Ugly duckling

I'm witty and flirtatious on the Internet, but I can't stand the look of disappointment on the faces of the men I've charmed when I meet them.

By Garrison Keillor

Published November 14, 2000 8:00PM (EST)

Dear Mr. Blue,

This is my absurd problem: All my life I have been a bit of an ugly duckling -- slightly overweight, OK looking but not beautiful, a great mind and razor wit but a body that bumps in all the wrong places, a slight limp, poor hearing. This hasn't made me unhappy at all, and I'm a very together woman with a career I enjoy, reasonable success, an OK sex life and good self-esteem.

Then the Internet happened and now my life has turned upside down. The problem is, I have an extremely flirtatious nature, and on the Net I turn into a love goddess extraordinaire, charming, witty, sexy. Men clamor to meet me! I love getting this response from men -- until they see me. I sense their disappointment as soon as they lay eyes on me.

Now I've connected with someone incredible on the Net and I should be happy, but all I want to do is break the whole thing off, as I don't think I could bear the rejection. Should I warn him about me before we meet so he knows what to expect, or should I just take a chance? Should I just resign myself to the fact that looks matter, they always will, and discontinue the whole thing? I want him but I am scared to death of meeting him, as I don't want it to end.


Dear Confused,

The problem here is not with you, but with the people who reject you because you don't measure up to their fantasy. They are looking for someone who's willowy and luminous and dewy-eyed and who just stepped out of a fairy tale. They're looking for the girl in the lingerie in the Nieman-Marcus catalog. You're not her, you're you. Don't let these nerds get you down. Go ahead and meet this guy, if you like, and if he gets that wan disappointed look on his face, then let him be disappointed and give him the finger as he walks away. The Internet isn't a good place for you to be flirtatious if you are taking it too seriously. The anonymity allows you to separate your mind from your body, which is fun as a game but not a good way to live. You need to incorporate into your social life the playful qualities you are revealing only on the Internet. That's the way you'll find a man who will fall in love with your whole wonderful self -- through face-to-face meetings. Sexuality in real life is a heck of a lot more fun than anything on the Internet.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I was really surprised by your response to the letter from the girl whose father is obsessed with pornography, in which you scolded her for spying. My kids and I have known for a while now that their dad has a problem. It isn't spying when a wife walks through the room to see her husband quickly click to minimize the image of a naked woman on his computer screen. It isn't spying when his children, in an attempt to load a computer game, stumble upon their father's porno sites. I can't even begin to explain how devastating this is to a marriage. Men may think this appetite for pornography is innocuous and can be hidden. But when you're masturbating to a porn star twice a day it is going to be noticed. Believe me.

My husband's viewing -- and his lying and deceit -- has all but ruined our marriage. It is affecting all of us. It is hard to forget the look on my daughter's face, the tears and even hatred for her father, after she stumbled upon this. "I hate him! Those girls are my age!" she screamed.

The day that everything unfolded, as irrational as it may sound, I had suicidal thoughts. But I have my kids to live for -- and I think things are getting better. Time numbs things, after all. But every time he takes longer in the shower, every time he's later than usual from the office, every time he's on the computer after I've gone to bed, I wonder.

Every time he has sex with me, I wonder whom he's really thinking about. His previous girlfriends? The people in his office? Who? I've adjusted, but the pain -- and it is pain -- doesn't go away.

And when I read responses such as yours, I realize there may be no one to whom one can turn.

Trying to Understand

Dear Trying,

Perhaps your husband has an addiction that causes him to behave in ways that are destructive to your family. There certainly can be addiction to pornography, just as there can be to drugs, alcohol, day trading, gambling -- you name it. You may be justified in seeking a legal separation rather than continue to suffer from your husband's behavior. Certainly if you have any thoughts about suicide, you should seek help.

Whether your husband is addicted to pornography -- unable to control or let go of it -- or whether it's a passing fancy that will wear out with time, I don't pretend to know. The Internet has suddenly made a lot of erotic material readily available in the home that previously a man had to hunt for in dismal neighborhoods of massage parlors and cheap dives. He had to slink into some seedy theater with sticky floors and sit in the midst of other men in raincoats and do his business and then slink out and worry that someone from church might see him. But many men made this sad journey, over and over, in search of something, and I think it's too easy to throw a word like "addiction" at it. I don't know exactly what moved these guys; I don't assume that it was mean or small or disgusting or sick, just because the circumstances were so seedy. The imagination is a powerful thing. The VCR brought the seedy old theater into the American home, and so does the Internet. If it gives you any comfort, I can inveigh against pornography over and over and pound the pulpit, but even in the face of your sad story, I must say that your husband is free to think and imagine whatever he wishes and there is no way for you to control his thoughts. His behavior is the problem; his thoughts are none of your business. And who knows what you're thinking about when you make love? Only you, and I recommend that you keep this a secret.

Dear Mr. Blue,

What's my problem? I've got the big house, the two cars, the cool cat and the trust fund. I'm articulate, well-read, talented, witty, comfortable to the point of indulgence, even attractive to some. The children are charming and beautiful and enrolled in accelerated classes. My husband is intelligent, kind, happily and gainfully employed, liberal, creative and not at all bad to look at. I have good friends, noble pursuits, easy access to theater and art and the most stunning landscapes on the planet ... and I'm miserable.

How does one differentiate between genuine unhappiness and being a spoiled malcontent and pain in the ass? And more important, how does one kick either habit?


Dear Angstful,

If you're a pain in the ass, the charming beautiful children and the kind, creative, handsome husband will probably let you know, unless there's so much room in that big house that you don't often run into one another. You say that you're talented and engaged in noble pursuits, but you don't say what these talents or pursuits are. If your talent is for writing, then you have a way to work through this unhappiness -- you write angst-strewn fiction in which the heroine does unspeakable things and the kind husband dies a painful death. Then you come downstairs and fix dinner and open a bottle of wine. If, on the other hand, your talent is flower arranging or playing the lute, then that won't work.

Everyone knows that possessions can't make a person happy, and the way you tick off this list, including the kids, the husband, the noble pursuits, it sounds like an inventory or scorecard. That you feel you possess these people and things and attributes seems to me to indicate boredom, not unhappiness. I suppose one way you kick the habit of boredom is to have a close call with death. You're flying home from two weeks at Jumby Bay and suddenly the plane starts to pitch and buck and the flight attendants turn pale and there are flames shooting out of one engine and in the next 30 minutes, before the plane lands in Miami, you make a deal with yourself that if God spares you, you will become a grateful and cheerful camper. An easier way of finding this wisdom is to experience the lives of others who are more worthy to be miserable. You could get this from books, I suppose, or you could get it by volunteering in a hospice, a nursing home, a homeless shelter, a battered women's shelter, a suicide hot line. A church or Red Cross chapter would be happy to put you in touch with such agencies, any of which would eagerly accept your offer of volunteer time. This is how wealthy men and women have fought off the torpors of indulgence for centuries, by doing good work among the poor, the oppressed, the dying, the lonely, the less than beautiful.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a 48-year-old married woman and I have cut my parents out of my life. Five years ago, I found out that they knew my six female cousins recently had sued their father (my mother's brother) for having had sex with them when they were children. (The cousins won a settlement.) My parents kept the lawsuit a secret until my sister found out. It still takes my breath away that my mother and father covered up for this monster, instead of asking themselves, "Hmm, perhaps he did the same to our daughters?" My uncle molested me twice, when I was 12 and again when I was 15. My mother still maintains, in spite of my own experience and the judge's ruling, that she "doesn't know what to think."

My problem is that my parents are elderly, and I have siblings whom I love. My "defection" from the family is causing everyone heartache and is affecting my relationships with my sisters and brother. I am serene about it most days; other days, I think I owe my parents something for having fed and clothed me. The situation is complicated by the fact that my parents were physically, emotionally and verbally abusive to me and my siblings, and are unrepentant. I really can't stand them. But I hate feeling as if I'm the monster now. Am I morally bound to heal the rift, without any indication from my parents that they will meet me halfway?


Dear Sis,

You are not morally bound to heal a rift with people who don't recognize the rift. It takes two to do that dance. You do have a duty to heal the hurts inflicted upon you. You don't say whether you have had professional help in coming to a point where you can be serene on most days. Many victims of the abuse you describe have benefited from counseling and if you've never sought help, maybe you should, if only to no longer feel like a monster.

You can be helpful to your parents by starting an account, along with your siblings, and making contributions to it that will go toward their nursing home and health expenses. Put in whatever makes you feel good. You need have no association with them. But remember, your parents are helpless to repair the damage they have done to you, while you do have the power to forgive them. This does give you the upper hand.

Dear Mr. Blue,

Because of the stringencies (emotional and economic) of my early life, it has taken me until the age of 40 to get semisane and launch myself in what I believe to be my vocation, writing. I learned the basics of my craft and have had some success with publication.

But not enough! I want more, more, more, want to publish a book or two. Of course, I realize I have to work like hell to achieve my goals, but observation has taught me that schmoozing and politicking with those in a position to help me are just as important as the writing itself. Trouble is, I suffer agonies of shyness when in a position to chitchat with more experienced and successful writers. I worry about imposing myself on them, even while I desperately want them to take me under their wings. And worse, with each literary get-together that fails to attach me to these potential mentors, I despair of ever being part of the crowd and think, What's the use of writing? Have you any words of wisdom?

Shy Scribe

Dear Shy,

Many writers find that the craft of putting thought to paper is the real thing and that the craft of schmoozing, politicking, being mentored, sucking up to other writers is best left to others. Writers tend to be like Groucho Marx, reluctant to belong to any club that would have anyone like us for a member. If you want to write, go, do, and if you want to pal around with writerly people, get yourself a baggy black suit and hang out where the others hang out and mentor and be mentored to your heart's content. Poets are better for this than prose writers. There are poetry groups in almost any city where you can go and be loved and appreciated and nobody will mind if you never write anything of interest or value at all.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a young doctor, fresh out of medical school and newly married. My husband is also an intern. We were married this summer, before the horrors of intern life began. We are still very much in love and very understanding when it comes to the rigors of the hospital schedule at this time in our lives. We each have to spend every third night at the hospital, and rarely do these nights coincide. Even if we're not on call, we get home after 8 p.m. and have a quick reheated meal and go to bed, since we have to be back in by 5 a.m. Being in a rather more laid-back field of medicine, I work a little less than he does, and I am beginning to feel resentful of all the hours away, and having to do the laundry and clean the house and not getting to spend more than a few minutes talking with him because one of us is too tired to carry on a conversation. There are no weekends off for interns in our fields, no holidays. This Christmas he will be working, and I will be working on Thanksgiving. I guess my question is, How do I keep from feeling unappreciated and resentful, when I know that this is the path that both of us chose to take? It seems unfair to saddle him with my whining when there really is very little he can do about it.

Lady in Waiting

Dear Lady,

It sounds terribly frustrating, and I admire your decision to keep your resentment to yourself and not make it the focus of your time with your husband. Of course, you can take a long-range view and see the end of the internship tunnel and the green and pleasant land of residency and beyond that the flowering paradise of medical practice and having an actual life. A life in which you spend an entire unhurried evening in each other's company and regale each other with anecdotes and feast on cassoulet and a proud salad and a fine bottle of sauvignon blanc. Your term as galley slaves in the healthcare machine has a terminal date, and this prospect should hearten you. And with two docs in the family, you will be able to live life on a comfortable scale, a nice reward in itself for all this patience and forbearance. The Mr. Blue cure for the blues is a good night's sleep. Anytime you feel bad and it isn't your fault, just curl up and go to sleep. Invest in your bedding and make it nice. And lie down and focus on some pleasant scene in the future -- you and your guy bicycling through Tuscany -- and off to sleep you go.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a woman, 29, and I can't seem to get over the romantic feelings I have for my longtime best friend. He is (mostly) gay, but we've lived together a long, long time and I still find myself pining away for him, hoping that one day he might get over being (mostly) gay and realize we're perfect for each other. (I say mostly gay because he has been attracted to certain women from time to time.)

He is aware of my feelings for him. He told me I suffer from a hopeless fantasy; I just can't get over it. When he dates, I get jealous and depressed beyond belief. He feels guilty and tries to protect my feelings by downplaying things and sneaking around, which only makes me feel worse.

We have tried living apart, but this doesn't make either of us happy. I am miserable living without him. What should I do? And please don't recommend counseling or trying to date other men. I have tried that, all to no avail. I know what kind of man I want and he is that kind of man. No other man I have ever met even comes close!


Dear Bummin',

You are living a novel and while it might be a fine novel, it doesn't sound like a great life, especially not for your friend. I have to assume your friend is a realist who has come to terms with his bisexuality and is trying to live his life as best he can while trying to deal with your jealousy. Summon up whatever respect you have for this man and take him at his word and start living without him before you turn into a monster. This sort of possessiveness can easily turn weird. You can't be happy in this situation. You have to take steps to get out of it. The question of counseling or dating other men is for later. The first thing is to get out of this slough of a living situation, which has so much potential for grief.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I have finally found the man I want to spend the rest of my life with. He's wonderful and caring, except for one thing: He is completely obsessed with spending too much money. I envy his ability to save money, something I'm not particularly good at. But after being together for over a year now, I have come to realize that he takes all the joy out of having a good time. Sometimes having a good time costs money, it's just a fact. It has come down to him making comments about anything I buy now, and he reduces me to feeling like some kid asking their parent for money anytime I want to go out for dinner or make a home improvement. He makes considerably more money than I do, but we always split things 50-50. I love this man, but he's driving me crazy, not to mention making me feel bad. Any advice to someone who really wants to make this work?

Monetarily Stressed

Dear Stressed,

Who knows what dark secret wound propels tightwads on their dark and joyless course? I don't. I do believe that tightwads are not changed by marriage, and that you should think twice about marrying a man who takes joy away from you and makes you feel like a child. Maybe you're a little loose with money, but if he's financially comfortable and still obsessed over expenditures, he's not a good bet for you. You are getting a preview of years and years of conflict, and believe me, those small mean arguments over money are the worst, the absolute worst. I've seen this and it isn't pretty. A man whom you think of as bright and broad-minded and funny -- suddenly you overhear him haranguing his wife about some trivial expense and his voice becomes small and hard and you have to turn away, you're so embarrassed for him.

Dear Mr. Blue,

Please tell me what you think about this: I am 29 and engaged to be married to someone I have been in love with for more than two years. Now something is going wrong. Since our engagement, I feel taken for granted, inadequate, ugly, boring. I feel as if I can't think of anything that he doesn't sneer at. He got very cross last weekend when I asked him not to smoke in my apartment because I am trying to shake off weeks of successive colds. He muttered and wandered around kicking things irritably and eventually left. I was devastated because I felt that I was boring him and failing him.

Recently it seems as if every weekend he has been cold and withdrawn and irritated by me, but when I ask him about it he denies it. In the end he is so grumpy and I get so upset and sensitive inside that there is always a big fight. We do not live together and our communication is terrible. I am sad and a bit angry and I don't know how to talk about it and am therefore avoiding talking about anything at all. He seems bored with me when we are not partying hard, which is something I am a little bored with just now, as it costs me more than I can afford at the moment in money and health. Before things were like this he was my very best friend.

How can I broach this without him shouting at me? Is this just a taste of normal married life, or should I just lump it and be alone? I feel so vulnerable.

Miss Red

Dear Red,

No, married life should not resemble the experiences you describe. Any marriage has its low points, but you seem to be getting a preview of a really lousy marriage, complete with kicking furniture, sneering, shouting, rows, that can be interpreted as domestic abuse and could inspire your neighbors to ring up the police. (Of course it depends on how hard the furniture is kicked, but small kicks can lead to big ones, and one day he might be booting your porcelain urn through the parlor window.) If your betrothed cannot be civil and friendly and loving in the pleasant role of suitor, he is not likely to be a loving and friendly husband, especially when things go wrong, as things so often do. Making crucial discoveries like this is what an engagement period is for. This guy is under a lot of pressure, leading him to behave like a lout. Help him out and relieve some of the stress by cutting him loose. Courtship is supposed to be a sweet time in life. Cold and withdrawn and irritated are not good indicators and are not to be tolerated.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I have been a secretary for 20 years. I enjoy my job, it is not demeaning in any way and I believe I earn an honest living. What I can't believe is how many people think it is perfectly OK to demean secretarial work. Whenever I hear snide comments about how unfulfilling "making coffee and photocopying" must be I feel personally stung. I don't know any secretaries whose responsibilities include making or serving coffee, but that is beside the point. Work is work. All jobs have value and people performing them deserve respect for what they do.

What can I say to the next arrogant prick who asks if I am "just the secretary"?

Fed Up

Dear Fed,

Give the dork a bright, attentive smile, and in a warm, professional voice say, "Why do you ask?" Professionalism is the best defense against idiots. Don't hit that tar baby, ma'am. You'll get some of him all over your hands.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am an optimistically agnostic divorced Unitarian-Universalist woman, 50, celibate for 10 years (except for a few hours with Officer Friendly about seven years ago, never mind that), now deeply in love with a married colleague who was raised Mennonite. He's been married for over 20 years, strayed once years ago and has suffered deeply for both that sin and this one. He has struggled before with the desire to leave his unhappy marriage, but can't bring himself to desert his duty. He literally fears being shunned by his family and current religious community should he make the break. And he is too sensitive to bear the guilt. So, at least for now, he has chosen to stay.

Yet, yet. I have never, in my peripatetic life, felt so deeply connected to any man. I simply love him, more joyfully, deeply and surely than anything I have ever experienced. I am strong enough to survive losing him, I know. The simple fact is, I don't want to. I still have hope: He has entered counseling and is examining many of the fears and losses of his life. Should I hold on, in the hope that once he's been in therapy a year, we might be able to be together?

Be merciful, Mr. Blue. I know you disapprove of adultery. So do I. Except my own. Is there never a happy ending to such a story?

Stunned by Love

Dear Stunned,

Happy endings are created, they don't just happen, the sunset spreading as the couple embraces and the violins rising to a great A-major chord. What are you doing to support and cherish this poor, guilt-ridden sinner? I doubt that the two of you speak the same language where faith is concerned -- even an "optimistic" agnostic is a long way from the Mennonites -- and you shouldn't underestimate this barrier. Right now, it's you against his family, church and community, and you are seriously outnumbered. Unless he sees you clearly as a precious pearl worth all his present tribe, inertia will keep him where he is. If, in the next year, he cannot or will not choose you, then it's up to you to write the ending and resume your life as a solo. Whether that ending is happy or not is up to you.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I've done a very weak thing. I was involved for several years with a married guy on another continent, and then told him I needed some space for six months, during which time I met a very nice, single, local guy who I am happily getting to know. I realize this "no contact for six months" business was just a lame excuse to ease out of the entanglement with Mr. Married. So do I tell him now that I don't want any further contact, or do I wait until the end of the six months?

Having Fun in My Own Area Code

Dear Fun,

Contact the gentleman now and tell him that it's over. You have made this important discovery and it's your obligation to share it with him.

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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