Ten years after

My wife has never forgiven me for not being there the night she had her miscarriage.

Published October 3, 2000 7:23PM (EDT)

Dear Mr. Blue,

My wife and I are divorcing. We are the parents of a beautiful 13-year-old son. My wife was the love of my life, and the first seven years with her were pure bliss. The last 10 years have been a wave pattern that's moving toward a flat line. I'm a writer, and she used to love my writing, but the more I was published or produced, the more critical she became. I realize now that there was one event in our lives that was a turning point: a miscarriage she had on a particular night 10 years ago when, as a theater critic, I was off reviewing a play. She had spotted just before we were to leave for the theater, so we called the doctor, who urged her to stay in bed. My wife urged me to go. I had quite mixed feelings about it, but I went. (Her memory is now different.) When I came home, I learned she had bled more and drove herself to the hospital, where she was alone when the bad news came. She cannot forgive me for being absent that night. In addition, she was never able to get pregnant again. I wish I could change the past, but nothing seems to make up for the loss. I never would agree to a divorce before, but I've agreed now. I'm tired, we've changed for the worse and we both feel our lack of affection for each other isn't good for our son. Even so, divorce is such a big deal, I'm terribly split inside. We still haven't told our son, but we plan to do so once I have money to move out (in a few weeks). What things can we do to help our son -- and each other -- through this?

Danish Pretzel

Dear Pretzel,

I urge you to postpone moving out and to not give up on this marriage quite yet. Divorce is indeed a big deal, and your seven years of bliss together indicate a deep connection here, one that won't be severed by a court decree, one that will haunt you for years and years. Accept her version of the miscarriage story: Take it as a metaphor for some larger neglect on your part, and seek to make amends. Writing is a demanding livelihood, goodness knows, but it can become obsessive and make a man terrible company and a huge trial, a large brooding hulk pacing the kitchen floor. Be big about it. Accept that your wife may be angry for good reason, that your work has devoured the marriage and that it can be rescued. You can change the future. And don't rationalize divorce by saying that your current grumpiness and surliness are bad for your son. Divorce could be devastating for him.

Dear Mr. Blue,

My sister has become disillusioned with the Ph.D. research program she's enrolled in and has decided to leave it and try her hand at fiction writing. This is not a whim; she has been writing for years. She spent all summer completing a manuscript and has gotten a lot of interest from agents, which I think is remarkable success in so short a time.

Our entire family, however, has ganged up on her. Our father wrote a lengthy, handwritten letter explaining why she was ruining her life. So have our grandparents. I've read their letters, and they are downright cruel. Our mother says throwing away her Ph.D. fellowship is tantamount to destroying her every hope for success and happiness in life. They call her several times a week and leave mean messages on her machine. My sister is ready to cut them out of her life completely. My parents are intelligent people and I have no idea why they can't see how despicable their behavior is. Please advise.

Angry as Hell

Dear Angry,

The advice is: patience, kindness, tolerance, selective ignorance, conflict avoidance and humor, of course. The sister lobbed a rock into the chicken coop and the old biddies flapped around in a panic and screeched and ruffled their feathers, and now she and you should let them settle down. Everyone is capable of bad moments. Even the Rama Lama Ding Dong gets his undies in a bunch once in a while and yells at his disciples. You will do your sister no good if you confront your parents and grandparents over this. None. Buck her up all you like but don't flog them. Your role is that of peacemaker. Let some time go by and find small ways to make peace.

Dear Mr. Blue,

My wife has agreed to get a bellybutton ring on the condition that I get one first, and if I find out it hurts, she won't get one. So my question is: Is it socially acceptable for an out-of-shape husband to get a bellybutton ring? (I live in the Midwest.) Also, does it hurt?


Dear Hubba,

If you're really out of shape, the bellybutton ring will be hidden in the spare tire. And here in the Midwest, the navels of older guys are not anything that people want to be aware of. Teeny-boppers, yes, but you, no. We won't ask about yours, and please don't tell. As for pain, it can be excruciating and there is a danger of hepatitis, hematoma and, if the punch slips and penetrates the abdominal cavity, uremic poisoning and consumption, but worse, there is a danger of the ring's catching on something -- a clothes hook, for example, as you slip and fall from a stepladder -- and opening up a huge ugly wound, and if this happens, you'll be front-page news ("Guy Rips Guts Out; Navel Ring Blamed") and Dave Barry will write about it, and there may be congressional investigations. But go ahead.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am working on a memoir, which is due to my publisher in less than a year. I have been trying to compartmentalize the writing, push it out of my mind when I am not working on it, but this has been difficult. I can't afford to go out to bars or movies. I read books for recreation, but often the author's style provokes even greater anxiety. ("How did he or she do that?" "I should use words like 'marmoreal' more often," etc.) Any easy tricks for a writer to use to clear her head of the monster?


Dear Obsessed,

The easy tricks were no good. Opium, whiskey, gin, barbiturates, cocaine -- they pushed the writing out of the mind but often with grave damage to the mind. When you're in the thick of writing, don't read the writing of others for relaxation. Period. Physical exertion is better for you. Run, walk fast or ride your bike. However, a book that is hot to be written will not be easily pushed away. Write it, no matter what. You can relax later.

Dear Mr. Blue,

Through happenstance I recently found myself involved with a man other than my husband. I fell for this new man; it didn't work out but it did awaken me to thoughts and feelings that have been repressed for many years. I've always been slightly bored with my husband, always felt that but for the children I would have left him years ago. But now I'm wondering if boredom is enough of a reason to leave. He's a good man, but I feel no attraction or interest in him. Should complacency prevail, or is it unrealistic to think I can make a better life for myself without him?

Midlife Clichi,

Dear Clichi,

The answer to this question lies in your heart, and it's a large and interesting question, by no means a clichi. It's the question everyone must answer for herself: Is this the life I want? Is this all there is? Can I have more? And the answer is not speculative; it's the second half of your life. I wouldn't presume to instruct you. I'd only suggest that in addressing your boredom, you begin by looking at yourself, not your husband. A person can make big changes in her life -- dump the big palooka and paint your nails and move to Paris -- but in the end, you're still you. Look to yourself and be the person you want to be and see if there isn't a place for him and the children in your life.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am one of those despicable people who have always had everything handed to them. I'm a student at one of the top universities in the world; I'm dating a wonderful, gorgeous girl; I've got scads of smart, witty friends; I come from a supportive, classical nuclear family; but every night I feel a crippling urge to run away from it all and eke out an anonymous street living someplace far away, like, say, Vancouver, British Columbia, or Sco Paolo, Brazil. I can't find any subject that arouses my passion, and I end up spending my days watching "SportsCenter" and reading Philip K. Dick novels. Am I an insufferable piece of shit who should put up or shut up? Could this persistent sense of malaise be a sign of some unfulfilled creative potential? Am I just certifiably unstable and in need of professional help?


Dear Idling,

I am one of those admirable bootstrap people, and I recall feeling the same sort of malaise when I was a student at a land-grant university and admiring gorgeous girls at a distance. I think it's part and parcel of being young. You don't sound like an insufferable shit to me, and you don't seem to be in need of professional help. That leaves unfulfilled creative potential. Let's assume it's that. I doubt you'll realize that potential more readily in Vancouver or Sco Paolo. But turn off the stupid television. Please. Use the time to learn Spanish and read Cervantes. Anything but TV. A guy's life is made up of days, and to spend your undergraduate years consuming junk is a tragedy, as surely you know. What is the cause of the pain you're trying to dull with these analgesics? Is it that you feel inferior to the witty friends, unworthy of your parents' generosity, out of place at O.O.T.T.U.I.T.W. and thereby despicable? Maybe you need to establish a corner of your life that is yours alone, not the friends' or girlfriend's or family's. The malaise comes from living a life designed by others, and this is universal among the young, and the answer is to wend your way through the forest and find your life. It's worth finding. And when you do, the malaise lifts. There are, of course, other malaises available later, as you can tell from reading this column, but having dealt with one, you're better fitted to meet the others.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm getting married in six weeks to a wonderful man. My mom lives in another state and visited last weekend for a wedding shower. In 48 hours I went from being a self-sufficient, vaguely sane woman to a quivering teenage wreck. Per my mother's subtle hints: I don't know how to dress myself, do my hair, do my makeup, etc. My fianci and I have a very small one-bedroom apartment and my mom stayed with us. She is coming out about a week before the wedding to help with wedding details and is planning on staying with us again. Should I just suck it up and beg my doctor for a Valium prescription, or do I put her up in a hotel, thus insulting her?

She is not an outright mean person. I think she is trying to be helpful. However, the comments are painful and very stressful. Please help!

Stressed in the Midwest

Dear Stressed,

What can I do to help? Invite your mom to stay at my house? Write her a letter and tell her to quit bugging you? Let me just point out that it isn't insulting to put up a guest in a hotel. Nothing says she is supposed to stay with you in your very small apartment. You may be jittery about this for no good reason. Find a hotel that's nearby and affordable, book the room and tell Mom that that's where she's staying. Don't ask her, tell her. You're in charge here. And as for the way you dress and do your hair and makeup, I agree with your mom. The hair: It's not quite right. That dress you wore to the shower -- that style was over a long time ago. You could do so much better. And it'd help if you lost some weight, darling. I'm only saying this because I care.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I've fallen swiftly and hard for a Midwestern girl transplanted to the big city. Corn silk hair. Crinkly cute smile. Smell of springtime in Provence. More stylish than Grace Kelly. Catches your breath with her smarts. You know the type.

Now, I've never been to the Midwest except for one rather bland wedding and have always considered it an unfortunate natural barrier between the coasts. But, for this one, I want to do some research, get some enlightenment. So, a native to a novice, what's a Midwestern girl appreciate that we others might not know? (Just don't say Big Ten football.)

Big Man in Boston

Dear B.B.,

Take your hands off that girl, you cake eater, you're not good enough for her. Not nearly. "An unfortunate natural barrier between the coasts"? Sir, you're an expatriate out there on the coast and you've lost touch with America. The things this girl appreciates, you wouldn't know from cotton candy. Loyalty, for one, and a curiosity about the world beyond one's nose. The Midwest is full of girls just like the one you describe, and the ones who left home and took up with mackerel snappers like you found themselves hauling a knapsack of bitter regret. Leave her be, and pick on someone from Marblehead.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm a quiet person, tired of my husband's family's raucous beer-fueled get-togethers. At the last one I was enjoying some shoptalk with another sister-in-law (we are both librarians), and one of the brothers overheard us, made fun of what we were talking about and let the whole family in on the big joke. That was the end of that.

Am I being too thin-skinned? Can I get out of seeing my husband's family? (There's a big summer reunion and a wedding planned for next year.) We have two kids and I realize they should know their own family. How can I cope without going nuts?


Dear Shy,

As boorish as this family may be sometimes, they're still family, and you shouldn't shun them lest you release poisonous ill will in your own family. If the dopey brother-in-law's rudeness is the worst provocation you can come up with, you don't have sufficient cause to stay away, my dear. They're not firing weapons in the house, or putting on cockfights in the garage, or hiring strippers, or slipping Mickey Finns into the iced tea, so grin and bear it and form an alliance with your sister-in-law. Even I, sensitive and caring man that I am, have been known to tease librarians on occasion for their preoccupation with order and gentility and for their sometimes humorlessness. Don't prove me right.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a 39-year-old woman, a success professionally, unlucky in love. I work as a writer for a Web site; I teach dancing on the side; I am smart, attractive, funny, athletic; I love to travel, read, watch movies, cook -- I'm not a one-dimensional dork, in other words. I seem to frighten men off for some reason. I just fell for a 23-year-old, but he got scared that I wanted a "relationship." (All I wanted was to have fun.) My previous boyfriend, who is 48, once told me that women like me intimidate men. I seem to have this effect on many of the guys I've dated over the years. Either they are so serious, they bore me or they run away in fear. I feel like a harpy. What do I do?


Dear Bewildered,

You're a smart, attractive, funny nondork and you've had a string of admirers and what's the problem? Dance on, gypsy goddess, and keep on doing those things you do. Don't take the word of an ex-boyfriend that you're intimidating -- the poor thing was having a bad day and it was all he could do to give you a little parting jab. And the fainthearted 23-year-old was simply overwhelmed. Don't accept these gentlemen as authorities on you and your life. Everybody can be frightening (or boring, or dorky, or unattractive, or unfunny, or dumb) to a host of passersby, and then suddenly you meet someone who isn't frightened and off you go to the dance.

By 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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