Many readers felt that my response last week to Trapped in the Mineshaft was short of the mark, and I think they're right. She is the woman who had lost her parents and a baby in a period of a couple years and now was afflicted with morbid thoughts about her own death and those of loved ones and felt panicky about leaving home, flying, even horseback riding. One reader wrote: "This woman's letter has anxiety and panic disorder written all over it. Trust me on this -- no amount of concentrating on the good things in her life is going to get her past this on her own. I battled this kind of condition for years after I was treated for cancer. I thought I should be able to handle it on my own, but it's just not that simple. I went to a therapist. It was an answer to a prayer. With the amount of trauma Trapped has had in her life (studies have shown there is nothing more devastating than the loss of a child), she needs to talk to a qualified counselor or therapist who can help her regain control of her life." There were many such letters, and I read them all, painful as it was. I look at Trapped's letter and my response does indeed seem awfully breezy and shallow. My defense (a puny one) is that her letter was so brave and some of the bravery got edited out, lines about how she still enjoyed life and loved her husband and her horses and so forth, and one wants to encourage bravery and resist someone becoming a patient, but I was surely wrong in this case. Trapped needs to get help from a professional. I'm afraid that the harshest readers were right: I don't have any competence in the realm of mental health. I come from a long line of gloomy stoics who believed in a firm upper lip and no self-pity and keep the bats in the belfry. Panic disorder is not in my vocabulary.
This column started out by offering advice on 1) romance and 2) writing, and it has experienced what bureaucrats call "mission creep," and now cheerfully offers advice on depression and in-laws and etiquette and flatulence and the screaming meemies and what to do about ingrate children and all sorts of things that Mr. Blue doesn't know beans about. So what to do? Be smarter, I guess, and try harder. And if the advice is lousy, well, at least the stories are pretty good.
Dear Mr. Blue,
My husband works at home, usually late into the night, and comes to bed hours after I do. He then wakes me up for sex. This is making me crazy, not to mention tired. If I resist, he gets upset and we wind up arguing. So I go along with him to get it over with so I can go back to sleep. Either way I'm sleepy and angry the next day. I have a 9-to-5 job and am trying to write a novel as well. I don't have the freedom to sleep whenever I want, like he does. He's otherwise a very kind and considerate person; it's just sexually that he's very selfish. I'm about to start locking the bedroom door and making him sleep in the guest room. Do you have any other ideas?
Have the argument. You've been avoiding it too long. It's a good argument. Tell him clearly that he is to stop doing this, that you have a right to your sleep, that this is fundamental, beyond discussion, no compromise and no trivial matter. Sleep and sanity are intertwined; you refuse to spend your days groggy and angry. Let him get upset and let the sparring commence. Duke it out. Don't retreat and don't threaten, but do defend your position, and don't worry if the fight takes two days or two weeks or six months; just don't make a false peace. You can learn a lot from this, such as how to fight. You'll win this one, and I hope you can win it gracefully, without inflicting deep wounds.
Dear Mr. Blue,
About a year ago I ended a four-year relationship with a man I'll call "Ben," because he spent most of his free time rebuilding Harleys, which I consider boring. Last summer I met Sean. It was love at first sight. We've been together six months now. We work well, we fight well, we love well -- but Sean is terribly jealous of my continued friendship with Ben. He cannot accept it. I'm at my wits' end. I would feel like a jerk destroying the friendship with Ben. Sean wants me to stop seeing Ben, period. He is convinced Ben still has feelings for me. He keeps telling me that being on such good terms with an ex isn't normal. Help!
Torn and Confused
I suppose it isn't normal, considering our tempestuous and suspicious natures, but it's a mark of maturity (and good luck) to be able to lose a lover and keep a friend. It's also normal for your lover to be jealous and to harbor dark feelings toward the gentlemen who previously darkened your towels. He wishes they didn't exist. He hopes they all develop serious prostate problems. Jealousy is a monster, hard to tame. Put Ben on ice for a while. Don't make the friendship an issue. See if Sean settles down. And maybe the friendship with Ben isn't so durable. But this is an unwinnable argument. You win it, you lose.
Dear Mr. Blue,
I am dating a man who happens to be the best friend of my ex-boyfriend. We've resolved that among the three of us, but my current guy is continually upset because he "doesn't know what he wants." He loves me. He doesn't want to hurt me. He refuses to start anything unless he's sure it's going to be "forever." He says he is waiting for that moment of clarity when it will hit him that I am his "one." How very poetic. Why am I losing patience with this? I am not the one who chose to explore this "level" -- I was perfectly content with our friendship before he had the urge to kiss me. Do I tell him to figure himself out and not call me until he does? Do I stick around for the angst?
Romance is supposed to be enjoyable above all, not a grim struggle, and this Zen romance in which your admirer sits in his cave waiting for enlightenment doesn't sound like a whole bunch of fun for you. What are you supposed to do while he waits for clarity? Perch on the pedestal and write haiku about the cicadas? The clarity is in his own head, it's not written in the air, and if he doesn't know what he thinks or feels or doesn't feel, then I don't see what you can contribute to the quest. Go back to being a friend. And find someone fun who will take you slow dancing in roadhouses where rotund mustachioed men in white tuxes play ballads on saxophones, a guy who will buy you oysters and champagne and look deep into your eyes and tell you he wants you, you, you.
Dear Mr. Blue,
I was crazy in love once, a stormy, wild yearlong affair with a guy who was everything to me. It's been over for more than a year now, and I'm OK with it. I've dated energetically since and have enjoyed meeting new people and laughing and cuddling and making love. But then my ardor cools and I realize that this one isn't going to be The One, either. I worry that I'm setting an impossible standard -- that nothing can match that first, consuming love -- and I find that disheartening. Why shouldn't I eventually fall crazy in love again? So my main question is: Is it OK to have fun and play the field while waiting for Love to come around and tap me on the shoulder? Or is Love so quiet that I could miss him while dancing with the wrong guy? Or (heavens!) could Love actually be hiding inside one of these "wrong" guys whom I'm letting go so quickly?
Full Dance Card, Empty Locket
You're OK. You said it yourself. Maybe you're not completely over Mr. Everything, but you've enjoyed messing around with these various walk-ons you've met since and that's a good sign. You're not going to experience that same stormy, passionate affair again -- even if you met the same guy again, you wouldn't: You're a different woman, you're not capable of the same storms. This may be something to feel grateful for. But the big romance gave you a big confidence in yourself: You've sung that big crazy role, so you can sing the even more demanding sustained passionate role, the one where you don't stab the tenor, you ride off into the sunset with him and live carefully ever after. If you're feeling disheartened, give romance a rest and take up clog dancing and brush up your backhand. Take up running. Enjoy life itself. Maybe the frenetic dating was a panicky reaction to losing the guy. Take a few months and catch up on your reading. And know that you'll find someone to love again, and, yes, he just may be among these guys you're dismissing because they don't make you bay at the moon.
Dear Mr. Blue,
How does one know when to cut her losses and move on? What if things aren't good but aren't terrible either? I've been with a gentleman for six years, married one year, but am seriously contemplating ending our relationship. We have issues that I don't feel will ever be dealt with. Our day-to-day life fluctuates from miserable to tolerable. On the tolerable days I think, "This isn't so bad, I can ride this out," and on the miserable days I think, "Get me the hell out of here now." I don't want to make any rash decisions, but I don't want to stew in indecision either. Help!
I have no idea what the issues are, but if the best mood you find these days is "I can ride this out," then there isn't a lot of high jinks and whoopee in this marriage. How is your life apart from him? Do you ever get out of this stew and talk and laugh and feel good? Why did you marry someone who makes you so unhappy? A range of tolerable to miserable strikes me as terrible, and if you mean exactly what you say in this letter, if you wrote this letter on one of your better days, if you yourself are not sunk in a depression and seeing everything through a cloud darkly, then it's time to move on before, God forbid, you bring a child into this dark basement. I frankly don't suggest counseling if there's no high ground to anchor to.
Dear Mr. Blue,
I am 28, an American living and working abroad for the last four years, a great experience -- I couldn't have spent my mid-20s in a better way. I have a satisfying job, have learned a second language and culture, have amazing friends. But I feel I'm stagnating and have missed the big U.S. economic boom. I want to go to grad school and spend more time with my family. I look at some of my older expat friends and worry that over time I too will become a raging, reckless alcoholic who couldn't survive in my home country anymore, either for lack of initiative or fear of not fitting in. Am I wasting my youth by lingering here? How much living abroad is too much? Can I ever go home again?
You're at that awkward stage where you must decide whether to extend your adventure and make it your life or move on to the next adventure. Do you want to settle down there in Fredonia, marry and beget little Fredonians, and accept this odd little nation as your home, or do you head back to Ohio? There are lovely aspects to expat life, including the daily adventure of language and the little pleasures of dissonance and social eccentricity. And living a smaller life. And if you've learned the language well enough to get the jokes and be able to walk through a crowd and eavesdrop, then you've got your feet on the ground and could contemplate settling down. (Don't worry about missing the big economic boom -- it's over. We're getting a Republican president, and we're heading back to tax cuts and deficit finance.) I think this decision is better made while you're here, so why not make plans to come back for grad school and figure that sometime before you're 30, the answer will dawn. Don't stagnate. Come home. You can always resume that life if you wish.
Dear Mr. Blue,
I am 28, married to a loving, sweet husband. We have been together for a little over a year and a half. The problem is our sex life. We make love less and less and when it does happen, it is the same thing we did last week and the week before and so on. I have suggested different things we can do to put a spark back in our physical relationship, but my husband, who was a virgin when we married, is much more inexperienced than I, and he doesn't like to try new things. He says everything is good. I have told him that I prefer a little more variety. What do I need to do to change this road we are on?
Your husband is like the guy in the Woody Allen movie who says, "Even bad sex is great!" Most guys feel that way and have a difficult time seeing any sex as "the same boring stuff," maybe because, having been forbidden it for so long, every transgression is thrilling. I mean, when you crash the big party and get past the security guys on the lawn, you don't complain that the shrimp cocktail is inferior -- just being there is enough. He may be satisfied with the same routine for the foreseeable future so, there being only two of you, it is your assignment to bring some music and acrobatics and humor into the room. Women, trained in the sensuous arts, are traditionally better at this than are men, who are poor seducers. ("Come here often?") Become a devil in a blue satin nightgown and see if it doesn't get his attention.
Dear Mr. Blue,
I've been best friends for over a year with a man I consider my soul mate. (I'm 29; he's 26.) We've each had romances with other people and have happily dished the dirt with each other over breakfast the next day. Now my best friend has decided to leave for Seattle next month, for good. In anticipation of our separation, we traveled to Paris for two weeks to spend some time together. The city of light and a few small Parisian hotel beds did their magic and we were in love. We walked the streets of rainy Paris under the same umbrella, held hands and gazed into each other's eyes at the corner cafe, kissed beneath a glittering Eiffel Tower. It was without a doubt the greatest experience of my life. Now back home, we're trying to "normalize" things, but we're still sneaking kisses and stealing glances, and the horrible reality is that in a few short weeks he'll be gone and I don't know what I'll do, Mr. Blue. I love him more than anyone I've ever loved in my life. I've always harbored a healthy cynicism toward marriage, but I feel I could marry him tomorrow and be happy for the rest of my life. How do I watch as my one true love drives away, leaving me with his futon frame and my memories of Paris?
My dear lady, this is it, a love story, the real article, and the wild lovely notion that inspired you two to fly off to Paris is worth hanging onto. The combination of best friend and passionate lover, of long conversations and narrow beds, is what everyone hopes to find. You could blow on this and it'd burst into flame again and heat a furnace for years to come. You shouldn't be telling me that you love him more than anyone and would marry him tomorrow -- you should be telling it to him, and nuts to normalization, whatever that is. Sounds more like ignorance to me. If he's still heading for Seattle in the face of what happened, then he's a fool. Find a way to talk some sense into him. Or tell him you're going with him. Seattle is rainy too and has umbrellas and corner cafes. No Eiffel Tower but there's a Space Needle. You can kiss under it and you can get a narrow bed in a hotel and have a wonderful time. Resist normalization. Don't let him drive away, not before you can draw a beautiful picture of a possible future.
Dear Mr. Blue,
After a decade struggling to get my prose into print -- and writing many a technical brochure or software ad to pay the rent -- I've finally managed to land regular assignments for a well-known women's magazine. But the editor insists on changing my articles, inserting personal comments and references I'd never make, putting her words under my byline in a big, blatant way, substantially changing my stuff.
The gig pays a small fortune, and I am a debt-laden writer. What should I do? Stop writing for her? Or keep my lips zipped and cash the check? Is it too much to hope that I can find someone who wants me for my own voice?
You don't say that the stuff she inserts is vapid, or stupid, or leaden, or clichéd, so I assume it's of the same quality as your stuff. Maybe that's how the magazine works, as a sort of quilting factory, with many quilters working on each piece. I never wrote for a women's magazine and don't know how they manufacture that stuff ("Fifty Ways to Put the Va-va-va-voom Back in Your Wardrobe"), but I suppose they're different from the magazines I write for, which have been bullied by writers over the years into respecting our stuff to a ridiculous degree. Editors ask me, "Would you mind terribly if we eliminated that comma? If it'd break your heart, we wouldn't, but we think the sentence might read better without it, but do tell us if you think we're way off-base here." They don't tiptoe around my commas because my stuff is so great but because some great writer years ago threw a fit and abused them violently and stalked out into the night, and that made them nicer to me. I don't recommend you throw a fit. Keep the lucrative gig, cash the checks and start writing some other stuff on the side, something that is personal, explosive, sexy, as only you can write it, that can't be tampered with, and then find someone to publish it who wouldn't dream of changing a thing.