My wife is turning into her mother!

And I'm afraid of turning to whiskey like her long-suffering father. Does that justify my affair with an old high school flame?

By Garrison Keillor
October 17, 2000 11:25PM (UTC)
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Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a 42-year-old man, married 11 years, with a dilemma. My wife is becoming her mother. And her mother is a wretched, spiteful, miserable martyr, who drives my father-in-law to drink a pint of Canadian whiskey every night.

I am not a heavy drinker -- yet! But his reality could become mine, and this is terribly frightening. I feel myself becoming jaded, resigned, my life programmed to an inevitable conclusion. She and I are suburban professionals, intertwined with two small kids, a house, jobs, debt, day care, family, joint checking, private school.


There's more. I have rekindled an old flame from high school, my first and only true love, a beautiful, successful woman who also is unhappily married, but without kids. We have fallen in love again, but circumstances allow us only fleeting moments together. She has begun the process of severing her ties to her husband. Should I abandon my conventional world and my father-in-law's fate, and follow my heart?


Dear Cornered,


You're writing this story, not me, bud, and your conclusion is pretty obvious. You've stacked all the chips on one side. The problem is, you can write your story just so far and then real life takes over. You can be a miler who longs to pole-vault and you look at that bar set at 16 feet and imagine sailing over it and winning the gold medal, but as you pick up the pole, you realize you've never pole-vaulted before and that something less than wonderful is about to happen. I think you dismiss your wife and family much, much too easily and glibly. There is no such thing as a "conventional" world -- if you think so, then shame on you for your lack of imagination. The beautiful, successful woman who's in love with you is an illusion of your own making, and she is also a real person with a mother of her own.

Dear Mr. Blue,

When do boys become men? I ask because I attend a tech-oriented university where the male-female ratio is 3-to-2, and I still can't find a man anywhere. Guys here seem smart in certain specific one-sided ways, and that's all you can say about them. They lack any assuredness or breadth of experience (or even interest). Most of the male professors aren't that way; they're supersmart and are still fun and personable and have social concerns. I love my field, but I'm wondering if it fosters a kind of prolonged adolescence. Am I being too judgmental? Is this just normally how things go for boys? And if they ultimately are going to grow up, what do I do in the meantime? I don't feel like holding their hands through the process, but I sure am lonely.



Dear Wondering,

Everyone develops differently. I had vast self-assurance when young but lacked competence at any particular thing, and was not what you'd call a Good Prospect. I had to go through extensive training with a series of women before I finally became a guy you'd want to have around. The gentlemen you're meeting at Boys Tech seem to be maturing in a more deliberate way. A technical field such as yours doesn't reward pretense, as the liberal arts do, or penalize people for displaying adolescent enthusiasm and intensity, so perhaps a certain boyishness is preserved, but I'll bet many of them are fun and personable once you get to know them. Make an attempt. Take an engineer to lunch. What's to lose?


Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a happily married woman who still dreams (almost daily) about my first love. I have been married to my husband almost two years and love him dearly, but I cannot seem to close the book on my first love. I am 28 and dated him for several years through my late teens and into my early 20s. His sister is married to my brother and I hear about his life every so often, so I still have a connection with him though we haven't spoken in several years. I love my husband and would never tell him about the thoughts and dreams, but I am also desperate to lock that book forever. Any suggestions?



Dear Desperate,

The harder you try to put the dreamboat in the drawer, the more he keeps popping up and preying on your mind. It's like trying not to think about the word "booger." Or trying to forget Richard Simmons. So you might as well call him up and invite him over for dinner. Him and his lovely wife, Marcia. Or his lovely partner, Brent. And your brother and sister-in-law. Serve tossed salad and overdress it, followed by overcooked pork chops and boiled potatoes and broccoli, followed by tapioca pudding. Open a $7.95 bottle of North Dakota chardonnay. Steer the table conversation toward municipal bond financing and the problems facing librarians in secondary education. A few tedious social encounters and you'll be over him entirely.

Dear Mr. Blue,


I have just begun working toward an MFA at a rather intense writing program and am daunted by the competitive atmosphere. I'm realizing that in my life I have avoided criticism at all costs; nothing threatens to destroy my self-esteem. I am so afraid to be criticized, it depresses me. When someone points out something they don't like in my story, I feel deeply ashamed of myself for writing it. I even begin to hate myself. I don't know how to deal with this. Am I a freak? I have (you might have guessed) lots of interpersonal "issues" with trust. Any advice? Comments?

Scared to Death

Dear Scared,

If you're a freak, then I'm one too. Criticism can burn you, especially when you're young and unsure and vulnerable to bouts of self-doubt. Some jerk can make a few withering comments and reduce you to a puddle and make you wish never to show your face in public again. It happens. And though you know that any idiot can be cruel and sarcastic and withering, still you feel lacerated. So you avoid exposing yourself. But one day, someone reacts to a work of yours in such a thoughtful way -- not withering, not flattering, but very knowing -- and you feel honored to have been read so closely. To have intelligent readers is surely a goal of any writer, and any intelligent reader is thereby a critic. It is a signal that you've arrived.


Dear Mr. Blue,

I have been engaged to a man for nearly three years whom I don't want to marry because he's so uptight and overbearing. From the day we moved in together, he has tried to lay down rules and expects me to follow them. I am always fighting him and rarely win, because I give up. Compromise is not part of his vocabulary. I am tired of it. I'm 37 years old. I want to be treated like an equal partner. I am always threatening to leave. I daydream about a life without him. He was recently diagnosed with a serious illness. I could live with his illness, but I cannot live with a jerk for the rest of my life.

Fed Up

Dear Fed Up,


Sounds as if you've just had a big fight with him and you're slamming one last door. "Compromise is not part of his vocabulary" is a fight line; it doesn't mean much to the casual passerby. As for him laying down rules, I don't know what that means either. In any partnership, one partner may lead the way in certain realms where he or she has strong feelings about how to do things. A fastidious housekeeper will "lay down rules" for a sloppy one and the sloppy one will do his or her best to get with the program, and over time a compromise is indeed reached, if only through exhaustion. It takes a lot of energy to fight. I don't think you'd have spent three years with a jerk. If you have, then let's talk about that.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I went to a friend's wedding and ran into a woman I've been attracted to for years. We flirted, danced and enjoyed each other's company for the weekend. She called me after we had gone our separate ways and we are both somewhat surprised to find that we have fallen in love. The only catch is that she is engaged to a really nice guy whom she's been dating for seven years; I am torn apart by thoughts of the pain that it would cause him. But it hurts to think of watching her marry another man. Should I arrange to see her, even though she is engaged? Is it foolish to think that I could know I loved her after such a short time?

Seeker of a Happy Ending


Dear Seeker,

Yes, it is foolish. A weekend is not long enough to figure out your own feelings, and I say you are toying with this woman, enjoying the thrill of crossing the line and sleeping with someone else's lady. I don't think you're torn apart whatsoever from guilt or anything else. No, you shouldn't "arrange" to see her, or arrange anything else. Take a back seat and let her drive. Let her do any arranging. If she needs to use you as a fulcrum to pry herself loose from an unwise commitment, so be it. But do not sneak around. Refuse to. If you can't be seen at high noon in the town square kissing her on the mouth, then it's no good.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a lucky woman with wonderful friends and family, a great job. But I'm carrying around some serious regret and longing that is just debilitating. I miss a man I lost two years ago. He was a wonderful, fun, kind person and I loved him in so many ways, but he was awful about money and responsibility, didn't file his income tax or pay his bills on time. It made me nuts. We talked about marriage, but I was afraid he would sink my canoe. I talked him into going with me to counseling. We went to a few sessions, which I thought were amazing, enlightening and hopeful, but he was appalled at the brutal honesty involved. He moved out, met someone else the next week and after a few months married her. Part of me is relieved to be away from the craziness, but most of me is sick with longing and regret; in fact, I feel eaten alive by it. Why was I such a stickler? Why couldn't I have just accepted him for what I loved in him, and decided to be happy, instead of concentrating on the negative? I screwed up and lost a man who loved me and whom I loved. I miss his smell, his sensitivity and solace. I can't stop imagining him and his new wife (who must be light, breezy, fun-loving) living crosstown in wedded bliss. How does one move past such a colossal mistake? And worst of all, how do I give up the hope that maybe, someday, he'll come back?

In Pain

Dear Pain,

Maybe you were too much the stickler, not accepting enough, too negative, but the fact is that he walked out under his own steam, not at swordpoint, and you should focus on that fact. He packed up his socks and underwear, his unpaid bills, and walked out into that cold night. He had his own reasons. He walked out and was devastated and met a cocktail waitress who reminded him of you and married her in a bound. And now they're fending off the dunning phone calls and the relentless tread of the fleischhunds of the IRS. And she's thinking about trying to get him into counseling. Maybe you made a mistake, but so did he, and don't overdramatize your mistake. Forgive yourself for doing the sensible thing and trying to help a guy. It is a survivable error. We've all made a dozen that were as bad or worse. I know I have. It's time to stop dwelling on yours. You will find someone else who offers sensitivity and solace, and he will have his own smell. And he'll be a grown-up who won't need a therapist to get him to pay his bills, for crying out loud. Have mercy.

Dear Mr. Blue,

My husband and I have been married for 18 years. We have three beautiful children and (I thought) a wonderful family. My husband had an affair with someone he works with. Although this affair only lasted six months and is over, he cannot stop thinking about her. He says he loves her and questions if he loves me. I am willing to forgive and move past this, but he cannot and doesn't know what he wants. I have asked him to go to counseling with me, but he says he is trying to work this out himself. He doesn't want to do anything for fear that it will bring an end to the marriage and he will have to leave. Do I kick him out of the house and tell him to make up his mind? Can this marriage be saved?


Dear Anguished,

Yes, it can be saved, but not by you, not solo, and your husband isn't doing much to help. It is questionable whether the affair is truly over. He may have stopped having sex with her for a while, but he is still torn and he might easily return to her. So, if he questions his love for you, your main focus right now should be on protecting yourself and your children. Talk to a lawyer and find out where you stand and what you should do to ensure an equitable settlement. Don't languish in uncertainty. Take matters into your own hands, bring the marriage to the brink, let him look over the edge and perhaps this will move him to resolve his feelings.

Dear Mr. Blue,

Since graduation, I have worked for a nice company and am happy, but recently, I went to a conference where I was asked to network. I felt very uncomfortable trying to talk to people. I froze. I said bland things. How can I learn to better network? Next time I want to be prepared.


Dear T.T.,

The word "network" connotes conversation with serious intent to drum up business and make contacts and rake in some more shekels, and this is a contradiction, like playing music for money. Music, like conversation, is an art, and art is a gift, antithetical to money, and to overcome the contradiction, you have to pretend that the money isn't there. And to network you have to convince yourself that it's only for fun, not for any other purpose. Only then can it accomplish the other purpose. You have to be able to be sincere, truly sincere, which may require more cynicism than you have available. Networking isn't for everybody.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am 29 and still a virgin. I'm a shy woman and have never had a serious relationship. I spent a while wondering if I might be gay. Over the last couple of years I have become more confident about myself, and have found lots of men sexually attractive. I want to start experimenting, but I'm finding this very difficult. I don't know what to do about it. Ideally I would like sex to happen within a relationship, but my inexperience is preventing me from entering into one. I can't seem to find a guy I am really comfortable with.


Dear Frustrated,

We're all virgins when we come to a lover, even if we've been with a thousand before. The value of sexual experience is greatly overrated. It isn't transferable from one lover to another. It has to be rediscovered. So don't worry. And what's to "experiment" about? Sex is pretty basic and it's been known since the beginning of time and there's nothing new to find out. Read a book and it's all there. It's what's in your heart that's new and exciting. If you find a man attractive and he's attracted to you, let matters take their course. It's the initial inspection and the sniffing and the jabs at conversation that's awkward, and then if you click -- and either you do or you don't -- the rest is exciting and pleasurable and sometimes quite wonderful. Love walks rights in and drives the shadows away, as Ira Gershwin wrote. And it really can.

Dear Mr. Blue,

A year ago, I was promoted to be head of my department, leapfrogging the man who had been my nominal superior -- I'll call him Bob. Bob still reports to my current boss rather than to me, but I am responsible for patching up his sloppy work. I have spoken to Bob about the problem but nothing changes. My boss knows about Bob's sloppiness but he has done nothing about it.

This week, Bob's "help" on a project cost me about 40 man-hours in cleanup time. I want to do right by Bob, who has many fine qualities I won't enumerate, but I can't let this situation continue. And I don't want to try to get Bob fired. What should my response be?


Dear Stuck,

I suppose you're reluctant to fire old Bob out of loyalty and because he's no spring chicken, a bumbler of long standing, but you might reexamine this. Incompetence does not make for a good life, believe me, and the person who points out Bob's deficits is no enemy. Many incompetents have been rescued by a few wise words and redirected to better work. This is the best thing you could do for Bob. But if you can't do it, then your only alternative is to promote him to some harmless executive position, of which there are many. Make him a vice president for special projects. Give him a lovely office with plants and let him sit there and work the crossword while you do what you need to do.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a single 33-year-old woman who is starting to see an older man on a regular basis. We met online and have so much in common and love spending time together. Recently we made plans to take a trip together in a couple of months and even put money down on it, and then he said he couldn't go. I was at his house and saw him reading a rather lengthy e-mail. It was from a lady in another state who is going to come visit him for the weekend. (He has told me that he is unavailable this weekend.) Should I confront him or wait to see if he says something to me? He does not know that I know this much.


Dear Hurt,

Go ahead and ask him about her. Don't be confrontational -- leave out all implications of blame and accusations of deceit, don't sing your big aria, just aim for the truth. The truth is complicated enough, without playing it for dramatic effect. He backed out of a plan the two of you had made, and there she is: What gives, Jack? There's an answer. Find it.

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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