With a heavy heart

Mr. Blue offers advice for getting through the Bush years.

Published January 23, 2001 8:00PM (EST)

You should know that Mr. Blue does not attempt to answer all questions that land in his box; many are simply beyond my ken. For example, the letter this week from the man who has found his life's work but unfortunately he is incompetent at it; what to do? The letter from the lawyer who has developed a crush on a waitress and hesitates to speak to her because, after all, he is a lawyer and she a waitress. The very long letter from a lawyer about something to do with her taking a job at one firm and then trying to jump to another because the first was unethical -- I read it twice and couldn't understand the question. And the letters from folks who attempt to lay out their entire life situation in detail and then want to know, should they move to Cleveland or not, should they leave their job, should they go back to school and so forth. The only decent answer is, I don't know, what do you think?

And then there was the sweet letter from a woman who said, "I enjoy the column, but is there something troubling you, Mr. Blue, that perhaps we could help you with?" Now there is an offer. Unfortunately, my problems tend to be the sort that have obvious solutions, which the sufferer knows along with everyone else. But the moment I come up with a good one, I'll hang it out here for everyone to see.

A woman responds to Romantically Inhibited who can't understand why women only see him as a friend: "The problem is, he and others like him focus on those very few trophy women (blond, blue-eyed, with six-figure salaries) that he and his friends view as worth attaining, though there are other women nearby who are attractive (but not whiplash inducing), smart and funny, with whom he has a lot in common. He should start looking at the real people in his life, not 'Sex and the City' fantasy people." OK. But attraction is attraction, and it's hard to ignore, and it's impossible to fake.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am writing to you not because I have marital woes, dysfunctional family problems, writer's block, etc. but because on Jan. 21, I still feel as angry and despondent as I did on Dec. 12 when the Supreme Court handed the presidency (and therefore my country) to a candidate whose claim to victory shall ever remain dubious.

I consider myself a creative and resourceful person with a dry sense of humor, but my heart is so heavy now. My good friends all seem to be booked in steerage of the same boat I'm on. Part of me would love to drop out, but there is something within me preventing the luxury of dissociation So, Mr. Blue, what's a fellow to do?

Leftover Sixties Idealist

Dear Leftover,

President Bush is in the Oval Office and nobody is so surprised and alarmed as he. His uncertainty is visible in the way he makes entrances and carries out the simplest public acts, and it's sort of endearing, isn't it? I mean, the guy is certainly aware of his own shallowness, he has to live with it every day of his life. Bill Clinton stole the show every time the two were together in public, right up to when the Bushes got the Clintons stuffed into the limo and sent them away. To attempt to govern from a set of bromides and applause lines is not a fulfilling or dignified life for a grown-up, and Mr. Bush's greatest pleasures as president may be his encounters with tour groups in the White House. So save some despondency for him. As for anger, you can go be angry at the Supremes for their impulsive lurch into judicial activism, and yes, you could be angry at the Florida Republican machine for their brazenness, but where do you stop? Do you cut in Ralph Nader for some anger, and Donna Brazile, and Al Gore, and Colin Powell for vouching for a man he well knows is a lightweight, and Sen. McCain, and all the other folks responsible for this tongue-tied bozo? It's too long a list. You'd wind up a sour embittered old coot snarling at the TV. Best to clean out the files and start fresh. Take a vacation from the media and do some good for yourself.

The two best antidotes, I think, are the outdoors and the classics. The inherent interest of the photo op and the sound bite and the focus group pale next to the beauty and grace of the natural world when you venture out into the woods and consult your immortal soul, or the majesty of Marcus Aurelius or Horace or Ovid. They speak to us from the ruins of cities that knew their own Dubyas, and they speak to our condition vividly and with powerful wit and conviction beyond anything you'll find on the evening news. Just as soldiers might read the 23rd Psalm the night before battle, it suits you to listen to the ancients before you re-enter the lists. When you're ready to resume citizenship, take a trip to Washington and poke around the Capitol, visit your congressman, see what sessions you can attend, try to cop a ticket to the Court, pull strings to get an inside glance. It isn't that hard to get behind the ropes. But do know that the Supreme Court has no power to hand the country over to anybody, and Mr. Bush is not running the country. He is trying to manage the presidency, a very different thing. The country belongs to the people, and is in the hands of God, and in another year and a half, you can try to pull the levers in your direction. Courage.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm engaged to a wonderful man, and we're getting married in July right after I finish college. Our life together looks like it will be wonderful, though we have always had a long-distance relationship since he's English and I'm in New Mexico. But this isn't really the problem. My father died eight years ago, and this wedding/relationship/marriage is bringing up a slew of emotions for my mother and me. Personally I have deep fears of losing my fiancé somehow, that he'll be hit by a double-decker bus. (I used to have similar fears about my mother, but they've subsided.) I've tried therapists (since I was 14), but they just reassure me that everything's OK and that I'm normal, etc. But this is really unhelpful. The stress in my life is nearly intolerable. I go to a tough school, am writing my thesis, am planning the wedding, and to top it off I can't talk to my mother about any of this. She is of course terribly upset that my father didn't live long enough to see my wedding and therefore can't seem to bear thinking that I'm upset or depressed in any way. I don't know what kind of advice I'm asking for here.

Stretched Thin

Dear Stretched,

Your fiancé is English and he knows to look right while crossing the street and not be struck by the double-decker bus. And anyway the streets have arrows painted for the benefit of American tourists, telling you where to look. And those buses are terribly underpowered anyway. They chug, they don't zoom. If they hit him, they wouldn't kill him, they'd only break his wrist, and those Brits are tough, and he probably wouldn't even spend a night in the infirmary. So you may as well think about him being struck by a meteorite from space.

Seriously, I am sure the stress is indeed nearly intolerable, and I wonder if you can't make it slightly more tolerable by asking your mother to plan the wedding for you -- or just let the wedding plan itself -- and you focus on your thesis. This is the main thing right now, your push to graduate. The wedding can be postponed, if necessary, and your loving fiancé will understand perfectly well, and so will your fragile mother. Perhaps other business can be set aside for the time being. Such as anxiety. Try getting up at 5 every morning and giving yourself the first few hours to work, free of anxiety. Worry at night, and get your work done in the morning. Do jumping jacks to help you relax, or do chicken singing. I sometimes do a chicken singing, "Oh What a Beautiful Morning," and it helps my mild case of the jim-jams. Grin at yourself in a mirror. Whatever it takes. Your mother can't help you through this, and you can't help her bad feelings, but you can finish the last six months of college and write the thesis and marry the gentleman sometime afterward. And then go and be English, dahling. It has its own plummy anxieties, but you can enjoy the ivy and stone walls, the sterling candlesticks and the wigs and footmen and everything.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm a woman in my 40s, independent with a good job. I have a friend of many years. There's always been a special affection between us, and now, as he's getting divorced after many years in a troubled marriage, he's proclaimed his long-standing love for me. We kissed but that's all. The floodgates opened on my feelings, though, and now I don't know how to relate to him.

He's been giving me mixed messages, at times saying how much he loves me, most of the time not contacting me at all. I know he's in emotional turmoil as a result of his divorce, but I've been hurt by his avoidance of me and now I avoid him.

The problem is that we're part of a circle of friends. No one else knows about this and so it's difficult to avoid him, although I feel I must. When I've seen him in recent months as part of this group, things have been strained and we've hardly talked. I'm sad that I feel I have to avoid him and the sweet friendship we had seems to be ruined. I'm angry that I can't hang out with my group of friends for fear of seeing him.

Can I find a way to go back to where I was and be at ease when I see him? Is there any way I can stuff back these feelings without having to avoid him? Should I tell any of my friends about this? (I think not.)

Caught in the Middle

Dear Caught,

I think that ratcheting those floodgates closed is the best course, and draining your heart of excess river water. Reason with yourself. The man was wounded, distraught, feeling desperate, and he blurted out his declaration of love, which was sincere -- he loves you, you're his friend -- and which on the other hand means nothing because he's in no shape to offer himself to you. He got some sort of comfort from proclaiming his love, but he has no idea what he meant by it. He doesn't contact you because, frankly, his floodgates didn't open at all. The declaration was simply something that happened that night; it didn't mean to him nearly what it's come to mean to you, and so you shouldn't read anything into his "avoidance" of you -- he's simply feeling bad about the divorce. Forgive him this impetuous deed. Don't tell a single one of your friends about it. Go back to where you were. He's the same person you cared about before. Practice the habits of friendship, go through the motions, and in time the old friendly feelings will follow.

Dear Mr. Blue,

It sort of snuck up on me, midlife, and I don't feel depressed, or tempted toward foolish behavior, though I am feeling quite reflective these days. I am very happily married, in fact, more in love today with a wonderful woman than I was when I first met her nearly 20 years ago. We have three great children, whom I thoroughly enjoy, most of the time. So, I guess my question is, when exactly should one expect a midlife crisis? I've been looking for one, but have not been able to find it.

Mystified in St. Louis

Dear Mystified,

Midlife is a long stretch of time, pal, depending on life expectancy, of course, and if you haven't had your crisis yet, just wait. They can come anytime between 40 and 60, and when you postpone yours, it may be rougher. Instead of running away with the cocktail waitress, you may run away with her daughter, and wind up in Wyoming in a dingy Super 6 with your pockets full of crème brûlée and no memory of how you got there. I got my crisis out of the way 15 years ago. It was awful and it ate up a few years and tried the patience of friends, but now I'm done with it. You're sitting there waiting for the shoe to drop. Maybe your children will create one for you. If three kids can't create one good crisis between them, then I miss my bet. Stay tuned.

Dear Mr. Blue,

After years of prescribed hormones, creams, injections and skin patches, my partner of many years still finds herself almost completely uninterested in sex. We have one grown child. Once or twice a month we'll have sex when I initiate, and she seems to enjoy it -- except that only she can bring herself to orgasm. I am in shape, squeaky clean, smooth- and slow-handed, am not pushy or demanding. I send flowers and cards, remember anniversaries, clean up the dishes, do laundry, don't wear reused underwear. I leave notes and sonnets under her pillow, surprise her with B&B getaways, take her dancing, gleefully sit through chick flicks, know all of her sizes when buying gifts, the works. I have suggested "tasteful" porn videos, three-ways, other women, public sex, fireplace weekends, lingerie for her, silk boxers for me, oils, dildos, vibrators, cuffs, edible goods, you name it. Nothing seems to interest her in having sex more than once or twice a month, and then it's very bland -- she says she has to lose five pounds before she feels good about herself. It's rubbish since she has been 20 pounds heavier at other times. What's the problem here? What am I doing wrong?

Please? Anything?

Tired of being the Monthly Missionary

Dear Tired,

When do you ever find time to shovel the walk or change the oil in your car, sir? Your wife's indifference seems to have turned you into a madman, a sort of Marquis de Sex, a definite overachiever in the husband department. Unfortunately, your tremendous industry and ingenuity and diligence in the pursuit of her orgasm may be inhibiting her. Even terrifying her. It would terrify me if my wife were to come at me this way. Sex is something that happens between two people, it's not a doctor-patient relationship. As they say in the men's sex manuals, "Don't rush the clitoris." Skip the sonnets for a while, stop with the purchase of gifts, take a break from B&Bs, forget the next anniversary and for heaven's sake stop bugging her about all these erotic tactics like three-ways. We have some of those lamps in our house, and they're not as exciting as you might think. Relax. Get interested in the NBA, or Dickens, or writing in your journal, or cooking authentic Thai dishes. I don't know what the problem might be, but you shouldn't be trying nearly so hard. Give it a rest. Please. Lighten up. Sex without humor is no fun at all, I don't care how many orgasms are involved.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm a newspaper reporter by day, and by night I spend an hour or two working on my first novel. I've got about five chapters done, roughly 20,000 words. I've spent the last few months developing my characters to a point where I finally feel like I know who these people are and what is motivating them. I have a vague idea of how I will end this story, but don't really know yet how I'm going to get there. I'm just letting the story go where it will each time I sit down to write. So far it's worked really well, and I've been surprised quite a few times by what happens when I let my mind wander. I'm pretty confident with what I have so far, but this is my first shot at it. Should I try to shop this book around now, in its uncompleted form, in the hope of getting some type of advance or deal that will enable me to quit my day job? Or should I complete it and then shop it around? Here's my deep dark fear: What if I shop it around now and no one likes it? But then again, maybe I can hook up with an editor who can help guide me through the process. Do they do that, or is it just a pass/fail situation? What should I do, Mr. Blue?

Wannabe novelist

Dear Wannabe,

You're going good now and I recommend you keep right on trucking, letting the story go where it will, cleaning up loose ends, listening to the characters, typing away and searching for the ending. This is one of life's rare pleasures, writing in a free and uninhibited way, and by God you should enjoy it without worrying about what some Smith grad in Manhattan thinks of it. It's wonderful, this stage of writing a book. You're in a discovery process, you've learned enough to feel confident about the book, you're getting your head, and so there's no reason to call for help. Of course it'd be nice to have an advance, but it could also swamp your canoe. So long as things are going well, enjoy what you're doing, stay on track, get your rest and don't think about the commercial aspect just yet. Editors don't do so much guiding as they do marketing and promotion, and it's much too early to be troubled with all that. And you could get some truly dreadful guidance. Don't risk it. Here's another deep dark fear: What if someone gives you a $300,000 advance and Fox tosses in $500,000 for the film rights and suddenly the cold hand of Mammon clamps down on your shoulder and you find you're unable to write another word? Enjoy the work and when it's in shape, then think about shipping it off.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am in love with a woman whom I planned to marry but then she broke it off. She said she loved me dearly, but there were things about me she couldn't live with and she didn't want to ask me to change who I am. However, the things she said were bothering her are just bad habits, little quirks. I wanted to patch things up, but she said that breaking up was so hard to do that she couldn't risk getting back together too soon and then having to break up again. I believed we'd get back together but after about two weeks she found out a man she has been friends with since college has feelings for her, and began a relationship with him. She swears she had no idea before we broke up, but she is telling me I should move on. Am I nuts to believe she's only with him because she's lonely? I am still madly in love with her, and convinced we are meant for each other. How do I convince her of that when she doesn't want to talk about it?

Impatient on the Sidelines

Dear Impatient,

You and she are romantic history, I'm afraid, and don't try to rewrite it. She has moved on. Maybe she's trying to spare your feelings by soft-pedaling things, but the simple fact is that she broke up with you for her own reasons and now is with someone else and there is nothing to talk to her about. It doesn't matter why she's with him. You will have to stop being madly in love with her, and just be mad for a while. Think of yourself as Al Gore and her as Sandra Day O'Connor. She has cast her vote. Don't call up and ask her to change it. You only diminish yourself. Go out and have a beer with your pals and tell them everything you detest about her and this will help.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm a technical writer full-time and also a novelist. I've published two and am writing another one now. I am about to be a father for the first time, and I'm looking to buy a house. I would really like to quit my job and write full-time. I have two problems with this. The first one you can't solve, the money problem: Mark Twain said you can make a fortune as a writer in America, but you can't make a living. I earn more correcting the senior manager's spelling errors than I do writing novels.

The other problem is a little more subtle. About two years ago, I did quit my job to write. And I found that with all that time to write, I didn't write a thing. It seems I can only write when I don't have time to write. Is this not perverse? What personal flaw causes this? I think that if I could solve this problem, I might produce enough material to earn a modest living. Please use your keen sense of the strange to diagnose my psychosis.

On the Verge

Dear Verge,

It's no psychosis, just human nature. The freedom to do Anything and Everything can be confusing and get in the way of your accomplishing Something. It's similar to the confusion that children of the wealthy experience: The world is open to them and it takes a long time to figure out a simple course of action. It's similar to what happened to me when I quit the radio grind to write a novel and found myself in an empty room with a whole empty year ahead of me and I about soiled my drawers. I hustled out and got myself as many distractions as I needed to create more pressure. Adversity and pressure can be great stimuli. If you again quit your job to write, you could figure out how, but it might take a while. Meanwhile, you'll be like the rest of us. We have our work to do and we keep getting up to sharpen pencils and empty wastebaskets and do our e-mail.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm really at a loss. My partner and I know a couple who we like a lot who are going through a divorce. We'd like to stay friends, but we have heard nasty rumors (promulgated by the husband's new squeeze) that the wife had many dalliances, including one with my partner. There is no way that it could have happened. This friend does matter a whole lot to me, and I can see a lot of pain under the surface. But should we confront him about these rumors? If he's as unstable as I know him to be, is there any point? We're both a bit irritated about the whole thing, but don't want to alienate him completely. This is a really sad situation, and the last thing I want to do is make it worse for no good reason, or alienate someone who's going to a pretty dark place.

In the Middle

Dear Middle,

Since you know that the dalliance did not take place, there's no point in pursuing the rumor. It's like chasing a cloud of mosquitoes. Or hitting the Tar Baby. Anyone who leads an active life can assume that every day someone is saying something nasty about you, including Sundays and holidays. So what? It's just static electricity. Let it pass. You're right about it being a sad situation. Divorce is a nasty business and why become embroiled in someone else's? Be glad you're happy with your partner and let the friends drift back your way when they're in a better humor.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am now divorced from my wife (for over a year). She continues, however, to harass me until I think of seeking legal remedies. The sticking point is our sons: She uses them as an "excuse" to contact me and then once contact is made, she ridicules me, tells me what a horrible person I am, etc. Sometimes we engage in normal conversation, but it doesn't last long. (Incidentally, I am always on time with child support and there is no incident that sets her rampages off. We also have joint custody, so we see each other frequently, much to my chagrin.) I myself have days when I think of just chucking it all and disappearing and building a cabin in Montana to get away from her, but then I always return to reality and think of my sons, whom I treasure and cannot live without. What do you think?


Dear Prisoner,

Don't seek legal remedies except in the direst situation -- for example, if you think she's mentally unstable and a threat to the children. But this is ordinary garden-variety anger, and you play into it if you react to it angrily. Do as Scripture says and turn the other cheek and keep turning it. Be a monster of patience and good humor and ignore the insults and concentrate on the concrete details of shared child-rearing. And enjoy your sons. It takes some discipline, but you might be surprised how completely you can mentally dismiss a person who is only causing you trouble. Put her in a cabin in the Montana of your mind and don't bother to react to her garbage. Don't be chagrined. Grin and make small talk and look to the needs of your children.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I arrived in Denmark a year ago to take a research job and now I have a Swedish fiancée and plan to live in Stockholm with her after we're married in August. I realize this is a different culture with traditions, rules, language and fish, and I know that I'll need to create my own social, cultural and professional space here, and not just fit into my future wife's life. Plus learning the language to talk to my in-laws. Can you advise me about building a base here with future wife and bairns?

Sleepless in Aebletoft

Dear Sleepless,

I sense that you've been seduced by the reasonableness of the Scandinavians -- their good English, their nice manners, their Marimekko decor -- into imagining how easy it would be to plop down in their midst and become one of them. Yes, it is a different culture, very different, and yes, you'll need to create your own life. You say it as if you're talking about laying a brick sidewalk. It's a large undertaking to uproot oneself and replant, and in the end, it can't be done. Not for love and not for money. You need to find a deeper motivation. If you're under indictment for tax evasion and face 20 years in the clink if you return home, that would be good. Or if you despise your family and never want to be near them or their language again. Or if the Republicans of Florida have so disgusted you that you cannot bear to ever see Old Glory again. But you seem to be doing this as a lark, and I'm afraid that the survival rate for these larks is very, very low. You will learn the language well enough to be a sort of precocious 10-year-old and then you sort of stop there and don't get any further. If that's all you care to be in life, then go and enjoy your childhood.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a graduate student with hopes of becoming an academic. I am a real go-getter at my job, and my co-workers and friends would never think I have a shyness problem, but when it comes to speaking in class my face turns red, and I stammer and cannot keep my train of thought. I do well when I write, but I am a complete idiot in class. What can I do to become more confident? I feel that my inability to speak well in public will inhibit my future career. Is it hopeless?

Painfully Shy

Dear Shy,

It's a terrible problem that yields slowly to repeated violations of your own boundaries. You keep going to the dark place you don't dare go to and after a while it becomes familiar, your eyes adjust to the dark and it isn't particularly scary anymore, no more so than for everyone else. Recognize, first, that shyness is darned near universal, especially among the young. Yes, there are idiots who leap to their feet and blather at the drop of a hat, but most of us feel our little hearts pound and our foreheads dampen. You can help yourself by organizing on paper what you think you want to say in class and then standing up and saying something like it. I know this seems artificial and it's certainly more work, but it will help you be smarter on your feet and funnier and more concise, and you'll feel good about this, and the pleasure will help your confidence. It's far from hopeless -- you can't even see hopelessness from here.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I have been seeing an old colleague for lunch a few times and am feeling a strong attraction toward her, though she is married with children and so am I. But it's a strong attraction nonetheless, and the other day, she mentioned to me that she's sort of dissatisfied with her husband who doesn't pay much attention to her anymore. Was this an invitation for me to tell her I'd like to sleep with her? I would, you know.


Dear Brooding,

The next time you have lunch with her, wear your black velour shirt and your leather pants and your suede boots, and unbutton the shirt down to your sternum and wear a lot of gold chains around your neck. Put every ring on your finger that will fit, and comb your hair straight back and secure it with hairspray. Put on mirror shades. Spritz yourself with Brut. Get the motel room and put the key on your gold chain where she can see it, nestled among your chest hairs. Take her to lunch and when she says she's dissatisfied with her husband, lean forward, press your lips to hers, put your tongue in her mouth, grab her left breast and give it a half-turn to the right. This does the trick nine times out of 10.

By 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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