarian service, if you can. It's romantic to dream of Africa or
Peru, but there are needy people all around you, if you want to pay the
world what you owe. There are sections of American cities that are as
remote from your (and my) life of privilege as Africa is.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am 22 and near graduation from college in the East. I am madly in love
with my boyfriend in the Midwest and plan to move out to live with him.
I am a writer, and have gotten some attractive offers from prestigious
programs here in the East, but I miss my boyfriend terribly. My
professors tell me I'm making a serious mistake that I'll regret five
years from now. This seems excessive. I will still go to grad school in the
Midwest, just not to one of the top 10. In terms of literary success, if you
hard and possess some talent, does it really matter where you go to


Dear Pining,

I think you're heading for the Midwest. It sounds as if you
are. Your professors will regret this and maybe you too someday, but if
you work hard and have talent you can prove them wrong. Yes, of course
it matters where you go to school, but in the end a writer floats or sinks
according to what she manages to put on paper. Pedigrees are for dogs;
writers have to do the work. Of course, you are passing up some
opportunities that a 22-year-old Midwestern writer might kill for, or
seriously wound, but live boldly and follow your passion, and if this
boyfriend is really worth it, you ought to be able to get a story out of him,
maybe two.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I need help. I've been in a terrific relationship with a kind,
beautiful man for years, and now I find myself in love with another
man even though I'm very happy with my boyfriend. The second guy is
an old friend, for whom I have always had strong feelings. We've been
talking and e-mailing a lot, and are thinking about spending a weekend together. I want to kiss him so badly, I think I'm going crazy just thinking about it. What should I do? Is it OK to see this second man? How is it possible to be in love with two people at the same time?

Embarrassment of Riches

Dear Embarrassment,

When you ask if it's OK to see the second guy, in
what sense do you mean "OK"? Do you mean, will you be arrested by
the vice squad for double intercourse? No. Will your mother disown you
and take your picture off the piano? Probably not. Will you have to return
your old Sunday School attendance pins? No, they are yours to keep. Of
course you know that spending a weekend with the old friend could very
well kill off your terrific relationship with the kind beautiful man. I mean,
you do know that, right? These little secrets have a way of leaping out of
the drawer. But I am not here to judge you. It's possible to be in love with
three people at the same time, maybe four, but it does get to be time-consuming, and most of us don't require that much love.

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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