Almost perfect

It turns out our race and age differences are nothing compared to this hurdle we must get over: He's jealous.

Published October 10, 2000 7:18PM (EDT)

Fall has turned chilly in St. Paul, a great season, when the torpor of summer breaks and reality dawns. Cold is a stimulant. It refreshes. It inspires clear thinking and also a great buoyancy of spirit. Last Saturday night, a cold night, I happened upon a mob of people downtown dancing in the street. Women in down jackets bouncing around, men with kids riding on their shoulders, people doing the polka and jitterbugging to a rockabilly band with a killer drummer, and so chilly, but the cold only got people excited. Cold is no problem, of course, you simply put on warm clothing; it's heat that's enervating. And then one October night you bounce around and dance, and come home lit up and trembling, your heart booming. This streetful of dancers was nothing you could have expected to find. Of these little surprises, you can make a life.

A couple of weeks ago, a librarian wrote to complain about her husband's loud and drunken family, and it drew a number of librarian letters protesting that folks in the profession are not so obsessed about order and that some of them enjoy being loud and drunk, too. The best letter comes from a librarian who writes:

"I was on the nude beach at Martinique a few years back with my husband and two other couples. We were chatting with some other naked folks, when one man asked me what I did for a living. I told him that I was a librarian. 'Funny,' he said, 'you don't look like a librarian.' We all had a good laugh."

This, from a woman who has read letters here from women afraid because they tend to scare off men: "I am 6 feet tall in heels and strong enough to go on 400-mile bike rides and I love to fence. Strong women need to meet men by doing the things that make them strong. Men who fence like women fencers. Men who bicycle 400 miles like women who can too. Do the things you're strong at and you will meet men who are looking for those strengths. Never get involved with a man who wants to make your life smaller. Women are intimidating only to men who can be intimidated."

Many readers wrote in last week taking sharp exception to the advice to Lady in Waiting (actually, the advice of a woman friend of mine whom I quoted), the lady who is in love with a man and hopes to marry him, though he doesn't want children and she does. The readers felt that my friend was advising her to trick the guy into having children. But that wasn't my friend's advice at all: Her advice was to make him responsible for the birth control and let events take their course. Her feeling was that men want to have sex and expect women to make the arrangements, and that if the man is made the Controller of Birth, he will in the end forgo the bother of condoms and opt for fatherhood. Her opinion, not mine, but I thought it worth quoting.

It would be cynical, of course, to make a guy a daddy unawares. On the other hand, if you absolutely don't want to go to Chicago, why get on the Chicago train and assume it makes intermediate stops? Comprende? Sometimes daddyhood happens. And in my dark Midwestern view of things, it seems to me that great blessings most often come to us unawares.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am madly in love with a wonderful man. He is madly in love with me. We cut through the thick fog of racial difference (I'm black; he's white) and hurdled a generation gap (he's 10 years younger) to find out that we make each other genuinely and deeply happy. My parents like him and his like me. We've been together for six months and want to make a life together.

If there's a catch, it is that my partner is jealous. He gets extremely upset about the fact that I have good friends (in the present) with whom I was at one time sexually involved (in the past). He is jealous if I describe meeting a man who is fascinating or fun or smart. I am deeply committed to this relationship. I've never been so happy. But I need to feel trusted. Is the jealousy a sign of future problems, or just an early phase that we have to work through? Am I asking too much of him to want him to accept my friends?

Surprised by Joy

Dear Surprised,

Jealousy seems quite natural for a gentleman in the throes of romance, at least in this early stage, and I doubt there's much he can do to stifle it. He is committed to you and one sign of it is this growly attitude toward other dogs. It's all very enlightened and liberal to stay friends with old lovers, but it's natural for him to want to run these guys off and mark your yard with urine. It'd be odd if he didn't. Were I in his shoes, I'd say, "Woman, Light of My Life, Heart of My Heart, ditch these weenies because they're driving me nuts. I can be nice to them but I don't really mean it. No matter how polite they and I appear to be, we will read each other as rivals. Out with the old and in with the new. Amscray." So that'd be my advice. Let the exes take a powder and maybe later they can trickle back, one by one, and be friends again. Men with half a brain, it seems to me, would understand this.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am in the middle of completing Mr. Blue's 90-Day Drill for the Brokenhearted. My boyfriend of five years broke up with me recently. I am sad and lonely and miss talking to him more than anything. I'd give my right arm to be able to have him back. I wish I had been better at being a girlfriend. He, on the other hand, has started dating someone new and exciting, and while he says he still wants us to be friends, he's done with me, it seems. So I will do as Mr. Blue says and let him walk out the door with this new person. But tell me, how does this happen? Why do men sometimes find a new relationship right away and seem to be able to kick their old one to the curb with a cold shrug? Do they feel something deep down, or are they really that good at getting over it and moving on? Do they ever look back and wish they had been wiser and better at being boyfriends?

Eating Lightly for 53 More Days

Dear Eating,

I hate to generalize about guys, but one thing that's true of every single last one of us is that we're not much good at talking out our feelings and working through hard patches and coming to a mutual understanding. Short guys are good at it, but I mean really short guys. Like, under 4 feet. A guy's feelings tend to be submerged. Great shifts take place in silence, pain is borne, new realities contemplated, insights received and none of it commented on, except elliptically. Women think the two main characters should sit on the bright stage, pace, strike poses, have interesting facial expressions and hurl pages of intense dialogue into the air. Guys do this internally, often unconsciously. So when a guy finally says, "I think we have a problem," he may already have worked through the whole thing, the split, the grief and regret, and have picked out his next heroine. In his mind, it's done. The door closed. The new life starts. But yes, guys do look back and wish they'd been kinder and wiser and funnier and more graceful. But they don't necessarily wish things had turned out otherwise.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I have been divorced for seven years and haven't been on a serious date in that time. I was not really interested until this past year (I got lonely during the holidays). I have one son who is away at college and three dogs that are still at home. Even though I envy people who are in relationships, I am still not doing anything about it. I can't see myself with another man again. I'm trying to see it, but it isn't happening. I wasn't just burned in my marriage, I was incinerated. I despair when I think of all the holidays to be spent alone in the future! Am I going to end up a hermit? Should I start packing my backpack for a mountainous country before all the caves are taken?

Still Confused After All These Years

Dear Confused,

No, you won't end up sitting cross-legged in the mouth of a cave, offering gnomic utterances to trekkers. You'll end up hanging out with some amusing dude who, when you think back to the old incendiary marriage, is a joy to be with. You'll cook with him, hike with him, go to ballgames, sit on the same sofa and read books. You can't see yourself doing this because a man isn't a theoretical quantity. You need to meet one first, which is fairly easy to do. You meet by finding a group that includes men and women and that has a purpose other than dating. A group whose purpose speaks to your strength. (See the quote above from the 400-pound woman who goes on 6-mile bike rides.) A wilderness hiking group. A gang of thieves. The Lutheran Church. Or maybe you meet him in a cinematic way -- he bumps into you in the Piggly Wiggly and knocks your shopping cart over and his hands brush yours as he gathers up your kiwi -- or maybe in a novelistic way -- he's your son's math professor. Anyway, you'll run into him. Don't go on living in this burned-out marriage. It's gone and you're OK.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I have lived in Texas all my life and though it's an interesting place, the scorching summers are getting the best of me. I feel like my life is at a standstill, am bored to tears with my job and am in a dissatisfying relationship. I have set my sights on Seattle. No real concrete reason, it just seems like the right move to me, even though I have never been there. My fellow Texans are trying to dissuade me: The weather is lousy, it's dark half of the year, the people are pretentious. They all assume I will be miserable. Should I ignore their warnings and set out on my own and visit the place before moving? What do you think of Seattle?

Withering on the Vine

Dear Withering,

Funny you should ask. I spent a few days in Seattle in September and found it, as always, delightful and inspiring. A beautiful city, set on steep hills, among lakes, on the ocean shore, snowcapped mountains to the east and west, ferryboats chugging across the bay, cheerful unpretentious neighborhoods, a great downtown with old sections handsomely preserved and, beyond that, a real civic spirit that is progressive and tolerant and humorous and rather worldly. Seattlites are a book-reading, mountain-hiking, theatergoing, salmon-fishing bunch, and they strike me as salt of the earth and good to be around. As for the weather, it is perpetual autumn, and if you like autumn, then it's your place. Balmy in the winter, temperate in summer, and spring and fall are really splendid. And when you stop to think of the purgatory that is Texas in August, Seattle is heaven. Go visit. Check out the neighborhood around the university. Visit Ballard, the Oslo of the Northwest. Take the ferry out to Bainbridge Island and stand at the rail and look at the city. Mostly, just breathe the air.

Dear Mr. Blue,

Here's a pathetic midlife question for you. I can't stop thinking about a woman I knew in high school and college. She was the great, agonizing, unrequited love of my youth. We spent lots of time together, but things never went very far. I was shy and awkward; she didn't think of me "that way."

I eventually (and unfortunately) married another woman, had children, divorced. I haven't seen my old love for 20 years, but I've thought of her often, wondering how things turned out for her. OK, I actually wondered if she was pining for me.

Recently I learned that she moved far away and has been married to the same fellow for a long time. She has kids, a house in a nice town in New England, the whole bit. I'd like to write a nice, friendly letter asking how she's doing. I tried, but couldn't find the right tone. What I really want to say is that I still think about her, that I still wonder about all those roads we didn't take. But that would be too weird after so many years, don't you think?

Never Got Over It

Dear Never,

Yes, it would be. Not weird, but awkward. Like walking up to a stranger and giving her a big burlap bag full of chickens. What is she supposed to do with them? Try writing the friendly letter. The first paragraph says, "I'm glad to hear good things about you. Hope you're doing well. Here, in 50 words, is what's happened with me." The second paragraph is a reflection on your past, preferably humorous, no heavy breathing. And the third paragraph is some small personal anecdote, something that illuminates you and your life now. And then you say, "Let me hear from you." That's the right tone, friendly and distant. Twenty years is a long time. You really don't know this woman anymore.

Dear Mr. Blue,

A few months ago, I married the man I had been living with for three years. The wedding was great, but now everything seems so lackluster. There's a lack of passion (mostly on my end), and I find myself waxing nostalgic for loves of the past, ones that seemed infinitely more pulse-racing than this current union.

My husband is a loving, funny, sweet little man, but I don't have any animal lust for him. Maybe I settled for someone safe and bland because I was pushing 30 and thought the marriage and babies timeline was running out. I think maybe I made a mistake and should try to remedy it by getting out of this marriage and living out my Harlequinesque fantasies.

On the other hand, I have great fear of being a lonely spinster if I do venture out on my own. The thought of separating from my husband and losing the life and friends that we have together isn't all that appealing, either. What to do?


Dear Wavering,

You and me too, babes. I'm 58, married, two kids, a writer, in pretty good shape for the shape I'm in, and I keep thinking, If I'm ever going to make a career as a pop star, I maybe better do it pretty soon. I enjoy writing but wonder if I made a mistake in choosing this for a career and if I wouldn't enjoy stardom more. I sing a lot around home and my wife enjoys it and maybe I should pursue this and invest in some singer clothes. On the other hand, I have a fear of being a huge flop and enduring the jeers and insults of critics. What to do?

Dear Mr. Blue,

I've been involved with a wonderful man for almost three years now. We're both 25. Recently, we made the decision to move in together, as a step toward marriage, and we've already found a place. It's exciting!

Problem is, my boyfriend has an older brother who I believe is mentally ill. He is extremely nervous, paranoid and often angry, and he often gets fired from jobs because he's hostile. He was very hostile toward me at first, and though that's improved, I think he still feels I'm taking his brother away from him. My boyfriend woefully admitted to me one night that he is his brother's "entire support system." The brother calls him daily -- he is so needy and lonely -- and he has always had a set of keys to my boyfriend's apartment. The brother gives me the creeps. I feel like he could come in one day and trash my stuff (or worse). Sometimes he lets himself into my boyfriend's place and waits there for him to come home. I want to feel safe in my own home, and I don't want him there when my boyfriend's not around.

I tried talking about this with my boyfriend, who already is a little cold-footed about our imminent move, and he just says, "That's my brother, I'm giving him keys to my place." My boyfriend vehemently disagrees with me that his brother would ever do anything violent. I accepted a compromise, by which the brother won't come here unless my boyfriend is here. But I'm not satisfied with that. Do you think couples who live together should have veto power over who gets keys to the place? Should my boyfriend respect my feelings about his brother, even if he doesn't agree with those feelings?


Dear Keeper,

A nice dilemma indeed. I say that you did all you could when you expressed your trepidations. It's fair enough to confess that Norman gives you the creeps and it's scary taking a shower with him around. The compromise offered to you, however, is the best deal you are going to get. Don't try to negotiate some ironclad guarantee of no trouble, because it's not possible. Yes, there should be such veto power, but when it comes to family, the rules don't necessarily apply. The relationship between the brothers is nothing you should presume to tamper with. I think the crucial question is whether the two of you aren't getting cold feet. If he is, then cheerfully suggest that you postpone the union of households, and give this discussion a rest.

Dear Mr. Blue,

The woman I've been dating for six years and thought I would marry just told me she's met someone else. She says she feels like she has known him all her life. Their relationship is at a "higher level." She feels a kinship with him like no one she has ever met in her life. I am heartbroken. If she called now and wanted to make up, I think I would marry her right now. I am willing to overlook her faults. In the meantime, I have reconnected with a lady I had dated briefly, about six months ago. I feel a real comfort being with her. She is very cautious, because she knows all about the other relationship. But we enjoy each other's company. What should I do?


Dear Confused,

Every morning thank your lucky stars that this higher-level guy came along and resolved things between you and the Six-Year Woman. You came close to marrying her and that would've been a bad move. Like moving into a mobile home in Houston in August and boarding the Rottweilers of recovering cocaine addicts. Something like that. Be glad you are free. Enjoy your freedom. Be free to enjoy the comforting lady and be free to say goodnight and go to your own home and lie in your bed and eat crackers and cheese and read Elmore Leonard, or whatever you like. I don't think you should contemplate marriage anytime soon.

Dear Mr. Blue,

After graduating summa cum laude from a prestigious university two years ago, I impulsively flew to Europe to get away from internships, graduate school and family members more concerned about my future than I am. I settled down in Berlin, began waitressing illegally and fell deeply, deeply in love with a German guy. I've spent two blissful years with him and want to stay with him, but I have absolutely no future here. He has no money and his delicate health prohibits him from traveling. My parents are prepared to cut me off if I don't pick up something "respectable" very soon, and I do want to have a fulfilling career. Also, short of marrying him, which I'm not prepared to do at this point, I don't see how I can stay in the country without being hounded by fears of deportation. Do I stay with him indefinitely, living hand to mouth in a foreign country, disowned by my family, or should I try to see what I can do without him?

Star-Cursed Lover

Dear Lover,

I advise you to come home and make your decisions here, not while living on the sly in Germany. You've had a nice outlaw adventure and a blissful romantic experience and learned a lot about yourself, and it's OK to spend two years doing that. But three years is too long, and four is getting to be self-destructive. You have a valuable asset in the form of this summa degree: Don't piddle it away. The crucial line in your letter is: I have absolutely no future here. That's the truth. Come home and find your future.

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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