Living dangerously

The graduate student my friend is dating has the body of a porn star, but he's her professor. Should I warn him that he's risking everything he's worked for?

By Garrison Keillor

Published June 27, 2000 7:13PM (EDT)

Dear Mr. Blue,

My friend, a tenure-track professor at a large university, recently began a relationship with a graduate student in the same department, whose work he is often asked to review. All of our faculty friends are aware of this situation (as are some students). As far as we know his only attraction to this woman is that she has the body of a porn star. I'm worried that some knowing student will file a complaint, or jealous faculty will sabotage his tenure case. He is a wonderful teacher. What should I do? I am afraid my friend is crossing the Mason-Dixon line.

Saving the Self-Destructive

Dear Saving,

Your friend is living dangerously and all you can do is point this out to him. He should be prepared, if he continues, to defend his sexual behavior before a committee of stony-faced men and women around a long table, some of whom will savor their self-righteousness at his expense, none of whom will leap to his defense. It will not be a noble moment. And if he is denied tenure, there will be a faint aroma of scandal following him around for a while. You should put this to him and then put it out of your mind.

Dear Mr. Blue,

All my life I wanted to write a book. And now, finally, I've been published. First, I spent a week in shock, imagining that it was awful. Now it is getting a few nice reviews and is selling OK. So, what's the problem? I feel I must be its main marketeer and publicist. Send out copies, plan a book tour, be a control freak. (I am low on my editor's totem pole.) Should I leave it to the gods or Whomsoever to let this book have its own life, for better or worse? Or do I owe it to myself to continue this joyless Sisyphean labor of getting the word out? Where's that long anticipated joy of being published? Should I loosen up and get to work on something else? They say that if you don't sell well in the first three months, the game is over. What say you?

Working Overtime

Dear Working,

You can do only so much, and you must do that much and not try to do more. In the end, the gods will have their way -- great and brilliant books will falter and crash, and birdbrained monstrosities will rise in triumph -- but you must brandish your bright sword, unfurl your flag and thumb your nose at them. Promoting a book is a brief piece of business, not a Sisyphean labor. Three months is the maximum. Start working on something else, for your sanity at least, and only do as much promotion as there seems to be a demand for. Don't start taking copies door to door. Or if you do, don't come to my door, please.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am married to a wonderful woman for 28 years, a bumpy ride, but thrilling and worth the cost of admission. I own my own business and we manage to pay the bills and help support four grandbabies. All of my life I have been an aspiring writer, and I have several rejection slips from noteworthy publishing houses that have yet to recognize my talent. Anyway, my wife and I were sharing a bottle or two of Korbel last weekend, and I was bringing her up to speed on the characters materializing in my latest attempt at a novel. I was shocked into sobriety when my wife told me that she thought it was time that I grew up and quit living in my own dream world! I thought that rejection from Ballantine books was terrible, but the one from my wife was the equivalent of an asteroid hitting me square in the ego. Her remark has caused me to come down with writer's block and self-doubt that I haven't felt since high school. Should I forget her remark and get back to work or tell her just how bad it hurt me?


Dear Sorrowful,

Wives have been known to possess wisdom about their husbands based on years of close observation -- wisdom that, in unguarded moments, their judgment affected by domestic champagne, they share with him and throw him for a loop. On the other hand, wives are only human and their judgment may be flawed. Don't forget her remark. And don't tell her that it hurt you. Think about it and decide whether it might be true.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a math student, 25, falling in love with a beautiful, smart and funny girl, a physics student of 21, who is practical, academically brilliant and fiercely independent. She likes me too, I think. Sort of. But she has problems expressing her feelings. After a fantastic day on the beach, she once admitted she returned my feelings and we kissed for the first time. But she never takes hold of my hand; I have to take her hand. She never hugs me unless I hug her first, never kisses me unless I kiss her. Sometimes I detect annoyance when I kiss her, and it really hurts. When I told her that I want us to be together as girlfriend/boyfriend, she called herself "a cold person" and said she had always had problems with feelings, and that showing affection was unusual in her family. In high school she had been the "class nerd" and she still couldn't see why anyone would be attracted to her.

I long for tenderness and affection and erotic passion with someone who really wants to be with me. What to do? Am I arrogant in thinking I can change her? Is it wrong of me to try?

Love-Hungry Norwegian

Dear Love-Hungry,

You can warm this lovely woman's heart, holding her hand, hugging her, kissing her, and it's not arrogant to be generous, but don't hustle her, don't push and don't initiate discussions of feelings. And don't try to wrangle her into bed. She told you honestly why she is reserved: Accept the plain fact that growing up in a family that doesn't offer physical affection has made her skittish. Nonetheless, she is probably very grateful for what you offer her. Assume that the annoyance you see is a sort of embarrassment, a reflex, and relax your attention. If you are terribly anxious for mutual erotic passion, know that this woman is probably not ready for that now.

Dear Mr. Blue,

My boyfriend borrowed $50 from me about six weeks ago and hasn't paid me back. We were at the bookstore when he realized he'd left his wallet at home. It didn't seem like a big deal at the time for me to charge his books to my card. Well, a week went by and finally I asked him for the money and he made it seem like it would be a hardship to pay me back then. I have dropped hints since then, but I haven't asked him for the money directly and he has never brought it up or indicated when exactly he plans to pay me back. I know that he does not have a lot of cash lying around, but neither do I. We are both students. My main concern isn't the money. I would hate to think that he is going out with me because he would feel guilty breaking up with me before he pays me back. Do you think he is using me? Should I break up with him?


Dear Perplexed,

If he's using you, it's a petty form of exploitation, but irritating to you, nonetheless. A small-time welsher is as hard to figure out as a big-time deadbeat. Before you think about breaking up with him, drop him a note: "Six weeks ago, at the Dog's Ear Bookstore, you borrowed $50 from me so you could buy that nice leatherbound edition of Aristotle's Ethics. Can you pay me back by next Friday? Thanks. Love, Angel Eyes." You thereby remind him that the ball is in his court. If he can't deal with this small obligation, then toss this fish back in the lake and rebait your hook.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm married for more than 20 years to a good man and am happy with him, but he's not happy with life. He has a great job, a devoted wife, healthy children, but he maintains a constant downbeat attitude. I ask how his day went, and he replies, "It sucked." We go to our littlest one's kindergarten "graduation" and he observes, "I wonder if those kids know that the best part of their lives is already over." I point out the young couple smooching in the park, and he remarks, "He's probably cheating on her." He's been this way as long as I've known him (since high school), and I'm getting tired of hearing about how miserable the world is. I'm a writer, and beset by rejections and deadlines, and if I can be optimistic about life, why can't he? Or if he can't, why can't he keep quiet about it?

Is there a nice way to say "Shut up"?

Mrs. Dostoevski

Dear Mrs. D.,

After 20 years of the old curmudgeon, you're finally getting tired of it? You must be a saint. Or deaf. Some of us would've taken one look at this drip in high school and turned around and started walking. His cynicism seems to be superficial, adopted without any real thought or suffering on his part, and so it can't be taken seriously. He simply is one more penny-ante grouch who gets ego gratification by being the small dark cloud at the party, the dour bystander at the parade, the grim commentator at the wedding. When you're the one grouch in a crowd of normal people, you feel like a great wit and a profound intellect. There are millions of people like him, and they operate best within warm and comfortable circumstances, which give them the latitude to be sarcastic and dour and ostentatiously sharp and gloomy and not risk a thing. They are a sort of jester, I suppose. The deal with jesters, however, is simple: They are required to be witty, or at least interesting. If they're not, the deal is off. If you're S.J. Perelman, or W.C. Fields, or Fran Lebowitz, then fine, OK, tell me about the hopelessness of life. But if you're boring, then you don't get to. Then you have to pitch in along with the rest of the campers and make it a good summer. It's really just that simple.

However, you and Fyodor have maintained this vaudeville act of yours for a long time, and you can't simply tell him to go pack. Try ignoring him, studiously -- that is, when he says, "It sucked," wait for two beats and tell him about the best part of your day. When he offers up something so preposterous as the idea that life hits its peak at the age of 5, argue with the stupid son of a bitch. When he says that the couple in the park is probably cheating on each other, ask him, "Are you?" You've been the straight man for too long, lobbing setup lines to the big banana. Time to vary the routine.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I have a brother-in-law who has annoyed me for years. He is married and a pillar (or caterpillar) in his fundamentalist church, but he has a sneaky way of bringing sexuality into every discussion. He is sneaky about it, so that when confronted he claims to be misunderstood. I know a lot of women whom he's flirted with, making them uncomfortable, and it just galls me that he gets away with it. He has been reported, but "boys will be boys" seems to be the mind-set. Any revenge suggestions?


Dear Offended,

No. My only suggestion is that you get a life, one sufficiently engrossing that you will hardly notice this annoying flirtatious brother-in-law.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am in my mid-20s, in love with a woman who, when we met six months ago, was ending a long-term relationship. However, she and her ex have been very close for a long time, and she is adamant about maintaining their friendship. They work together, jog together a couple of days a week and hang out together often. He even stays at her place to take care of her cats when she leaves for the weekend. It bothers me -- and I can't make her understand this -- being constantly reminded of how close they are. Am I being selfish or not understanding enough? She doesn't need to stop being friends with him, just spend a little less time with him. Asking too much?


Dear Uncomfortable,

I don't think you're asking too much. Not at all. And it's too bad you had to ask. And even worse that she can't understand. Why is the woman so dense about this? She can't change the fact that they work together, but the jogging, the hanging out, the cat-sitting: It's just plain too much. You and she are in the courtship phase and this demands dualization, not triangulation. If it were me, I'd be even less patient than you. Agonizing. Steaming slowly. Fantasizing about his sudden disappearance. Plotting against the cats. I'd be wretched under the circumstances. Good you don't ask me what you should do: I haven't any idea.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I've been married for 25 years to a beautiful woman whom I love dearly. We have two teenage daughters. Our marriage has had its ups and downs, but we've been on a slide for almost five years now. A lot of family stress, a failed business, busy careers. We haven't slept together in that time. Needless to say, we became emotionally detached as we never seemed to find time for each other and we grew apart.

Last year, my wife said she wanted a divorce and she hired a lawyer. She told our friends of her plans before she told me. I was able to convince her we should try one more time. We still live in the same house today, although still as roommates, not husband and wife. I accepted the blame for what went wrong and tried to fix things. The household atmosphere has improved, but she has not come around. Now, I don't know how to move forward. I suggested counseling, but she refused and said it won't work. I kiss her every night, but she is still very emotionally detached and it seems to me that she is putting more effort into staying that way than trying to fix things. She has immersed herself in my youngest daughter's dance class and spends almost every evening and most of the weekend there. Do you have any ideas for me? I am at a loss as to what to do next.

Lonely in Cowtown

Dear Lonely,

There was a war here and it was quiet and ferocious and you managed to negotiate a cease-fire, but this is not the same as peace. She still has her back up. Maybe you do, too, despite your accepting blame and trying to fix things. I wish the best for you and simply can't advise you. Keep kissing her every night. But know that this may not be soluble now. Be wise and think ahead to a future without her and plan a course for yourself that will not alienate the two daughters. This is paramount for you. Don't let yourself be shunted off to an apartment. Stay home and fight her with kindness. Plan A is to hope for reconciliation, but do think about Plan B.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am dating a wonderful man, who's kind, romantic, affectionate, considerate, intelligent, informed, witty (I could go on), but I have a serious case of wanderlust I can't seem to cure. I'm dreaming of packing in the sensible job and 401K and heading off to Europe with my backpack (I'm 26). I took a long trip abroad recently, which I hoped would satiate my urges, but it only seemed to fuel them. Since then I've been driving my lovely man crazy with my talk of wanting to go here, there, everywhere. He is older, happily settled, and backpacking doesn't appeal even vaguely to him. He wants us to move in together, grow plants and be cozy. That sounds like a lovely dream too, but I can't let go of the former somehow. What to do?

Torn and Tangled

Dear T&T,

My dear lady, you shouldn't try to stifle this urge, no matter how kind and romantic this wonderful man is. He can't give you a life, you must make your own, and part of life is adventure, following your dream, your itch, your urge, your curiosity. The European backpacking trip is an old tradition: Americans have been doing this for two centuries. The way to cure your wanderlust is to take a deep breath, set a date, get your ticket and go.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a divorced woman who is seeing a man, also divorced, mostly on weekends, as we both have work and children to attend to. We have an unusually good relationship, long conversations, incredible sex, and it feels good being together. He says he really likes being with me, too -- "a lot" -- that he loves me, but that he is not "in love" with me. I'm having trouble processing that. Not sure I know the difference. I think our ideas about being in love are sometimes skewed by movies and advertising and lust, not to mention exhaustion. What do you think? Is there an important distinction? Or am I just looking for rationalization when I should be looking for someone else? Help, Mr. Blue!!

Walking on Eggshells

Dear Eggshells,

The fact that it feels good being together is the important thing. And the fact that you love each other. You can put aside the preposition "in" for discussion some evening when you're feeling especially warm and comfortable. I imagine he means that a person of his maturity and experience cannot get on the same emotional roller coaster as when he was younger, that he can care about you and be loving to you and can't go crazy over you. He's probably wrong about this, but let him find it out on his own. You can enjoy it, whatever he chooses to call it.

Dear Mr. Blue,

After spending the last six months recovering from a debilitating breakup, I've begun an affair with a man 14 years younger. He's 27. I'm 41. He's Brazilian, I'm a New Yorker. I make more than $300,000. He makes less than $40,000. He makes me split-grin happy. He's smart, silly, sophisticated and very sexy. There is absolutely no problem when we're alone. The problem is when we go out in public. If we are with his friends, I am the whitest, oldest person in the room. When we are in my neighborhood, we get leering looks. The angel on my shoulder scolds me: "He's only 27!" But the devil on my other shoulder is gleefully shouting, "He's only 27!" I know it can't, won't, shouldn't last. My question is this: Why the hell not?

Happy East Sider

Dear Happy,

You're bucking big odds, but we're all cheering for you, girl. Don't look at the passersby, and when you're with his friends, be a zany old white person, or at least a friendly o.w.p., not a fearful one. It won't last, and why not? Because if it did, then a lot of women would want one, and what would all the 50-ish men do? My wife is your age. I am not going to show her your letter.

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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