When in doubt ...

Is it practical to advise people not to get married if they feel any ambivalence at all? Are we setting a standard that's impossible to meet?

By Garrison Keillor
July 12, 2000 3:25AM (UTC)
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Quiet summer days around the Blue household, salad days, today a spicy cold linguini marinated in sauce made from soy, vinegar, shallots, honey and Thai pepper paste. Very light, from a recipe book from a famous spa where rich people pay through the nose to be kept away from food. Around here, we try to do the job ourselves, and periodically we go on a binge of abstention. Put the wine away, the Scotch, the butter, the bread, and put out the salads, the cold melon soup, and drink the coffee black. Buy soy milk and make soy shakes for breakfast instead of fried eggs and sausage. Thus do we bring a little clarity and simplicity to life and also enjoy the sense of righteousness. The Puritans were no fools: When they marched to church past the darkened homes of their hung-over neighbors, they felt truly joyful. So do we. And then, a couple of weeks down the road, we have the pleasure of going back to our excesses with renewed interest.

There was a time when the old man accomplished this by going on a summer camping trip to the Boundary Waters. Drive to Ely, near the Canadian border, and put in and canoe and portage and canoe and portage and do this for six days, while living on powdered fruit drink and freeze-dried potatoes, and when you return to civilization, even a simple hamburger has become an object of splendor. But a person can accomplish this at home, sleeping in your own bed, no tree roots or small stones under you, no deer flies biting you. There is nothing that deer flies contribute to a person's life, really. And if you, dear reader, are in a good place right now, a place without deer flies, then life is not entirely dreary for you. It could be worse.


And now a fine letter from a reader, with no smart-ass comeback from the addressee:

Dear Mr. Blue,

To L'Amour on 4/18 you wrote: "To enter into marriage with a divided heart is to walk into chaos and unhappiness." To a few others who expressed ambivalence about their prospective marriages you gave similar advice -- i.e., don't commit if you're not darn sure. This seems to me a dangerous thing to say to strangers through the mail. Given that Americans have always been prone to make the perfect the enemy of the good, to be "restless amid their prosperity," as Tocqueville says, to want it all, etc., particularly since the '60s, I wonder if you might be encouraging people to set a standard for surety that, even in love, is difficult for most of us (particularly young people) to meet.


I have been married for 14 years -- very happily, in love with my wife, delighted with our 11-year-old son. (Russell Baker says the problem with only children is that their parents tend to mistake them for the Hope Diamond -- well, ours is the Hope Diamond!)

Still, for all that, 14 years ago, ours did not seem like one of those glorious romances you find in novels. I was a little ambivalent going into marriage, and I had a few dark thoughts similar to those you respond to in your columns. "Divided hearts" -- fear, doubts -- come with the territory, before and after the wedding. But even during our roughest patches, I look around at my 40-something friends -- childless, wanting kids (or thinking they do), practicing serial monogamy, waiting for Mr. or Ms. Right, struggling with doubt -- then I say to myself, I like it a lot better my way, married. We don't find our soul mates. We become soul mates over time.

- - - - - - - - - - - -


Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm in my mid-20s and have been friends with a gentleman at work for a few years now. He's gentle, kind, brilliant and charming, and we have a great relationship and share interests in literature and travels. But he's 24 years my senior. When we are together we hardly notice the age difference. But now, as things have taken a romantic turn, as I have left a stagnant relationship with a man my age, I think about it. (My own parents were 21 years apart, and my father died when I was a toddler.) I would love to let myself love this man, but I'm scared of what may be, and find myself at a crossroads. Do I go and find myself a man my age, or do I give this blossoming romance a chance? Am I being too rational about this or not enough? Please help.



Dear Swooning,

If you're actually swooning, it may be too late for you. Mild dizziness or lightheadedness is one thing, but once you've collapsed onto your fainting couch and the maid has come running with smelling salts, you may find it hard to argue with your heart. As your surrogate father, I'm worried for you, and could give you a serious talking-to, either a five-minute or a 15-minute lecture, about the difficulties inherent in the April-October romance. There are many and they're worth considering in the long term. (Mortality is only one.) But I also think it's fine for you to enjoy your life. If you're with a man who charms you and who you love talking with about books and geography, a man who is kind to you, that's a great boon and blessing, and if there's nothing scary in the shadows -- no altars in his home with mounds of candle wax, no odd leather appliances, no collection of WWF videos or Jesse (The Body) Ventura posters -- then maybe you should let the flower grow.


Dear Mr. Blue,

For the past eight months, I've been having a purely sexual fling with a man 20 years my senior. I see him every week and I can't seem to pry myself away from him. He's a very good lover. And now I'm riding the emotional roller coaster of blissful carnal satisfaction and lonely, emotional unfulfillment. I rationalize the situation as simply a matter of two intelligent people satisfying physical desires with a roll in the hay. And then on other days, it starts feeling depraved. Why am I doing this? Is this really what I want? But, against all better judgment, I go over when he calls. Despite my efforts at nonchalance, I've become sincerely enamored of him. I don't ask him about other lovers because I'm afraid of what I'll find out. We've never been out in public together. He's sometimes gone for weeks at a time and he never even calls to say "hi." And he hasn't kissed me since the first night I went over there. And my girlfriends have become the recipients of all my self-loathing confessions and tales of lovesick woe.

Why does this leave me feeling so absolutely shitty? Am I just a masochist? I feel like I'm a pretty grounded, intelligent girl. Will I ever figure it out?


More of the Same

Dear More,

You feel shitty because you're hung up in a habit that started out pleasurably and now is painful. It's the pain of starting to love someone who doesn't give a shit about you. Your lover is carrying detachment to extremes. I assume he's married, thus the secrecy. This is anonymous sex, but with one partner, which is the worst of two worlds. Install an answering machine. Don't pick up. Don't talk to him on the phone. Be detached yourself. This shitty affair is undoubtedly keeping you from the normal social life of a young hetero woman. Drop it. If you don't, then perhaps you are a masochist.

Dear Mr. Blue,


I've done it now. She's on her way out the door. Funny, beautiful, sensitive, honest, the best thing that ever happened to me. She's also 29 and has been ready for marriage for a long time.

I've got my charms, but I'm also moody, complicated and have more baggage than a skycap. I'm 34 and have "commitment issues." Seven years together are now close to an end because I wouldn't get the ring and I got rather difficult to approach about it. No wonder she's headed for the door.

She needs "time apart" and I feel like I've been kicked in the gut. My heart hurts and my stupidity haunts me in full relief. I'm already talking to someone about the baggage, but any advice on how I can turn this around?

Jack Ass


Dear Jack,

Let her go out the door, but keep in touch and let her know that you love her. Use the time apart to rest your gut and recover your charming self and get some perspective on the situation. You're not stupid. Sometimes the key doesn't open the door, that's all, even with jiggering, and you need to regroup and think. Time to be thoughtful.

Dear Mr. Blue,

My older brother's son is marrying a woman he met through me who baby-sat for our four kids. I have helped this young man pay for the engagement ring and am hosting the rehearsal dinner and post-wedding party at my house. We'll be entertaining about 50 people for the weekend. All of this was offered willingly and without hesitation.


Here's the kicker. Our four children initially were not invited to the reception, just to the wedding. My wife challenged this, and now the children are, indeed, invited to the reception. But a comment was made to my wife as to how well my children would behave during the rehearsal dinner, leaving her wanting to ask if we should pack them up and leave the premises.

I cannot let go of this. I am unbelievably angered, shocked and hurt. At some point after the wedding I am going to have to get this off my chest. Should I? And, if so, then how so?

Sick of Bullshit

Dear S.O.B.,

It's a stressful time around a wedding and people may say things you can't take seriously. And the issue of whether to have small children present at such events is a legitimate issue and has nothing to do with you personally. You're getting steamed up out of all proportion to the offense, and it would be a terrible terrible mistake to make an issue of this. Believe me. Write an angry letter to your brother's family and get everything off your chest and then toss it in the wastebasket. Go to the amusement park and get in a batting cage and hit 50 bucks worth of balls into the netting. Drive around in your car and curse your brother out loud and tell him what a despicable wretch he is. But do not, do not, do not, get into an actual conversation with anybody over this. I beseech you, and I don't beseech very often. You will regret it if you do.

Dear Mr. Blue,

My boys, ages 16 and 17, have been using my computer to cruise various pornographic sites -- about 30 in a three-week period. The boys are allowed access to the computer, so there's no issue about that, just the nature of these particular excursions. I was a teenage boy once, I understand that images of naked ladies can be of great interest. I suppose this interest is healthy and probably contributes to the perpetuation of the species and all that. But I also have the gut feeling that Internet porn is qualitatively different from the milder forms available in my teenage years. Should I be concerned about my sons' viewing of this stuff? Should I talk with them? Am I just being a prude?

Surfers' Dad

Dear Dad,

Images of naked ladies are indeed of interest, to teenagers and to many of the rest of us. And if you're concerned about your boys' voyages into these exciting waters, you should keep in mind the utter normality of the interest. And the privacy and delicacy of it. They are looking at images that stimulate their fantasies and give intense pleasure, which, if interrupted by the Sex Police, can cause excruciating pain. And I mean excruciating. Respect the dignity of your sons and tread lightly here. You can, as I'm sure you know, place some large cyber-roadblocks in their way. And you could discuss with your boys, in as calm and rational a way as possible, the subject of pornography, the porn industry and whether they feel it is demeaning to women, how they'd feel if a girl they knew went into that line of work, etc., etc. Not to preach, not to stomp on them, but simply to bring the subject into the light of day. You start this discussion by saying, "I was cruising around the Web the other day and I came across this site" and so forth, and describe it a little, and ask them how they feel about this. And talk about those nudist magazines you used to pore over at the drugstore, with the grainy photos of naked ladies playing volleyball. It is no offense to their dignity to bring up the subject, so long as you don't pretend to have all the answers.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm in my mid-20's, just wrapping up a divorce, which was a shock to me, but it really put things in perspective, and I've come to the realization that I can't stand my current career as a computer jock. It pays very well, and friends and family think I'm crazy for quitting it, but I want to do something totally unrelated and challenging, like become a tuna fisherman in Alaska, or a lumberjack in Wyoming. So, am I crazy, or what?


Dear Untethered,

You're not crazy, just a little confused. The big bluefins are not found in Alaska. And Wyoming isn't the prime state for lumbering. Minnesota is where you'll find both. Giant tuna in Lake Superior ("Chicken of the Lake" we call them), some of them as big as houseboats, and tall pines just north of there that tower into the clouds. Get a new computer job in Duluth, a fine city on a hill, and get yourself settled and buy your oilskins and your ax. And then you can have your choice of everything.

Dear Mr. Blue,

My 80-year-old grandfather lives alone, friendless, far from the nearest relative. He is on medications and really can't take care of himself. He watches TV all day and night. He has fallen into a pit of despair, says he has nothing worth living for, and threatens suicide regularly.

This man has been absolute dictator of my family since before my time. He is wealthy and has used his money to control his son (my father), daughter and grandchildren, and has been a source of a hell of a lot of misery for all of us. He disowned me when I was 24. I saw him last fall at his wife's funeral (my stepgrandmother) for the first time in seven years, and we have been communicating pretty well since then.

He needs someone to come in and take over for him, but he's alternately hostile and helpless. My father and his sister don't know what to do; nobody really wants him around, yet we all would love to see him wake up a little, maybe even find joy, in his final years. I don't feel I'm strong enough to withstand his abusive behavior long enough to help him. He's in hell, and somebody has to make a decision. Got any ideas?


Dear G,

The old bastard is miserable now because he made everyone else miserable for 60 years; as Scripture says, "Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap." It's good of you to think about caring for him, but be realistic. Though he's sick and lonely, he's the same old bastard. If he wants your help, let him ask for it. Then, if you wish, offer to do the job, for pay. Don't live with him under any circumstances. Get him to cough up money for a housekeeper, a nurse aide, a massage therapist. You're not his servant; you're only willing to be his manager. As such, you must be willing to confront him when his behavior offends you. If he kicks you out, then let him take the sleeping pills and go to hell where he belongs.

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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