Oh, grow up

My girlfriend speaks in baby talk, sometimes for days at a time. Help! It's driving me nuts.

By Garrison Keillor

Published October 24, 2000 7:44PM (EDT)

This week Mr. Blue files his column from a small apartment looking out on a rooftop and air shaft in Manhattan, a view that a real estate agent once told me was referred to in the trade as "a Parisian view." Paris means rooftops, I guess. And she referred to the air shaft as a "courtyard." Thus our ordinary lives are ennobled and uplifted. For nobility's sake, Mr. Blue will attend two operas with Madame Blue this week, "Fidelio" and "Turandot," and visit the great reading room of the public library. Sitting at the tables are several hundred men and women, young, old, medium, of various colors and flavors, engaged in reading and writing, in great silence. Some are doing homework, some are researching a book, some are writing the Great American Novel. All that hope in one place.

You recall the high jinks that took place in your high school library, the paper planes and spitballs and the note passing and the giggling, and there is no such thing here. This is a place where people attempt to rise from the ordinary blah-blah-blah to something ambitious and fine and well-spoken. A writer goes in that room and thinks of the readers he is privileged to encounter on the page, all the curious strangers. I once saw a woman on the subway reading a book of mine. I sat down opposite her and put my face in a newspaper, glancing up now and then to see how she was taking it. We rode from 96th Street down to City Hall on the No. 3 express, and she never smiled or looked up, just kept turning the pages. It was a relief to get off the train and go topside and into the Woolworth Building. A little scary, having such an intense reader. And also I didn't want to be around to see her yawn, or shake her head and throw the thing down and mutter, "Ridiculous."

Dear Mr. Blue,

My girlfriend is 31 and I'm 33, and we live together after both having been in disastrous prior relationships. We do OK together, and my dog has become our dog. I was fine with that, until she changed his name, all on her own one day, and began to speak to him in baby talk. And then baby talk gradually began to creep into the way she spoke to me whenever sex, bodily functions, etc. came up. At times she slips into baby talk mode for days at a time. It drives me absolutely nuts. When I met her, she spoke like a normal educated person. I'm trying to see it as some sort of psychological place she retreats to when she can't deal, but it's gotten to the point where it's nonstop baby talk. I don't feel like I can reach her when she's like that. And it's getting increasingly harder to kid her out of it. What can I do, Mr. Blue? I love her, except I can't stand that part of her.


Dear Baffled,

This is a clinical case of something and I can't help. I don't know that you can either. But it's intolerable. Don't make excuses for her. Safe place, my aunt Sally! It's more like a weapon of domination. Don't put up with it. Tell her, the moment her lips purse up to make those sounds, that one goo-goo from her and you're out the door. There is some deep-seated psychological cause, perhaps -- just as there would be for someone throwing food at you -- but it is her choice to speak this way and you can remind her to choose not to.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm not entirely blue, just a pale shade of aqua-tinged lavender. Last month I had this fabulous fling with a beautiful guy -- actually, three great weekends together. No strings; it was pretty clear we weren't suited for the long term, but it sure was fun, and now Monday morning he tells me that over the weekend he met this gorgeous girl at a party, she needed a place to crash and she's moved in with him! Just like that. I was greatly confused. I thought we'd been enjoying ourselves. Was he being deliberately mean, or insensitive? Or did the casual nature of "us" mean that something like this could have happened at any point and I shouldn't be surprised? Is it worth bringing it up with him? Is he a jerk who deserves to be confronted with his dastardliness? Or should I just let it fade, the way it (mostly) already has? Is there such a thing as closure?

Tired of Mismatched Expectations

Dear Tired,

Ah, the boundless energy of the young. Three weekends of wild, uninhibited sex with one lady and the next week a new lady moves in. Wham, bam, thank you, ma'am, leave your résumé at the desk -- NEXT! This is the stuff French bedroom farces are made of. The young man isn't mean, he is actually sort of considerate to let you know that the G.G. is in residence, so you won't drop in and find her emerging from the bathroom clad in a small hand towel. You're welcome to be surprised, but you weren't his first fling and you won't be his last nor he yours. No, don't bring it up with him, or confront him with his dastardliness. Indulge yourself in a few mean thoughts, imagine that the G.G. has a raging case of herpes and a few crabs and also a gangster ex-boyfriend who is obsessed with her and parks on the street outside the beautiful guy's apartment and broods. Let the scene fade to black, let the credits roll and exit.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am in love with an attractive, sexy, intelligent woman who cares deeply for me and I care deeply for her. But we come from such different worlds. I come from a fairly liberal/intellectual, college-educated family that debates theology for fun at the dinner table, while her family is more likely to watch NASCAR or just collapse unconscious after a day of grueling blue-collar serfdom. We met in college (she was the first of her family to go), and we share a love of board games, walking in the rain and reading great works of literature to each other naked. But we are afraid to delve more deeply into each other's fundamental belief systems for fear they will be totally incompatible. Can love overcome clashing backgrounds and philosophies? Help! We seem to be headed toward engagement.

Leftist in Love

Dear Leftist,

Evidently your educated family's dinner-table theology debates didn't cover the subject of humility, a fundamental precept in any religion, and so you have come to consider people who work with their hands and come home tired and enjoy auto racing to be so far beneath you in the social order that you have nothing to learn from them. She sounds like a wonderful woman to me, if a little careless at taking up with such an insufferable snob. Goodness knows what she had in mind. Maybe she saw some redeeming quality in you. People who are in love get to create a world of their own, a better life than they could make individually, but it's hard to accomplish this if one of them is a jerk. The phrase "blue-collar serfdom" I find arrogant and repulsive. Your liberal/intellectual family left out something in your upbringing. Put on your clothes, sir, and go find out what it is and don't ruin this fine womans life. She is far too good for you.

Dear Mr. Blue,

Last spring I found myself discouraged by a dreary succession of cheerless relationships and wondering if love was beyond reach. I quit my job, lined up some freelance work, unlocked my heart and it wasn't long before a wonderful young German woman happened upon the scene. She wanted to borrow my trumpet.

I fell hard and fast and without fear. We spent weeks in a tent, on the trail, eating butter and burbling over with conversation. In a nanosecond the summer was over and she returned to Germany to resume her studies. Alas. It has taken several weeks for the bliss to dissipate, and now we find ourselves struggling to keep the embers glowing through e-mails and weekly phone calls. I'm beginning to notice niggling details such as how difficult it is to scale the language barrier, and the lengthening pauses during our calls are beginning to make me skittish.

I'm going to visit her in Germany next month with the ulterior motive of spiriting her back to America. Mr. Blue, I need some tips on how to keep this thing living and breathing. Also, I'm wondering if you have any wisdom to impart about how a lowbrow American slob might go about wooing a cultured European beauty?

Probably Maybe

Dear P.M.,

Take the wonderful summer romance as exactly that, a summer romance. Be grateful for having had it and keep in touch with the lady if you like, but not with the purpose of keeping the romance alive in the fall and winter. Abandon that purpose, sir. You fell in love without fear because you knew she was only here for the summer, that the romance would be temporary. Your reference to the language barrier and the long pauses is a clear danger sign. You are not going to set aside the next three years of your life to become fluent in German, and you shouldn't expect her to come back here. Don't woo her: Your courtship will necessarily include more fiction than one would like to be responsible for. You would, as her importuning lover, be pressing her to ignore the enormous difficulty of moving to a new language. Take your skittishness as a cue to let the embers die, let the memories live on.

Dear Mr. Blue,

A few weeks ago, I ran into an old friend of my brother's, someone I'd met years ago. Jack is a great person. He's strong, kind, funny, articulate. I feel like I could fall in love with him. My brother says Jack has talked about me for years, I just didn't know it. He is married, of course. It's not a good marriage and he's stayed because of his children, but things are falling apart fast. According to my brother, it probably won't last much longer.

I'm 35 years old and I have a good life, but it's been 12 years since I was in a relationship. I've been busy with family and work and just never seemed to have time to look for someone. It's often lonely, but I know I've done the things I was meant to do -- especially in regard to my family. Now my family obligations are significantly reduced and I meet someone I could really fall for. Sounds like a happy ending, but I stopped believing in those a long time ago.

Is it silly of me to want to wait for a bit and see what happens with Jack? Are happy endings even possible? Or am I being naive and setting myself up for inevitable heartbreak?


Dear Hopeful,

Enjoy your good life and your family and your work and let Jack work out his problems on his own. Don't concern yourself with his marriage. Don't call him, don't write, don't drive by his house, don't send flowers. If he's interested in you, he'll let you know. If he's interested in you while he's still married, you can play along only up to a point, and then you must tell him that you're not naive and you're not interested in inevitable heartbreak. If the marriage ends, let it be without any collusion on your part, and wait a decent interval before you entertain these possibilities you are entertaining now.

Dear Mr. Blue,

Do you think a "Secret Admirer" message or token gift is juvenile? I have a crush on a co-worker, who is mildly geeky, as programmers are wont to be, but who also seems very warm and human. I just melt in his handsome green eyes, and I'd be thrilled to know him better.

Unfortunately, we're in different departments and I'm afflicted with crippling social anxiety, and we're practically strangers. And I am not physically attractive, so I doubt I could entice him with cute little outfits. I was thinking of preparing a "Secret Admirer" offering, with either a poem or prose declaration of my attraction and wish to know him better, and delivering it to his doorstep late one night. I know I could create something that could get a "wow." What I'm not certain of, however, is what kind of wow. Would it be "wow, I really want to find out who this woman is," or "wow, this chick is a psycho-stalker from a 'Movie of the Week.'" I have no idea how the modern male would respond to such a gesture. Mr. Blue, how would you respond to an artistic token from a Secret Admirer?


Dear Mad,

The danger of anonymity is that you may overreach and write a Declaration of Attraction that goes too far and edges into the realm of fantasy, which this crush mostly consists of, and your lyrical effusions he might well find embarrassing and off-putting. Anonymous people commonly do this, make the Object of Attraction into an immense Monument and Shrine, the source of all that is good and true and beautiful. Much better to find ways to meet face to face and talk and get to know him better, without a big romantic overture. If you do send him an anonymous note, make it brief, a limerick perhaps:

There is a young man with green eyes
Who makes my hair follicles rise
When I think of this geek
And me cheek to cheek
And all that we could improvise.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a writer who collects, saves, hoards all sorts of items that I imagine will stir creative juices later (books, magazine clippings, letters, pamphlets, photos, flyers). Unfortunately, I am terrible at organization. I am starting to get sick of random piles and stuffed closets around the house. I often have to clear a path so I can walk across my bedroom. I sometimes fantasize about throwing everything away but my 10 favorite books and CDs. The cluttered house has begun to mock my cluttered mind. Am I too addicted to "stuff"?


Dear Inundated,

If you must move stuff in order to navigate your home, then you have come to a critical point. The mulch is killing off the plants. Either you start to divest or you will pass a point of no return and wind up a certifiable eccentric, one whose obituary appears on Page 1 of the Local section, "Loner Succumbs in Room Full of Junk, Body Found on Mound of Boxes, Six Inches From Ceiling," and a grisly story about feral cats and 6-inch cockroaches and how many Dumpsters it took to empty the place and the recollections of your neighbors ("There was an odd smell the past few days but it wasn't so different from what he's been giving off for the past 15 years, so we didn't bother to ring his doorbell"). Take a few weekends to organize. Be strict. Set out a plan for your next three writing projects and keep the stuff that pertains to them (labeled, filed, in boxes, stacked) and throw the rest away.

Dear Mr. Blue,

All my dreams are on the verge of coming true, but I'm blowing it. I have an editor interested in an idea I pitched her for a novel, and she wants to read it. This is my dream come true, and I'm paralyzed. I can't get a single word of it down on paper. I'm 31, I'm working as a researcher in TV, I've only ever published one story. Am I fooling myself? When is it time to cut my losses? Because now that I have the chance to actually be a writer, I can't do it. I know exactly in my head what I want my novel to say, but for the life of me I can't get it down on paper. I'll think up a brilliant sentence, but my fingers will type something stupid. I feel like I'm fooling myself to ever think I could be a writer. All I want to do is write, and I can't write that stupid book. I know it would be so good if I could get it done, but I can't. Help! I desperately need help.


Dear Desperate,

You got way ahead of yourself when you pitched an idea for a novel. Way ahead. You don't have the experience to do things that way. Most experienced novelists wouldn't do it that way either. Pitching a novel is like telling someone what a great lover you are -- somehow the prediction works against the result. So now the commitment to write this book (and make the bright lights flash and the earth move) has put you into a tailspin. Try calming down. Put this dilemma away for a couple weeks and devote your time to exercise. Walk, walk, walk and bike, and jump around to music and do any other sort of exercise that you can manage. Do this to dispel the anxiety. And then come back and write the ending of the novel. You must organize the story in order to accomplish that -- don't think about what you want the novel to "say," think about the five events that will constitute the plot: 1) TV researcher is desperately trying to think of a sentence and 2) she eats a bad fortune cookie in a restaurant and is paralyzed but 3) a brilliant editor falls in love with her and 4) she has a dream and talks in her sleep and 5) he types it down and it's a stupid book but very successful and they feel so good. If you can write the ending, then maybe you can scope out the rest. If you can't, think nothing of it. A writers life consists of a lot of failed attempts, some of which she returns to years later and completes successfully.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am an educated woman, and I generally speak and write clearly and grammatically. I edit others' writing at work, and am frequently consulted by friends and colleagues on questions of grammar.

Occasionally, I change what I'm planning to say in midspeech and misspeak. I start to say, "I know you'll do well," then switch to "I know you'll do a good job," and it comes out, "I know you'll do good."

I know the difference; I care about the difference. I am mortified when it happens. I want to explain how the mistake came to be. I don't want to let it pass, because it might leave the impression that I can't even recognize a mistake when I make one. Pointing it out and self-correcting just seems to draw more attention to it. Do you have any thoughts on how I should handle this?


Dear Grammarian,

Mortification is for when you are caught naked with the parson, it's for when you break wind at your mother's memorial service, its much too strong a feeling for having made a little grammatical error in speech. If you must correct yourself, do it swiftly and casually, as a tiny footnote. Otherwise, the correction is worse than the mistake. It's the conversation that's important, and your friend's new job, and how she feels, not how intelligent you think you are. So long as the meaning is clear, there's no need to correct spoken English. But if you must, do it in one stroke. Don't rephrase. It makes you seem dorky.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I have a great friend, a soul mate, and we have great adventures together. We have the same likes and dislikes, she's sweet, pretty, funny, laughs at my jokes and I at hers. The only problem is that she is carrying about 30 pounds too much weight, and because of this, it squelches my physical attraction to her. Is this subject approachable? I would like to enter into a relationship with her, but feel crass about her weight being such a barrier to amour. Should I look elsewhere, and leave this wonderful woman to a less shallow fellow?

Slim Jim

Dear Slim,

You can't be passionate for someone you're not attracted to. It's not worth analyzing. And don't speak to her about it. Her weight is her business, not yours. She's a great friend and be glad for that and be a pal. You do not tell a woman friend, "If you dropped some of the blubber, I think I could get some lead in my pencil, babe." It just ain't done no way no how.

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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