Leaving adolescence behind

How can I live the rest of my life without that desperate-for-
each-other, dangerous feeling again?

By Garrison Keillor
September 19, 2000 11:36PM (UTC)
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Here in St. Paul we are in the midst of a glorious September, bright days and nights with a bouquet of mulch and fallen apples and a long finish of dry leaves and smoke and old leather. People anguished over the loss of lovers or the rejection of manuscripts could walk along Goodrich Avenue on a fall night, past the old houses with young families, a noble neo-Gothic manse from James J. Hill's day, patchily repaired and swabbed white, trikes and scooters and ropes and balls strewn on the porch, a cat patrolling the yard, lights blazing upstairs, muffled voices, and be inspired by the bravery and ingenuity of marriage with children. Or anyway, I am.

A reader is offended by my casual use of the Hebrew word "davening" to mean earnest beseeching. She writes: "Davening is a prayer in synagogue. It is holy and nothing for you to be bandying about. Don't use words if you don't know what they mean. You owe an apology to Jews for using it so flippantly, when in fact it is a mitzvah, at the center of Jewish religious life." I only know the word, of course, because I've heard Jews use it, referring to the way Orthodox men, while praying, rock back and forth on their feet. Men in our Plymouth Brethren assembly rocked back and forth similarly, so that's what made the word interesting to me. But of course the flippant use of the term by Jews doesn't give me license to do likewise, and I apologize. Mea culpa.


In response to Feeling Rotten's letter last week asking why women don't ask men on dates, a woman writes:

"First off, you had better be Cindy Crawford before you ask him out or you are setting yourself up for humiliation. Women have practice letting guys down easily if they aren't interested; men don't. Second, if he accepts the invitation and you start dating, he'll take the position that he's doing you a big favor, since you obviously couldn't get a guy to ask you out. Third, he will assume that you will plan most, if not all, of your outings. Women generally find that the tried-and-true "man as pursuer" method is definitely the best way when starting a relationship. Man the Hunter feels like he's won the prize and it's worth keeping from the other hunters."

And finally, last week I misquoted Ralph Waldo Emerson. Luckily I did it without attributing the quote to him, so he's OK with it, but what he actually said was, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." I sort of prefer to think that consistency is the hobgoblin, not foolishness, but that's not what Ralph said.


Dear Mr. Blue,

I've just said goodbye to the man I almost cheated on my husband with. When push came to shove, I couldn't bear to hurt someone I love. I know I did the right thing. I was true to the person I know I am.

I have always enjoyed meeting bright young attractive men in my line of work and flirting with them, but this last one got out of control, and turned real. Lots of late nights, intense work and boredom with my home life -- married, mother of two small children. But now I've made my decision and I'm crying in my office on a Saturday after he's left. I feel desolate because that part of my life has died. I can't do this again now that I know I'll cross the line. How do I forget? How do I find something to make me feel on fire again? As much as I love my husband, we can't ever feel that new, desperate-for-each-other, dangerous feeling again. How do I live the rest of my life without it?


Addicted to the Sidelong Glance

Dear Addicted,

This is a moving and clear-sighted letter, and you are a remarkable woman to have written it. You'll do fine. You've just saved yourself a great deal of unhappiness, first of all, and let's think about that. As attractive as this gentleman may have been, Cary Grant with a laptop, extramarital sex is not a good way to feel on fire. Mostly, it's a way to feel lousy. It's the falling in love that is the lovely part, of course, and some people love falling in love so much that they keep going back and going back, trying to stay in an adolescent holding pattern, but it's not worth the inevitable anguish and guilt and the sheer misery of deception. Also, it's darned tiring. You did that with your husband and once is enough. There are compensations that come with maturity, and one is poise and confidence and a certain wisdom. You become less the tragedian, tearing the air with your delicious agonies, and more the observer, taking delight in the human comedy. Narcissism declines dramatically, and you start to enjoy life more. Your adolescence dies. You savor the things that you didn't notice when you were torturing yourself. Music, for one thing. The world that painters keep visiting: the world of birds, small animals, woods, rivers, hikers and gypsies, beggars, solitary thinkers, mourners in black hats, soldiers on horseback, mothers and children. And the spiky glories and delights of the English language. Happiness is in the small things more than in venturing an operatic life. Really. I wouldn't say it if it wasn't true.


Dear Mr. Blue,

In June, I broke up with my boyfriend of a year and a half because I could see we were not heading toward my goal of marriage and children. A month later I met a wonderful, handsome, fun, sweet, generous man -- who happens to be 48 (I am 28). We quickly became friends, and then lovers. After several dates, he told me that he feels he is too old to begin a family -- and that the age difference prohibits him from considering marrying me. What I should have done at that moment was say, "OK, fine, goodbye." But what I did instead was decide that I was having an awfully good time with him, and with no prospective Mr. Right banging down the door, what did I have to lose? So now we continue to see each other, under the auspices that we can and should see other people. Of course, this is a recipe for disaster. I am not terribly interested in looking around for other, more suitable men -- I am being wined and dined and doted on by this guy! Part of me feels terrific; I'm having a good time, I'm not alone and I am free to date other men and be available without being desperate. And part of me feels resentful that my current beau gets the pleasure of my company without any commitment at all whatsoever. Mr. Blue, what should I do?

Afraid to Be Alone


Dear Afraid,

Mr. Wonderful may be leveling with you, but I question it: Maybe his feelings for you aren't particularly strong and he's sticking with you because he likes to get laid by a woman with young skin and fewer issues than the ladies his age. He's at a sensitive point in life, starting to sag, farting more, hair sprouting from his ears, guys his age showing up in the obituaries, and a 28-year-old lover is a terrific tonic. I point this out only by way of saying that you, my dear, hold a strong trump hand and you should maneuver with confidence. Avoid sudden turns for no good reason. Don't swerve if there's no raccoon in the road. Have your good time but cut back on the frequency and look elsewhere for company.

Dear Mr. Blue,


My boyfriend is a professor of philosophy. He's 37 but often seems older. He's intelligent, sarcastic, charming, caring and somewhat inflexible. He likes having me around but feels he has to work most nights. We go to the opera, which we both love, but for him it's more educational than romantic. I like his erudition but long for romantic occasions and expression. Much as I care for him, I am starting to long for somebody a little more fun and who works less and says more. But he seems so good for me in so many ways. I'm not sure what to do. How can one suggest to a Homo academicus that he loosen up and make a girl feel special?

An Immanuel Kant Widow

Dear Widow,

This is why people live together before they marry, so they can scope these things out. If you're longing for someone different, that's a signal not to ignore. The gentleman's love of his work and his erudite temperament you have no power to change, not by pleading or threatening or explaining or whimpering. The only change you can effect is to accept him. The only way to loosen him up is to refuse to be intimidated by his stiffness and pomposity and ambition, and be as giddy and romantic and flamboyant as you please, and let him either accept it and enjoy you or else dump you for someone who's more of a stick.


Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm a recently divorced man joining the dating scene after a 25-year absence, and I find that I don't know how to gracefully broach the subject of sleeping together. I date women long enough to feel comfortable or until she asks flat out, "Are we going to sleep together?" but often after two or three dates women lose interest. I can't help wondering if it is because I haven't been more forward. I fear that what I consider good manners is seen as lack of interest.

In Fear of Flying

Dear In Fear,


It's not a good idea to override one's own intuitive sense of manners and propriety on the basis of some theory. ("Women would be more likely to sleep with me if I wore muumuu shirts and bleached my hair and learned to yodel.") My theory is that women lose interest in you because they're not interested. They can tell that the magic isn't there. This is a painful part of dating that you may have forgotten, the groping and bumping into walls and falling down stairs. Don't take it to mean that you need to become a hustler. As for how to broach the subject, it's enough to invite her to your place: If she accepts without a show of reluctance, you know she's at least comfortable with you. And when you kiss her, you can read her intentions. But there's nothing wrong with simply saying, "I think we ought to be lovers." It leaves her room to say, "Yes, I do too," or "I don't think it's a good idea," or "Maybe someday but not now," or "Who do you think I am, you animal?"

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm 27 and always expected that by following my interests and passions I would gradually find my way in life. I trained as a painter, then I became a stockbroker, but didn't like the long hours just to put money in my pocket, so I went to teach in an urban public school, burned out and have done various odd jobs in between and also have taken lots of time off in between, to read and stare at the sky. I became an alcoholic and recovered from it. I've got lots of different experiences and a passably interesting life, but what I really want is to settle down. So I'm thinking about going back to school. But it worries me that I could find myself in my 30s with more experiences but no more focus.

How can I figure this out? Do you have any faith in career advisors, personality tests and all that? I think sometimes my real problem is a lack of a center, a family, religion, but I can't count on a spouse to appear and I lost my faith a while back. I'm even getting kind of bored with life: Good sex, good food, good books are becoming less and less enjoyable to me -- I've been at the smorgasbord too long and I'm ready for life as a five-course meal. Any advice?


Not Ready to Order Yet

Dear Not Ready,

Sorry, but I don't see the problem. You're kind of bored with life? Boredom solves itself. Eventually, you get sick of it and move on and something else happens. If you're bored with sex, be celibate. Bored with good food, be abstemious. Bored with good books, meditate. You can take personality tests or go to career advisors if you find them amusing, but they won't address your feeling that you lack a center. A little less self-consciousness might alleviate this: If you stare at yourself long enough, you tend to wind up seeing emptiness and malaise; you get busy and it goes away. Get on your bicycle and ride for a few days. Climb a mountain. Trek across Wyoming. But you're single and you needn't explain your life to anybody. It has its own integrity. It isn't tied to a great cause, a big career, great ambitions or small children, and maybe you're still in the process of learning to live with yourself. And maybe you're further ahead with that than the rest of us.

Dear Mr. Blue,

Two years ago I directed a musical, which was bigger than anything I had ever done and had a lot of flaws but got a very gracious review from the New York Times. Now I've directed a new show, one that I am really proud of, and the audiences are enjoying it but it's gotten no press attention except one review on the Internet that called it "sissified." I know he is stupid, but I can't get over how totally depressed I am by the entire situation. This show cost about $20,000 to do, and I've spent about a year of my life on it, and now I have nothing to show for it except a critic who said it is sissified. Worse, I feel like theater is pointless -- $20,000 could have fed an awful lot of kids. Musical theater was what got me through the melodrama of adolescence. But now it just seems like a pointless diversion for rich people and that I am an anomaly for actually being moved by it. I used to think that theater could make a difference, help people connect and feel part of their community and develop social ideas with humor and joy from intellectual understanding to intuitive empathy. Now I think it is a pointless, overblown theme park. I can't do something that seems pointless, and yet this has been the only love of my life. Please help.

Lost in the Stars

Dear Lost,

You're giving this little snot on the Internet way too much power over your life. Shrug it off. Write him a furious letter and then don't send it. This musical isn't the point; it's a marker, a station on the highway, from which you go on to the next new thing, and that's the point. Theater does make a difference; it isn't a pointless diversion, and rich people get to attend it along with unrich, and on its best nights people come out of the theater elated and joyful and alive. It happens again and again. They come streaming out into the city night and don't want to get in a car; they want to walk and talk and soak up the life and color around them. But you have to look forward and put the past behind you. I like the story about Harvey Feirstein, after he opened "Torch Song Trilogy" on Broadway and got wonderful reviews and after a long string of theater luminaries had come backstage to congratulate him; one night he was told that Ethel Merman was in the house, his heroine, the great Broadway diva. She came backstage afterward, old, infirm, walking with canes, and sat down with some difficulty, and they exchanged small talk for a while, and finally he asked her, "Miss Merman, how did you like my show?" She said, "I thought it was a piece of shit, but the people around me were laughing and having a good time, so what the fuck do I know?" Tell yourself that every so often and it'll do you some good, sweetie.

Dear Mr. Blue,

My sister is a lesbian, and my parents are very strict Catholics and won't allow her to bring her partner of 10 years to their home. I support my sister, but I also have a good relationship with my parents. My sister has said that if I don't stand up against our parents for her and her partner, she doesn't want to have anything to do with me. She has cut off contact with my parents, and for the last 10 months she has refused to speak to me. She won't return my letters, phone calls, e-mails, etc. Should I continue to write, call, e-mail her, or should I leave it to her to contact me when she will. This all is extra hard to swallow, since she has not put the same stipulations on our two brothers, whom she still has contact with, and they have not "risen up against" our parents.

Hurt and Confused

Dear H&C,

Let your letters and calls dwindle down to two, a card on her birthday and a letter at Christmas. If she is not speaking to you, then what's to say anyway? You've already said it. It's enough to remind her twice a year that you think of her and wish her well. Maybe the silence will stimulate her curiosity.

Dear Mr. Blue,

About a year and a half ago my next-door neighbor was having trouble making rent and asked me for a loan of $950. We were friends and my heart went out to her, so I loaned her the cash, which, for me, is no small chunk of change. Two months later she moved out because she couldn't afford the rent, but she promised that she'd pay me back. Six months later, her phone was disconnected and I never heard from her again. Then, last week at the grocery store I saw her working as a cashier. I feel like confronting her and demanding that she pay me back, but part of me feels like it's a lost cause and I'll only end up looking like a jerk. How should I handle this situation?


Dear Sucker,

Confront her in a neutral way, as best you can manage, with no recriminations, no moral outrage, no sarcasm, and tell her that you're counting on her to repay you and would like to know when the payments will start. Undoubtedly her life got complicated and she found it easier to ignore the debt, but now it's time for a reality check, in the form of you asking pleasantly, "So? When can I expect the first payment?" And if she stiffs you, take her to court. (Hope you got a promissory note.) It's good for people to confront reality every so often. It helps them organize their lives.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am in the best and worst relationship of my life, in love and certain that she is the one I want to spend the rest of my life with; worst because she's hurt by the fact I live far away and refuse to move tomorrow, and she is abusive as a result. I feel horrified at the thought of losing her, but she lives a thousand miles away in a cold burg while I live in a sunny Southern metropolis. I am obligated to my employer to stay here for another year, and feel I'd have to quit the job (the best one of my life) in order to keep her, but is it worth it? If she treats me badly because I can't be there tomorrow and moans about how awful her life is and tells me about all my faults, I fear that when I do finally arrive, all hell will break loose. Should I reconsider my planned moving date?

Plain Miserable

Dear Plain,

If you're certain she's the One, OK, I guess you're certain. She doesn't sound like the One. She sounds like a bitch who can make the rest of your life very uncomfortable. No, don't move up your moving date. You need to get into a fight with her. This will tell you a lot about whether the two of you can spend a lifetime together. Lose your temper during one of her strafing attacks. Flare up and swear (if you can do it convincingly) and tell her you're not going to take this anymore and it's all over and goodbye and you're sorry but, damn it, a man has his limits, and hang up. When she calls back, don't answer. Wait a day or two and let her make up with you if she likes and lighten up her attitude. Or let her drift away.

Dear Mr. Blue,

My wife has gained weight since we were married a few years ago, and although it doesn't affect my attraction to her, she insists that it does. I have never cheated on her and don't intend to, but she insists I am being unfaithful. Her constant accusations and self-debasing comments are growing tiresome. I have asked her twice if she wants to go to couseling, but she didn't answer. I can't live this way. Help please.


Dear Accused,

This sounds sick to me, and I suggest you take her to see a psychiatrist. Her delusions may be very credible, but they are delusions, and a professional might be able to help. Go along with your wife, if she'll accept that, so you can talk about the aspects of her behavior that concern you. Be descriptive, not interpretive, and simply by putting the behaviors on the table, you may effect some change.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a woman, 26, with a good, well-paying job and a wonderful boyfriend and overall a solid life, but unfortunately I just feel so darn sad. I have no motivation to go to work, I don't like what I do and I wish I could quit and take a job in a bookstore and read my life away. What is stopping me is knowing how disappointed people would be. I've always been an overachiever and enjoyed challenges, but now I feel as if I'm about to break apart. This sadness I'm feeling scares me and I'm trying to remain calm outwardly, but inside I'm curled up on the couch sleeping the day away. Perhaps I could explain to my family about how I feel, but the last thing I want is to make them worry about me. Am I overreacting? Am I just suffering a bad case of "What's the meaning of life-itis"?


Dear Troubled,

The stress that overachievers put on themselves can consume their energy and they become vitiated, enervated, wilted, and soon the future looks like more of the same, a long haul, dragging the same old manure spreader, and they start getting depressed. I don't think the solution is pharmaceuticals. At least, I wouldn't start there. Go ahead and disappoint your friends and family. You are not here on earth in order to win medals for them and make them all happy and smiley. Take the job in the bookstore. Read books. But remember: You can leave your job behind but you can't leave yourself -- you will be an overachieving bookstore clerk. At the least, discipline yourself to take meaningful breaks from your job and from duty: every day, every week, every month. And consider seeing a counselor to whom to be accountable about it.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I think my boyfriend has an unnatural attachment to his mother. He sees her two, three times a day (and me, every two or three days). At first, I thought this devotion to mother was a wonderful trait in a man. Hey, if he adores her, he'll treat me right. Right?

Wrong. He'll go to Mom's for a five-hour chat and then, the second he walks into my house, he starts talking about her and what he'd like to do for her; it's Mom this and Mom that. Mom, Mom, Mom! Mom. You're supposed to honor your mother and all that, but this? This is nuts! Or is it just me?

Attracting men has never been a problem for me. In my neck of the woods, I'm pretty hot stuff. And yet here I am with a momma's boy? He's wonderful; he's bright, witty, a good lover and intelligent. But it seems that his mother is always his next thought. Am I wasting my time?

Momma's Boy's Girl

Dear Girl,

Yes, it's a waste of time to contemplate fighting the Thirty Years' War required to change this man over to your way of thinking. The therapy sessions, the boxes of Kleenex, the urns of coffee, the millions of tearful words -- life is too short for this. Somewhere in your woods is a gentleman caller who thinks you're hot stuff and whose momma is busy with a gentleman of her own. He's passably wonderful and if he's not such a good lover, he's trainable. You and he could have a high old time together, but first you have to let go gently of Little Buddy.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a level-headed woman married two years to a hot-tempered and sulking man. When he is in a good mood, he's sweet, and our relationship is mostly trusting and loving, but lately he has been in quite a foul mood, throwing temper tantrums like a 2-year-old. He's a professional who wants to be a musician and spends a great deal of time with his music. What can I do to either become more tolerant of his bad behavior or help him get over it? Why can't he be happy?

Blissful Betty

Dear B.B.,

His happiness is out of your hands right now, and he will simply have to be 2 for a while. He needs a place to be alone and struggle with his demons -- a studio, a basement, a barn, someplace where you don't need to hear him. Get out of the way, don't listen at the door, don't be a supervisor. Don't stand between him and whatever's eating at him. If he seeks you out for abuse, that's entirely different. Every great artist goes through a tantrum period, and if I were any good, I would have, too.

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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