He'll never break my heart

I love my boyfriend but he doesn't turn me on. Should I settle for a frisson-free relationship, or hold out for what my mother calls "movie love"?

By Garrison Keillor

Published June 20, 2000 7:58PM (EDT)

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am 30 and have been with a man for the past year who is sweet, kind, very intelligent, funny and very devoted. But sexy? Uh, no. We have s-e-x, and while it's getting better, he just doesn't turn me on. Meanwhile, I find my pulse quicken as I cast my eye about my fair city and its fair male denizens. And they are doing more than looking back, believe me. Maybe this is the way it goes when you don't reek of availability, but I have gotten a lot of attention in the past year. I feel horrible, liberated and naughty about it. It feels so great to be turned on, and I am attracted to other guys and really don't know what to do. I don't want to leave him, but I don't want to not have this "yeah!" feeling. I genuinely love him, as flippant as I may sound here, and I am angry at myself for mistreating his love. Should I grow up and give up the game, accept that my relationship will be stable and pleasant but frisson-free, with all the trappings of domesticity (and a man who will never break my heart) or break up and go off in pursuit of some form of what my mother calls "movie love"? What's the track record on that sort of thing?

Wide-eyed and Squinting

Dear Wide,

The odds on movie love aren't great, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't go and throw yourself at one of those two guys who are giving you frissons when your eyes meet theirs. You have to leave the sweet, kind, funny guy before you can pursue them, though, and perhaps, to alleviate your guilt at dumping a guy as good as he, you should take one last shot at uninhibited, all-out, no-holds-barred, state-of-the-art, professional-quality sex. Don't be subtle. Set a date -- say, next Saturday -- and clear the schedule so you can start the foreplay right after brunch, come to hourly climaxes through the afternoon, nap, have dinner, then do it again in the evening. Choose your outfit carefully. Accessorize. Lay in a supply of candles and lubricants and velvet ropes and practice giving explicit directions in a husky voice ("Move my clitoris a quarter inch to the left, please") and have yourselves an erotic day you'll still remember when you're old and in the Home and not in your right mind. Congratulate him afterward. Reward him with a nice meal. And then tell him, "We're going to do this again tomorrow, and this time it's for all the marbles. If you do even better, then I'm yours. Otherwise, I'm going with the Frisson Brothers." Don't be afraid to lay it on the line. He may be sweet and devoted and all, but nice guys have to be able to compete in the free market with everyone else.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm a reasonably good-looking and fit 26-year-old guy who's gone two years without a girlfriend and I'm getting rather fed up with it. I have women friends, but none ever seem to want to become more than friends. They say, "I don't think of you that way." It's getting to the point where I feel maybe I'm too damn nice for my own good, since many of the women who have spurned me have gone on to date total jerks who treat them like trash (and then mine winds up being the shoulder they cry on). Should I change my approach to something more aggressive, or what? Any advice?


Dear Frustrated,

Aggressiveness is more likely the problem than the solution. Romance is an elegant idea that occurs more or less simultaneously to two people; it isn't a proposal put forward by one, like a corporate merger. One doesn't propose a romance; one only tries to put into words what you and the lady already have clearly implied by your actions. If you're worried about romancelessness, check the basics: Do you bathe every day and use a deodorant? Do large tufts of nasal hair adorn your nostrils? Do you mitigate any geekish qualities by dressing with some style, i.e., have any women friends complimented you lately on your outfit? (If not, get something else.) Do you possess a modicum of charm, i.e., do you ever make people laugh out loud? Do you ever get a sense of futility and despair on the part of folks seated next to you at a dinner? These are some questions to ponder, and meanwhile, enjoy your life, meet and greet, mingle, be kind and when you meet someone who you want to know better, don't hesitate to ask her to dinner, a movie, a ballgame, whatever you fancy. A date is a pretty simple proposition. Don't complicate it by attaching large romantic meanings to it. It's simply two people being by themselves.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm a 24-year-old single gal living in the Midwest. I've got a nice job in the publishing industry, a wonderful life here, friends, great apartment, my first new car ... everyone tells me I've got it made. So why do I keep having dreams of chucking it all and moving to the Big City? Getting a job in New York publishing has been a long-held dream for me. But I've been planning to move for almost seven months now, and I can't seem to get off my keister and make things happen. I'm terrified of the uncertainty of it all: scraping by in an underpaid job, starting fresh in a scary city, making a big mistake that I'll regret. And yet I'm also terrified of not going and waking up in 10 years and saying, "What if ..." How can I jump-start my ambition, overcome my fears and just do it?


Dear Stymied,

There's one good reason for you to move to New York and that's to be in the maelstrom of publishing, hear all the good gossip first, work on terrific books, or books that sell gazillions, and rise through the ranks to become the president of Penguin Putnam, or the president of your own Stymy Press, publisher of notable books about the lifestyle of the Midwest. If you crave the work and have the ambition to take over the world, then you come to New York, rent a squalid apartment in a dodgy neighborhood out in Brooklyn, ride the B train into Manhattan and start your ascent. There are good reasons to stay where you are, too, including the ones you mention and also the chance to do good work. Work is the crucial question, don't you think? You're young and ambitious and smart and now is the time to apply yourself. You don't postpone your calling for a new car and a great apartment.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I have a wonderful boyfriend and problems with my parents lately. He has offered me a place to live, but my parents have taken it upon themselves to say that if I were to move in with him, I would no longer have a family. I'm 20, a senior in college, putting myself through school with no help from my parents, no loans, and he is 28, has a great job and just wants me to be happy with whatever I do. What is your opinion on this matter?


Dear Torn,

It's a lousy way to start a relationship, moving in together as a way of getting away from home, with the parental fatwa hanging over you. It's not a good idea to fire your family. Find a neutral place to live temporarily -- with a relative or friend, someone your parents trust -- and try to make up with your parents, at least so you're civil to each other. Give it a year at least. Let them meet the boyfriend in some pleasant, nonemergency situation. Finish college, turn 21 and find yourself a job and then decide where you want to live and with whom. The air of crisis will have passed. If you decide for him, they'll accept it.

Dear Mr. Blue,

About a year and a half ago, I became friendly with a neighbor across the hall. But she took advantage of me, leaving three or four messages on my answering machine every night, sending e-mails about every facet of her life, consulting me about her daily crises. I am a novelist with a full-time job, and I don't have time for that sort of thing, so I told her, and she didn't speak to me for about eight months. This spring, she and I began talking again, and the same thing happened. I was overwhelmed by her demands and her inability to be a listener. I tried again to tell her, in a polite way, that I couldn't be on call to solve her problems, and she blew a head gasket and told me I was an evil person and slammed the door. I know it's for the best that she's out of my face, so why do I still feel so terrible?

Somewhat Relieved

Dear Somewhat,

You feel bad because you were well brought up and you take accusations seriously, even from the demented. And it's awkward to live across the hall from someone who isn't speaking to you. And you miss the excitement of a lady telling you every facet of her life. Send her a bouquet on her birthday, and meanwhile, do your work.

Dear Mr. Blue,

Eight months ago I reconciled with a boyfriend who broke up with me (pretty mercilessly), after a lot of crying and pleas for reunion on my part. We've finally gotten our act together, much more functional than ever. But my family hasn't gotten over the tear-filled breakup. They don't want to see him even though I've completely exonerated him. Please advise.


Dear Push,

Your family watched the whole bloody show when Bigfoot dropped you and naturally they shared your pain and developed a healthy aversion to the guy who made their girl unhappy. For parents, the suffering of a child is worse than their own. And hostility on behalf of a loved one may be more persistent than the personal kind, and you shouldn't expect this to abate anytime soon. You told them what they needed to know to conclude that the gentleman is a jerk. You can't suddenly take it all back. He'll need to do something to get back in their good graces. Like going into a burning building to rescue small children. Or picking up the governor of Minnesota and heaving him into a dumpster. Or negotiating peace in the Middle East. One of those three things ought to do the trick.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am in love with a wonderful woman. We are both 26, have been dating for two years and have talked seriously about marriage. She is everything I have ever wanted to find in a wife, but I'm afraid she's not quite ready to commit. As a child she moved around a lot and she wants to settle down in one place and raise a family, but she dreams of teaching in Europe for a year or two. I would love for her be able to go, but we both worry that a long absence may cause us to slowly drift apart and that we might lose a great relationship. On the other hand, I am afraid that if she doesn't go, she'll live to regret that she didn't. Should I hold on tight or let her spread her wings?


Dear Thoughtful,

You really are, and it's good of you, and your instinct to let go is the right one, I believe. If you think she's not ready to commit, you're almost certainly right, and the result of holding onto her, the inevitable manipulation, the bullying, can only be hostility between you. You should encourage her to pursue her dream. Tell her you have faith in the future, faith in the ability of the two of you to do the right thing, and that now is her chance for the European experience. Do this wholeheartedly. Maybe she will decide not to go, but it'll be her decision, with no drag on your part. Your least resistance will only complicate matters.

Dear Mr. Blue,

An old friend began an affair a few months ago with a married man with young children. He lives in another state and they meet each other in various cities when he can sneak away from work and his wife. I have told my friend on many occasions that I don't think it's a good idea, but I try not to let it interfere with our friendship. I try to avoid the topic if possible. Now, I've received an invitation from her to celebrate his birthday. He is flying into town and she wants to arrange a group dinner with me and my husband, and several other couples she knows. I have absolutely no desire to go. I am doing my best to not be judgmental, but I want no part of it. Should I make up an excuse for why I won't attend, or should I be straight with her and tell her that I find the idea of spending an evening with her and her paramour abhorrent? And am I a judgmental prude for not wanting to associate with these two as a couple?

Grossed Out

Dear Grossed,

You needn't attend social functions you don't want to attend. There are some exceptions, but this isn't one of them. Your not wanting to be there doesn't strike me as prudish, though of course you are exercising judgment. How to explain your absence is the interesting part. Some of us believe in white lies as a necessary social lubricant, helping people over a rough spot without confronting the wretched truth. But you've been honest with your friend all along, so why stop now? You simply tell her that this man is lying to his wife and you refuse to be complicit in the lie, as a matter of loyalty to the sweet tradition of marriage.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I was not a writer until I went to Australia and had a life-changing experience in the Outback -- an adventure that went horribly awry -- and I decided that the story had to be told. I wrote the first draft of a book, got a contract and after two years of hard work, I am almost finished. And it has been hard work, editing, rewriting, trying to articulate an event or idea for which I don't have ready words. At every juncture I have been forced to identify and solve problems I couldn't name and sometimes couldn't describe. It has been an enjoyable education, but I have been entirely self-taught, which limits and frustrates me.

I am trying to tie the whole book together, and the task is ridiculously complex. How do you build suspense in the course of a narrative? Many people, including me, will look bad when my book is published: Do I come down harder on myself than those around me? How much slack do I cut my companions? And though I tried to be strong through our ordeal, I lost it badly at one point. How do I portray the moments of my own cowardice? How do I tie the reader into the narrator's aspirations? And finally, how, after what may be years of pouring energy into a project, how do I know when it is done and I can set it free?


Dear Writer,

You have what every writer wants -- a big story that demands telling, great material. The rest of us sit and piddle around and write about vague queasiness and tiny neurotic reflexes and make up little adventures and compose essays about reminiscence, and you've got "Moby-Dick." I'm not sure how to answer your questions, not having a ms. in front of me, so you should take this as pure speculation on my part:

1) This story wouldn't seem to require "building" suspense. It has suspense built in. You simply begin at the beginning and proceed. You must, however, construct innocence at the beginning -- your innocence when the experience began, which you now have lost. You must reconstruct this for the reader. This is hard, given all you know, but the reader must receive knowledge honestly, as you did going through this ordeal, and not see the conclusion signaled in advance.

2) You must be as hard on yourself as you honestly can be, since you're privy to self-knowledge. Anything that seems self-serving will be distrusted instantly and the reader may discard you at that point. But it is also self-serving to flog and flay yourself unreasonably. Either one undercuts your authority as the narrator, which is crucial. The teller of the story is human, and honest to a fault, but he is no fool: If, midway through, he suddenly turns out to be one, then the reader is cheated.

3) You portray the moment of your own cowardice honestly, factually, nakedly and without gloss. It's a scene and you write it as a scene, not as an essay. Later in the story, of course, you reflect on it, but the book is not about this, I take it. It's about something bigger than you.

4) Your aspirations must be clear in the first few pages. The first rule of storytelling is that the most difficult fact should probably be brought forward at the outset -- "When I was 10 years old, I bumped my head on a cupboard door and suddenly was given the gift of prophecy" -- and the narrator's standing and reliability should be established right away. This begins with your reason for going to Australia with these people. You didn't go with the aspiration of writing this book -- you're not a writer, out to exploit the story, you're an amateur who is compelled by the story, and this is an enormous fact that you must make clear because it works so much to your advantage.

5) A tough question. You pace your work so you don't tire of the story before it's done, you trust your editor (if possible), you get some good opinions from friendly readers of the ms. as to its state of completion, but in the end it's your call. Don't write this entirely on a computer, is my advice. Print it out and go over the hard copy with a No. 2 pencil, the old way. It makes a huge difference. Try reading parts of it aloud to yourself, if you can bear it. Reading aloud is a useful bullshit detector. And pencil editing, word by word, line by line, is enormously good for getting the sound right. Good luck. Hope it's a big success.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am close to asking my girlfriend of almost three years to marry me, but it scares me to spend so much for a ring. The "two-months salary" rule, in particular. I make decent money, but I have a lot of debt. My girlfriend is very understanding and far from materialistic. Still, I want to show her how much I love her and don't want her to feel less than thrilled about her ring. How can I get her a decent ring that isn't all that expensive? Am I a heel for even thinking about money at a time like this?

In Love

Dear In Love,

There are craftspeople who make rings far handsomer than the standard cookie-cutter diamond. I'm wearing a Hopi ring at the moment, bought on a trip through Arizona, identical to my wife's. It's a ring that a lot of people have asked about and I pull it off and show it to them, a striking piece of work. It cost about $70. I treasure it. The "two-months salary" rule is a myth promoted by jewelers. Ignore it. It has nothing to do with love whatsoever. Find something beautiful and handcrafted.

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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