Lonely guy

I'm 23 and I've never been out on a date with a girl. Is it too late for me?

By Garrison Keillor
July 18, 2000 11:56PM (UTC)
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Dear Mr. Blue,

I graduated college in May and moved away from home to begin life in the working world. However, I've got a personal problem hanging over me that's especially bothersome lately: I'm 23, and I've never been out with a girl on a date. It's not for want of trying, but I've hit one bad situation after another, and now I'm worried that it's too late. How does one enter the dating world for the first time at this late age? I don't care to die alone, but I don't know how to proceed.


Too Old for This

Dear Too Old,

This isn't a problem, simply a small odd fact of your life, like never having seen Paris or attended an opera, and you proceed by proceeding. You settle into your new home, get your spice rack organized, hang up your pictures and then go out and avidly mingle with the young and restless, and find good people in whose company you feel easy and graceful and casual. (Avoid the use of alcohol to facilitate this.) And bring women into your life, as friends. Be a mensch. Go out of your way for people. But don't lunge. And when you meet a woman who you like and who is unattached, ask her to have dinner with you and go to a movie. The worst that can happen is that she says no. So what? Too bad. Boogers on her. Move on.


If you're intrigued by the romantic idea of the Beautiful Stranger, then try personals ads or the Internet, but do this in a spirit of fun, not out of desperation. Desperation is your enemy. Stave it off.

Take a close look at your personal appearance. A guy who's been solo for a while can easily find himself with an unfortunate hair style, spooky eyebrows, nerd glasses, cobwebs hanging from the ears, alarming shirts with too many ballpoints in the pocket, bad shoes, and ties that say, Lonely Guy Trying Too Hard. Check yourself out and aim toward the Hip Normal range. It is a cruel cruel fact that the world prefers the fair-haired and handsome and so we homely heavy-set guys have to make sure we're presentable. And good luck. What you're aiming for is a bench in a park on a summer night, the moonlight dancing on the water, and a beautiful and valiant woman and you sitting shoulder to shoulder and talking quietly about life and its odd and amusing turns; this is one of life's prime pleasures, whether you discover it at 23 or 64 or anytime before or after.

Dear Mr. Blue,


My husband has a crush on a summer intern at his new job. I believe he wouldn't cheat on me -- I don't think he is even aware of his feelings. He openly talks about her charm, how wonderful she is at her job, he gets dolled up to go to work, has taken to wearing after-shave, and yesterday he suggested they go shopping together on our one day off (I could come if I want!).

I go back and forth thinking it is harmless and then feeling bad that he is sniffing around coeds. I don't know what to do. I hate these petty feelings, I miss feeling that I am No. 1 in his life, but I understand he has a lot on his plate and maybe this crush is a temporary coping tool. I don't want to be an old jealous hag, but I don't want to miss any signs of trouble. Any suggestions?


Newly Moved

Dear Newly,

Play it for laughs. Make pointed remarks about the intern, her dowdy appearance, her dull personality, her cluelessness, her shoes, whatever. Make fun of her flirtatiousness, the obviousness of it, the way she has him wrapped around her finger. Surely you can lay waste to the child. And if you like, invent an 18-year-old produce manager at the grocery store who is a dreamboat and brilliant to boot and who flirts furiously with you whenever you drop in for artichokes.


Dear Mr. Blue,

I haven't spoken to my mother since 1994, when she lied to my family that I had hit her during an argument. The lie prompted my father to order me to leave home. (I had just graduated from college and was penniless.) Since then, I have found a good job and married a wonderful woman and life is good. I've forgiven my father and sisters for accepting the lie, and we get along well enough, but I won't speak to my mother because she never apologized. I hear that she's been counseled for Histrionic Personality Disorder. Now my wife and I are expecting our first child, and family members are pressing me to reconcile. They say it would be cruel to deny my mother access to her grandchild. I can't imagine that she'd be a good grandmother in any way, and I'm wary of the damage she could do with her high-pitched emotional manipulation, her history of lying. Inviting my mother into my child's life would be like leaving a live grenade in the nursery. I'd like our child to grow up knowing the rest of the family, so how do I get them to back off on the reconciliation issue without alienating them?

Worried Father to Be


Dear Worried,

I'm with the family on this one. Six years is long enough to punish your mother for that lie, and the birth of your child is the perfect opportunity to declare amnesty. Your mother isn't a hand grenade, she's a fallible mortal being, one who has a big connection to you and your child. Give her a call and be a gentleman and ask her to lunch. You can put up with her for an hour. And invite her to the christening, or whatever ceremony you intend for baby adoration, and take things from there.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm 37, lovingly married to a dear, intelligent, funny, kind, handsome man of 43, settled and secure. So why do I feel so horribly sad?


I've always been a bit depressive. I was abused by my parents, and I've broken off contact with them. I was successful in college and had dreams of becoming a writer, but found graduate school to be a wretched environment. I got a job teaching, but the workload ground me down. To pay off my student loans ($50K) I took this job as a marketing director, which I loathe. I can barely manage to make myself go to work -- in fact, I've been calling in sick.

Chronic pain is adding to my dismal outlook. My back and neck hurt a lot, all the time, and have for years. Treatment has helped only a little. An orthopedist could find nothing wrong with my back, and attributed the pain to muscular tension; I suspect the culprit is sadness, stress and being overweight.

I'm lonely even though my husband is great fun; after five years I still don't have any friends here. I worry that I'm just a hopeless whiner. I am afraid I'm going to drive my husband away with my morose attitude and demands for attention. Usually I don't tell him how much pain I'm in (both physically and emotionally). I feel it's all my own fault. This probably contributes to my sense of loneliness.

Mr. Blue, what should I do?


Lonely Lady

Dear Lonely Lady,

It's not the job, it's not the old disappointments, you are depressed. Your pain is probably stress-related, according to the Old Internist. I read your letter to him over the phone and he said, "Fibromyalgia," and then he hung up. He's been a little surly lately himself. Probably because he has a trip to Nevada coming up and the old coot is terrified of flying. Anyway, enough about him. Find a good psychiatrist and get to work blowing the cobwebs out of the closet. Let the old ambitions rest. Embrace what you have today, including the funny husband. Finish resolving your childhood abuse so you can escape the clutches of the past and enjoy the good things you have. Therapy can help. And without it, these old spooks tend to take on a life of their own.

The Blue regimen for people in the throes of sadness is to eat very lightly, abstain from alcohol, walk and walk and walk, and throw yourself into useful tasks. A person who's been jilted or fired or rejected or is suffering the weight of bad memories should immediately start cleaning out closets, discarding the chaff from the bookshelves, packing up old clothes for charity, filling up the dumpster with life's flotsam and effluvia. The sad person should enroll in a painting class, start learning French, take piano lessons and put this lonely time to some purpose. And in the course of it you might meet people you'd like to have for friends.


Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm a 45-year-old single man, OK looking, make good money, own a small house, love women, love children, teach Sunday school, good cook, love doing laundry. Why can't I find someone? My last girlfriend broke up with me and, according to others, seems unaffected by my absence. This world is filled with women who feel lonely and unappreciated, by women who are getting hit regularly. I don't understand.

Lonely Soul

Dear L.S.,

I'd say that the last girlfriend may be responsible. When a woman breaks up with a guy, she puts out the word and it's all over town in about 15 minutes. "Fred has a little pile of his toenail clippings on the bedside table and he uses them as toothpicks." When women go to the ladies' toilet, they exchange these tidbits of information, and then, when the single women get together to divvy up the available men, nobody takes the guys with the black marks by their name. Something about you irked her and she told about it and it's going to follow you for about the next seven years, until the new cycle starts. This is why, years ago, I had to marry a Scandinavian woman -- because I was date poison in Minnesota, due to an old girlfriend who spread the news about me, my moodiness, my personal habits, crumbs in the bed, toilet seat left up, etc. -- and you may have to do this, too. It's easier now with the Internet. A guy can go to a 40s chat room and create a new persona for himself and in no time you've got a woman in Rhode Island anxious to meet you.

Dear Mr. Blue,

OK. My husband broke his promise. He said we could grow old together and sit on a porch someday in our rockers, telling old jokes. Wrong. He died.

This was almost four years ago, and now that the shock and grief have subsided to a point where I can live again, I don't know how to go about getting back into the "dating" business. I'm 51, still look OK, but I hate the bar scene. What's a girl to do? How does one who's a bit shy, but interested, begin this process? I feel silly going to a dance club. I'm not 23. My church is filled with older couples. My friends still see me as the bereaved widow. Now what?


Dear Alone,

It's good to hear that life goes on, and that, even after the worst possible thing happens, after the horror and the weeping and convulsive sorrow and the constant reminders of your loss and the sheer duration of grief, you do return to a certain buoyancy, you do long to once again hold hands with someone, dance, talk, kiss, feel another body next to yours. Simply from the brevity and wit of your letter, I feel confident that you'll sail into the next chapter of your life in great style. I'm sorry if your friends aren't helpful. I actually think that dancing is a fine place to start. It's plain good fun, far better than sitting in dim corners and listening to folks complain about their jobs, and it gives you a sense of bodily confidence. Take some lessons, find clubs where people gather for swing or salsa or folk dancing, three categories that cross generational lines, and have a good time. Dating starts with simply having a whooping good time in the presence of other people, from which eventually you might pair up with one. If dancing doesn't make you whoop, then find something that does, and look around and see who else is whooping, and go over and introduce yourself.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I've been writing for a living since I was 20, and now I've signed the contract for my first book. At first I was ecstatic, and now I'm overwhelmed by the reality of having to write the thing. I have a detailed outline, but whenever I sit down at the computer, I start procrastinating.

I'm intimidated by the sheer size of the work ahead of me. I have to come up with 10 whole chapters, each one at least twice as long as the magazine articles I'm used to writing. The subject is hugely research-intensive, too, and while I'm used to doing research, I'm already feeling swamped by the volume and complexity of the information I'm gathering. But what's really making me freeze is that I'm writing about something Useful and Important that will Help People and I'm afraid I'm going to screw up and end up actually harming readers as a result. Thus: paralysis.

I have less than eight months to write this book. Help!

Transitive Verb

Dear T.V.,

Don't sit down at the computer. Go to the library and immerse yourself in the subject and start taking notes. Separate the outline into the 10 chapters, start a file for each one, and affix your notes to it, like burrs on a dog, and stick with the job. Do at least an hour or two of work on it every single day and this will keep the procrastination blues away. Procrastination is a luxury, the pleasure of stimulating one's guilt and disgust: Don't indulge in this luxury. There's no need to rush to the writing: Let the research drive the writing. If, on any particular day, you don't feel up to the job of crafting eternal prose, then read and take notes. Keep inching along and then, one day, you will feel this book awaken and rise up like some great hairy-legged beast and start moving on its own steam.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm a freelance writer, living with my dog, about to go back to the profession for which I was educated, and trying to deal with the very unhappy woman I've been dating on and off for 13 years. We're best friends, engage in animated conversation, enjoy the same music, films and literature, and still have pretty good sex, but she's unhappy because of my reluctance to take the relationship to the "next level." I love her but I'm reluctant because her life is sort of a mess. She is a waitress who hates her job and complains incessantly about it. She is hopelessly addicted to cigarettes. At the moment she is also overwhelmed by debt. She is unhappy with the state of things, especially with us. I know I could bring some stability into her life by becoming more of a part it, but it would invite into my life things I have tried very hard to keep at a distance. So here I am, perched, as always, on the fence, paralyzed, fraught with cowardice, foolishness, romance. Is it this way with everyone? I seem to know no more about love at 48 than I did at 17.

The Old Boyfriend

Dear O.B.,

Some love affairs have no next level, they simply are what they are, rambler romances, and the lovers can keep the romance going, or stop, or pretend to get on the elevator, but there is no place to go. Your lover is in a bind, and it's not possible for you to accept her as she is, so she must do something to change her situation. Starting with the cigarettes, and then the job, and then the debt. I don't know to what extent you can help with this. Probably less than you imagine. At the very least, you can make it clear that you are a simple man who enjoys his life and you can't join your life to that of an unhappy woman. It will capsize your canoe. If this woman is looking for someone to share her troubles with, you're old enough to know that this is not a good deal. You aren't a prince on a white horse. You're not foolish or cowardly, you're easing your way over the fence, and when you get over it, you should stay on the other side. Be a friend, but do not discuss marriage or cohabitation.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I read in the British Journal of Urology that the richest supply of nerve endings in the penis is (or, in my case, was) in the foreskin, or prepuce, which my mama's doctor sliced off me in 1943. Do you know any way I can get my sex nerves back? If not, do I: 1) shoot Mom? 2) circumcise my wife? 3) dig up the doctor's bones and grind them into dust and scatter them over a feed lot? 4) ask my legislators to mandate equal protection of the Federal Female Anti-Genital Mutilation Act of 1995 to all minors regardless of sex?


Dear Chopped,

I too was mutilated in early infancy, and ever since then, this horror has never been far from my mind. Gradually, I've learned to deal with it, through a men's group called the Sons of Bernie. We meet to drink beer late at night around a campfire deep in the woods and to experience the primal pleasure of pissing on trees, a pleasure that few women have ever known. And we talk, a little, and what I've learned is that uncircumcised guys feel weird about their foreskins, feel like Unchosen People, feel unclean, unworthy. Whereas we the mutilated enjoy a fellowship of pain, the uncircumcised feel excluded by their not having suffered. Suffering is not all a bad thing, so long as you can have interesting problems that don't actually hinder you. This is one of them.

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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