A walking clich

I've gone and fallen for my 19-year-old Nordic au pair. Should I tell her that I'm in love with her?

By Garrison Keillor

Published November 21, 2000 8:00PM (EST)

Happy Thanksgiving, my dears. Here on the tundra we have snow on the ground, which is the look that any designer would choose for this holiday, and at our house a cast of 14 or so, about four of whom will take major speaking roles and the rest of us will be onlookers, servants, peasants, good for an exclamation here and some chuckles there, acting as a thickener for the event, a sort of human corn starch. My Thanksgiving advice to the reader is, first of all, skip the potatoes unless you really must have turkey gravy (a bland thing, at best) and introduce some niftier vegetation, such as sautéed mushrooms or puréed peas and mint or chopped fennel and walnuts and onion. I had an f & w & o concoction once in a vegetarian cafe and it was terrific and simple. If you must have potatoes, try frying them crisp, rather than boiled and mashed. And, second, cook your dinner early in the morning and have everything done by the time the guests arrive. Food benefits from sitting in its juices, unless it's fish or fried potatoes, and it's OK to serve food warm instead of piping hot. The chef should have time to sit in a hot bath before the event and contemplate what there is in the world to be truly thankful for.

Good health, for one (knock on wood). The person you sleep with. The people who sleep nearby. The people you could call at 2 a.m. if you needed to. The people you would not mind riding in the car with for six hours. The people who bring gifts of kindness and humor and intelligence into your life. Your plumber, of course. And dental hygienist. The person at the office who knows how Microsoft Word works. The people who chair meetings and steer them to a timely conclusion. The unpretentious, the soft-spoken, the charitable. And of course you, dear reader. Thanks for your attention. May the writer strive to be worthy of it.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I feel so stupid writing to you about this, but it's on my mind. I'm 35, married, fairly happy except that my wife and I haven't been close for a couple of years now, but even that's not all bad. And now we have a live-in au pair from a Nordic country to help take care of our two little boys, and I have fallen in love with her. Yes, I know, but I have. She is 19, and I know it's wrong, but I have constant fantasies of making love to her. Would it be horrible to tell this sweet young woman about my feelings?

Stranded High And Dry

Dear Stranded,

Yes, "horrible" is an excellent term for it. She's in a strange country, dependent on your kindness, and you lurch at her with lust in your heart. She didn't enroll in an au pair program in order to get experience in prostitution. Take a cold shower. Cut down on the alcohol. Go to church. If you can't stifle yourself, then call up whatever agency sent her to you and tell them that due to financial problems, you're not able to keep her any longer, and then present her with a financial gift to cushion the shock and a letter of recommendation. And then find a grandma who's in the child care business.

Dear Mr. Blue,

A close friend of mine is having an affair with a married man. He tells her he is madly in love with her but that he needs time off to sort things out with his wife. Time passes, then he needs until after Christmas because he doesn't want to ruin the holidays for his wife and his year-old son.

She tells him she understands and she'll wait. I am not sure what to tell her. Should I say anything? This is the third time my friend has been involved with a married or "unavailable" man. She is convinced that this guy is her soul mate, but I think she is stuck in a bad Lifetime movie and can't see the third act. Should I tell her to get out of it or mind my own business?


Dear Confused,

Your friend is indeed stuck in a movie, rather a good one, too. It is "Back Street" (1932), with Irene Dunne as your friend and dastardly John Boles as her married lover who keeps her at arm's length with his touching devotion to his family. Irene, too, is convinced that Boles is her soul mate, so she hangs on in the shadows waiting for agonizing years until she finally dies as a lonely old lady dreaming of what might have been. The credits roll and there isn't a dry eye in the house. Your friend knows how this plot ends without your kibitzing. Mind your own business and chew your popcorn softly. Irene suffered nobly and gracefully and gorgeously, but I hope your friend quits the show and gets a life.

Dear Mr. Blue,

As my boyfriend of two years and I are discussing engagement (I'm 27, he's 29), I find myself wondering whether I am still "in love." I'm a very logical-minded math type, and I just can't seem to rectify the bowled-over love I felt for him two years ago with the simple comfort level we have now -- minus the heart pounding. What is it supposed to feel like to be in love after the initial swooning has faded? When we fell for each other everything was music and roses and now things are kind of humdrum and comfortable. Is this the way it's supposed to be? I know my sweetie is still the smart, warm, selfless, funny guy I fell for, but that doesn't excite me the way it did then. Has the spark gone out? Is this just the way relationships go?

Trying to Do the Math

Dear Trying,

If your true love comes flying home after six months in Shanghai, and you drive to the airport singing, and stand at the international arrivals gate and levitate as he appears, it's a high that nobody can hope to sustain, except with illegal pharmaceuticals. You can't levitate on a daily basis. (Who would want to?) Though occasional levitation is a nice indication of your love for him. And so is the comfort you feel day in and day out. Your true love is not your whole life: He is your sweetie, who staves off loneliness and shares your life and knows you truly and amuses you and makes your life sweeter, but your life is larger and includes your work and your family and friends and your whole secret subterranean life of imagination and memory. Swooning and falling over and heart pounding are all well and good, but the real thing is to fully savor the daily currency of hand holding, the hug and the soft kiss. Humdrum and comfortable are not synonymous: Which is it?

Dear Mr. Blue,

I've had a number of bad relationships, and no good ones. I don't think I can deal with another bad one - it will drive me to suicide. I'm currently involved with a kind and handsome guy who I'm fond of, but my anxiety is so high I can't read my own feelings. I want warmth and company, but I can't figure out whether it's worth the risk. I know my worrying can only make matters worse, but I can't relax because for me the stakes are so high, literally life and death. I just deeply, deeply dread rejection and failure. I'm in therapy - but I've been in therapy for most of my 35 years. I'm attractive and smart, but highly strung like you cannot believe.

Girl on the Edge

Dear Girl on the Edge,

The advice of Mr. Blue is a wooden nickel compared to the support and guidance of your therapist. Mr. Blue is just a galoot with a computer. Your therapist is on the case. Suicide is a topic to be discussed in therapy, in detail. My only thought on the subject of suicide is: Don't. It sounds as if romance is something you need to postpone until you can get a handle on your anxiety. But please speak to your therapist.

Dear Mr. Blue,

Do men ever give women they've rejected a second chance? A few months back, I had a blind date with a sweet, smart, somewhat shy man who made quite an impression on me, but who never called me back. So I called him and got a gentle "Thanks, but no thanks." Still, I can't get him out of my head. Is there any way to convince him to give me another whirl without looking like a stalker?

Slightly Obsessed

Dear Slightly,

No, there is not. Perhaps over time the memory of the date will sing to him from the shadows of his lonely garret, and he will call you, in tears, and beg you to give him another chance, and take you to Le Maison de Casa la Cuisine de Romantico and throw himself at your feet, the way we men so often do, but in the meantime, find someone else and whirl with him.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am 29, have a good job and great friends, but feel very alone. By the time I was 27, both my parents had died: my father when I was 23, and my mother a year and a half ago. The experience of their deaths has left me feeling very different from most people my age, kind of sad about life, disconnected, and without a lot of confidence. Have I just lost my way in life now that I'm parentless?

Where Have I Gone

Dear Where,

You're right there, feet planted, taking life a day at a time like the rest of us, but unlike most of us, you've been through two emotional catastrophes, which the death of a parent is. The loss of the ones who originated us, who conceived our very being, who lifted us up and carried us and nurtured and clothed and taught us language and the fundamentals of character and gave us indelible traits of disposition and intelligence -- this is an immense loss, and it's your parents' legacy that you will survive it intact and come out the tunnel a fuller and richer person. This is their gift to you, the ability to survive and to sustain yourself and go on and make a fine life. Perhaps life will give you children and you will do the very same for them.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am 28 and have been with the same man for five years. A couple of years ago we went through a very difficult time, a miserable year in which we rarely saw each other and neither of us knew where the relationship was going. This all came to a head over a year ago and resulted in a separation, after which we came back together and were married a little less than a month ago in a whirlwind elopement; I have never been so happy. And then a couple of weeks ago (a couple of weeks after the wedding) I was going through our box of pictures when I came across pictures that were taken during a business trip he went on during our difficult time. The pictures are of him and another woman. Rolls and rolls of them. Some of the pictures are very explicit. I called him and confronted him about the pictures. He wants to work through this, but I don't know if I can ever trust him again. My head is telling me to get an annulment, but my heart is saying we should at least try. I am just so angry. I don't know what to do.


Dear Conflicted,

Your husband had a liaison with a woman before he married you, during a time when he rarely saw you and had no idea what was between the two of you. You imply that, even during this miserable year (which led to the separation), there was a relationship between you. It doesn't sound like much of a relationship to me, and I don't see how you can expect him to be faithful to something so vague and dubious, but this is between you and him. Your shock at seeing explicit pictures of him with her is, however, entirely understandable. It was stupid of him to take such pictures in the first place, even stupider to leave them around. If stupidity is grounds for annulment, perhaps you have a case. But first you should measure his remorse, his loyalty, his feelings for you. And don't rush to judgment.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm a pretty good writer, and like writing, but I seem to have nothing to say. I start a story and then grow bored with it. I have a small pile of stories and screenplays, but something seems to have dried up, and the pile isn't growing. Any ideas on how to get over the hump?


Dear Creative,

Having nothing to say and being bored and tired of writing has never stopped the determined writer. You just discipline yourself to sit down and write, whether you feel brilliant or dull as dirt, and then do it. If you sit around and wait for the Muse to come and whisper endearments in your ear, she will be off whispering to some guy hacking away at his keyboard. The Muse does not bestow her favors on sluggards. She is attracted to the sound of the clacking of the keys, someone who feels dull and has nothing to say but who nevertheless is beavering away and suddenly she whispers and he is filled with inspiration and the thing gets written.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I have been involved in an intense correspondence with a passionate and engaging man for over a year. We wrote daily for months and continue to correspond a few times a week. We have met several times. Early in our correspondence, I let him know that I felt the possibility of romance. He replied, "Not now, not long distance, I don't share your feelings. But, given time, who knows?" Subsequently he has spoken and written at length and movingly about intimacy, his desire for a relationship, and the importance of honesty.

A short time ago I discovered through an acquaintance of his that he's been in a relationship for the last year. I asked him about it and he said it was his prerogative to keep the girlfriend private. He said he thought I wouldn't want to be his friend if I knew about her. He accused me of overreacting. I'm angry and hurt and feel I've been lied to. Am I wrong? Should I maintain the friendship? He is a very special person, but this feels pretty bad.


Dear Confused,

You're not wrong. You were lied to. This isn't a friendship, it's a work of fiction. You're collaborating in creating an illusion, and if you're not getting paid for it, why work so hard?

Dear Mr. Blue,

I married a lovely man six years ago, and we have been more than reasonably happy ever since. He is everything I ever wanted a husband to be. Our sex life is fine, we have enough money, we both have satisfying jobs, we are planning a family -- all that anyone could want.

Except, except, except ... oh, Mr. Blue, there is a co-worker who I have a big crush on, and it is destroying my peace of mind. My stomach lurches when I get a message from him; my heart pounds and my neck and armpits prickle when he is in the same room; in meetings, I find my eyes drifting to the collar of his shirt and imagining what lies beneath. I daydream about taking business trips together with him, where we just happen to get snowed in, in a hotel that has only one room left ...

I would never, ever say anything to my co-worker, let alone do anything -- he is happily married as well, and I hate the thought of causing him embarrassment or trouble. More important, I find the thought of hurting my husband repugnant.

But how can I overcome these feelings? Are adulterous thoughts a sign that my own marriage is not really happy? I want to think about my husband and my own life, not fantasize about some man I am not married to. Am I really a bad person after all for entertaining highly lustful thoughts about someone else? And how guilty should I feel? Are there trade secrets of the long and happily married?


Dear Lusting,

The tingles, the lurches, the prickles, the pounding, it's all purely biological, your body looking around for a male in hopes of getting impregnated and bearing a litter by spring. The body is not entirely socialized, and your genes don't care about guilt, they want you to throw your clothes off and arch your back and meow and lure the co-worker into the mailroom and copulate with him amid the Fed ex envelopes and wrapping tape. You are in control of your body, however, and the same conscience that keeps you from shooting other drivers on the freeway keeps you from taking that business trip in the snowstorm. You needn't feel guilty or weird about having a crush on someone. Once you realize you really are in control, you can even enjoy the fantasies. They probably won't last long. If they continue to cause you distress, get a new job. The job market is good these days.

The trade secret of a happy marriage, according to a friend of mine who recently celebrated his 35th anniversary, is: "You behave as though you were in a crowded lifeboat: You respect the space of the others, you don't make any sudden moves, you thank heaven for every minute you're alive and you keep any disastrous thoughts to yourself."

Dear Mr. Blue,

Seven years ago my delightful parents began a tragic chapter. My mother's health failed and I nursed her until her death. I farmed out the children while I took care of her, gave up a job I liked very much. We all made sacrifices. On her deathbed, she made me promise I would take care of my father.

This I have done. After my mother's death he was diagnosed with multi-infarct dementia. I took him in with us. He now recognizes no one in the world except me, no longer recognizes the house we live in or where his bedroom or the bathroom is. I took my father for a flu shot recently. Given his frailty, I know that if he got the flu it would finish him off. I had a fleeting thought, What am I doing? This could go on forever. I have forestalled a death I would welcome. Of course, I immediately felt horribly guilty for entertaining the idea. Everyone says I'm a saint, but I'm feeling distinctly unsaintly.

To could put him in care would be wildly expensive with his incontinence, disorientation and helplessness in every aspect of daily care. He owns part of the house we live in, so we can't spend down to put him in a facility that takes Medicare. I would have to spend real money and most of our real money is going to college expenses. (Which is a lot cheaper than full-time care for a dementia patient. College is a bargain by comparison.)

I'm a social worker by trade. I long for the wider world and larger pursuits. I feel overwhelmed. I exercise, eat well, take care of myself, but it's not enough. It's not that he's so hard to deal with or a difficult personality. On the contrary, he's very sweet. It's just that this is extremely confining and I'm chafing at the bit. Any suggestions?

No Saint

Dear Saint,

There is no more difficult, discouraging, enervating job than taking care of someone who's demented. You would welcome his death? Well, I guess he would welcome it also, if he could talk. You need help; you have already gone beyond your strength, and you need to place Dad in an Alzheimer's unit or other nursing facility for your own health. I ran your question by the cranky old internist who lives in the woods, and he said: "This involves Medicaid, not Medicare. You misunderstand the Medicaid rules -- not your fault; they make IRS rules look simple. See an attorney who specializes in elder law. Go to the Bar Association of your state and ask for a list of attorneys near you who are on the roster of the Elder Law Section or Committee. Or use your local Bar Association referral service, and be specific about your need. Medicaid has a claim only on your dad's resources, not yours. What you do is buy his fractional interest in your house, for the value that the Medicaid rules put on it. This is a discounted value; in addition, there are exceptions for when a child cares for the parent. Medicaid allows some reimbursement for the care you have given him, and this will ameliorate the financial burden of acquiring his share of the house. If for some reason you can't finance the purchase of his interest in the house, you can put his fractional interest up for sale -- don't worry, it won't sell -- and after he passes away, you sell the whole house, and Medicaid then recoups its share of his portion. If you haven't read it, you might look up an inexpensive paperback, "The 36-Hour Day," by Nancy L. Mace and Peter V. Rabins (Warner Books, 1992). That is all. Good luck."

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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