It's Sunday, Mr. Blue is in Berlin --- Guten Morgen! Guten Tag! Gesundheit! --- and it's snowing, and cloudy and cold, and I hereby give myself permission not to be a tourist, but sit in a warm hotel room with ein kannchen kaffee mit milch and brot mit butter and read the mail from Amerika.
First off, the readership was united shoulder-to-shoulder against Mr. Blue's advice to the nonbelieving dad to go ahead, humor his believer wife, go to church with her as a sign of respect, since it means so much to her. One hundred percent of the readership thinks this is lousy advice. You are all so terribly, terribly wrong, but Mr. Blue forgives you from the depths of his great loving heart and longs to counsel you in these matters. See me after the 11 a.m. service.
Many readers thought Mr. Blue was too easy on Academically Challenged, who is worried how to tell his wife that he is not a Harvard graduate, as he told her many years ago during courtship. They felt that his lie is symptomatic of something deeper and weirder. I prefer the comment of a Harvard grad ('86) who says, "I can't believe that AC's wife, an Ivy graduate herself, doesn't suspect that he's been lying. Hasn't she noticed that he doesn't get the monthly requests for donations!? I think that she just hasn't wanted to confront him with this harmless (since it was done in the name of romance rather than career) lie."
As for Lifeline, who is dealing with a suicidal and clinging friend, a reader recommends a book, "Walking on Eggshells" (Harbinger Press). She says, "It has the best advice I've seen about dealing with people who are suicidal, hurting themselves or just plain impossible. Gives concrete examples of how to say what you need to say, and a framework for deciding when to walk away." Another reader feels that Lifeline's friend is suffering from borderline personality disorder: "Lifeline will find herself giving and giving and giving until she has no choice but to end all contact. People with full-out BPD have been likened to vampires of the emotional world. Not their fault, it's all they know. But it makes relating to them difficult, and helping them hard." And another reader suggests (sensibly) that the friend be persuaded to call a crisis line. "For many people it's much less intimidating than the thought of face-to-face therapy, and the people who work such lines are in a much better position to have callers become dependent upon them (or upon the line itself). If the friend is in need of a caring and nonjudgmental listener without so much invested in her life as Lifeline, and if therapy seems too daunting, a call to a crisis line is a good first step."
Mr. Blue's recommendations of antidepressants to a couple of letter writers brought some stern rejoinders from folks with unpleasant memories of Prozac and Zoloft. One writes: "I'm concerned about a tendency in our society to medicate emotions. If someone close to me dies or leaves me, and I'm sad, that doesn't make me sick. Maybe I'm just old-fashioned, but I think it's better to reserve the medicines that change the way your brain operates for people whose brains have definable imbalances."
A reader tosses in a wise word to Doctor Lady, who is writing her Ph.D. thesis and dreads the thought of a career in research and the hamster wheel of tenure-track positions. I advised her to consider changing course, but the reader says, perfectly sensibly, "Take a three-week vacation after your thesis work is over, then attend a conference in your field. Chances are you'll be back enjoying yourself in research, and if you aren't at least you will abandon research on a cooler head rather than in haste." Good advice. Don't make big decisions when you're tired.
Dear Mr. Blue,
My best friend is beautiful and has the body of a Playboy bunny. I'm tired of playing second fiddle to her. If we go out, men flock to her, our guy friends adore her and my boyfriends flirt with her. Of course, I can't hate her, because she is so down to earth, funny and nice. How do I stop feeling so jealous of her? It isn't her fault, but I am pea green with envy. Help.
Second fiddle is a good part to play, better than first in so many ways. You get to be the observer, for one thing, and the freedom from ego. And I would think it's hilarious to see these guys hovering around her, breathing her in, trying to look down her dress. But it's maybe not so hilarious for her. Beauty is a great facilitator. You can use it to sell cars or attract a crowd or dazzle a boss, but it gets boring fast to be around people who can't see past your face. They're thrilled to be with you, but they have no idea who you are. You're no second fiddle to her; you're a good friend, and you are precious to her. Stick around and enjoy the show and be a pal.
Dear Mr. Blue,
My live-in boyfriend and I have -- on one level -- a good relationship. We enjoy time together, the outdoors, cooking, traveling, and are at peace with each other. We trust each other, have the same ideas about right and wrong and know we can count on each other for the important things in life. But peace coexists with passionlessness. We don't have much to talk about (work, common friends, family problems). We make love infrequently and seemingly without any real lust for each other. And I find myself looking longingly at other men. I am extremely afraid of marriage after watching my parents' emotionally deadened lives -- so is this choking my ability to feel passion? Or are we simply not right for each other? Once, in Paris, I wanted to feel free and I kissed another man. Recently an extremely attractive male friend came to town and my heart skipped a beat every time I looked him in the eyes. I feel guilty, shallow and sad for feeling this way and am not sure what to do.
The cautious advice is to be patient, work on it, get therapy, take your Vitamin E and buy my new book, "Putting the Wow Back in Your Live-In Relationship." But there are times when one must take a risk on behalf of a basically good thing and perhaps this is such a time for you. You're feeling stuck in a flat place and dread the fate of your parents and you long for excitement. This is your perfect privilege as a registered human being. So let your lover know that all is not well. (Don't mention the attractive male friend and the skipped beats.) Direct the complaint against yourself: "I don't seem to excite you. I don't even excite myself. I feel flat. I love you and admire you and respect you and I think I need some time on my own." So you propose terms for a strategic retreat. Everyone needs one of these sometime. And see what insights you derive from spending some time alone.
Dear Mr. Blue,
I am incredibly happy, and miserable all at once. My cheating, alcoholic, unappreciative ex-boyfriend has come back and thrown himself at my feet begging for forgiveness. The last time I saw him was three months ago, when I slapped him and we said all sorts of horrible things to each other after I found out about his infidelity. I swore I'd never speak to him again. After about a month I finally started to get over him. Now he's back, and he swears he's changed. He's stopped drinking, has had the same job for eight months (a record for him) and says that he loves me and I'm the best thing that ever happened to him -- two things he never once said when we were together. So, for the last few weeks now, we've been spending long nights talking and making love, and falling asleep in each other's arms. He calls me just to hear my voice. He rents movies he knows I love. He cooks for me. We take bubble baths together. I'm breathless from all this romance. I feel like crying from joy all the time. But I know I can't trust him. I'm positive he'll break my heart again. My head says to walk away from him. I have tried going to my friends for help, but they are all convinced he is a slimy weasel who is not good enough for me -- even his friends think this. I need impartiality. Even just a yes or no will do.
Lady in Virginia
The boyfriend's back. The water's running in the bathtub, the mound of bubbles is rising, the mirror is steamed up, and in the kitchen the catfish is marinating and the salad is tossed, "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" is in the VCR, ready to go, and meanwhile Cary Grant is walking toward you naked, arms outstretched, humming -- how can Mr. Blue's advice compete with this delirious pleasure? It can't. Why go to your friends for help? What help do you want? You know the gentleman better than they do. You took him back nonetheless. Now you wait to see what happens next. Does he break your heart? Does he turn out to have truly reformed at last, saved by the love of a good woman? You'll be the first to know. If, however, he does break your heart and then, three months later, you take him back again, we're going to call the love police.
Dear Mr. Blue,
I am a freshman in college. Among my friends left over from high school is a wonderful guy -- funny, caring and smart in an offbeat way. Over the past months, we've kept in close touch -- on the phone, through lengthy e-mails, and he's come to visit me several times (it's much more difficult for me to get to his school). After four years of friendship, I wonder if it has the potential to evolve into something else -- I would like it to. But I have no idea whether he shares my curiosity or whether he would have the nerve to approach me -- it would be a drastic move to change the (happy) status quo after so many years. As much as I long for something more, I am afraid of losing what we have. Should I risk it?
Biding My Time
It's a sweet dilemma and you should enjoy the trepidations and the wondering and let things take their course. It's tempting to sit down and write an urgent letter, "What gives, pal? Do you thrill to my touch? Or what?" But don't. You're sort of maybe falling in love with him and obviously he cares about you. Keep on talking and walking and e-mailing and maybe one day you'll be together and feel it in the air, something between you, and you'll look at him and say something simple about how you feel. You won't say, "I wonder if our relationship has the potential to evolve into something else." You'll say, "I hope you know that I care about you a lot." Or maybe, "I love you." If this throws him into a tailspin, so be it. This is not a life-threatening situation. Savor it.
Dear Mr. Blue,
I am 20, in college and trying to get over my ex-boyfriend. He broke up with me when I left to study abroad; he said we needed to "think it over," but I was in love and was thinking marriage and all that. Now I have returned home. I had a wonderful time in Europe, learned a lot, met some wonderful people and had him on my mind constantly. Every time I see him around campus, my heart jumps a little. He seems happy with his new girlfriend, but a part of me wants him back. Do you have any advice for me? (Even a kick to the head would work at this point.) I tried staying busy so I won't think about it, but that only exhausted me and honestly hasn't helped. I've had a few casual dates but none of them really hit it off, and I always come home to an empty room. Do you know a way to stop loving someone, and force oneself to move on?
Put your head down here where I can gently poke it with my toe. He's gone. Don't try to get him back. If it's a small campus and you keep running into him, then you may need to force yourself to become friends with him and his new girlfriend. Learn to smile and make small talk and be friendly and not pull out your derringer and shoot them both. Or if that's unthinkable, you may need to find another campus. But this persistent casual contact is torture. Constant reminders of him, and yet at a distance, which only makes him seem larger and dreamier and more desirable. (If you befriend him and his new squeeze, you'll see him as a mortal guy with sinus troubles and bad breath.) Stay busy and keep dating and don't worry about moving on. Life is moving. The world is moving. Even if you think you're standing still, you're not. Someday this too will become a humorous story that you tell people over dinner.
Dear Mr. Blue,
I feel my boyfriend is desperately in need of some male friends who he can hang out with. Anything he does is with me, and frankly I could stand to get him out of my hair once in a while. I don't think it's healthy that we spend all of our time together. All of the people we hang out with are either his family members or my friends.
How do I find him some friends? He's not the most socially adept creature, but I think he'd be game if I gave him some suggestions.
The notion of you trying to line up friends for your man is too pitiful for words. Truly. Surely he can fend for himself, find his way to the next whiskey bar, join the NRA, take up rugby, start a Morris dance troupe, go on a monastic retreat or attend a meeting of Men Suffering From Social Ineptitude. You're the one who needs time apart so you should organize your lady pals into a book club and meet when you like for as long as you like. Book Club is a great term that lends a higher spiritual tone to what is basically a coffee klatch. I know women who belong to book clubs that go off to a remote resort for a weekend once a month or so, which is a great idea. Let him find his own way, and you can go to Whispering Pines and think about "Anna Karenina" and sleep late and laugh your heads off and discuss your needy boyfriends.
Dear Mr. Blue,
I am 30 and have been involved with a wonderful man for the last two years. He's handsome, intelligent and cultured. He listens when I talk, supports me when I'm down and challenges me in my endeavors -- professional, athletic, artistic or personal. But alas, in spite of being attracted to this person, body and soul, I can't get over the notion that he's still not my "type." I am a successful business professional and I used to date dark, exotic, brooding and sensual musicians, artists and writers. Being in a stuffy business world all day, I feel they bring a little mystery and poetry into my life. Of course, the relationships were always tumultuous, difficult, intense and short-lived. How is it then that I ultimately fell in love with a lovely, fair, boy-next-door, stable business professional like myself? Next to the strange, gorgeous characters I've been with, he just seems so ... normal. Our lives are completely compatible, he understands my career and my aspirations like no one else I've been with and we have such fun together. We talk about a future together and I can't imagine ever letting this person go -- but part of me still yearns for the unpredictable dark horse. Will this wear off as I get older, or am I settling? Can I find some other outlet to bring a little bohemia back into my life?
OK, you told me your problem, let me tell you mine. I'm married to a peach of a woman who is intelligent and sexy and whose company I crave, with whom I am happier than ever before in my life. But sometimes I wonder, What would it be like to date a bipolar cokehead artist who doesn't speak English and who has a habit of hurling large jagged glass objects at me in the dark and who might bring a little more mystery to my life? As for your problem, I think you can find all the bohemia you want in the writings of Kenneth Rexroth and Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Jack Kerouac, and when you're done with them, you can go on to Whitman, Jean Genet and the memoirs of Billie Holiday. Have fun with your lovely man, and when you need to suffer, pick up a book.
Dear Mr. Blue,
I've been married for 11 years to a man who can't make love and who drinks himself into oblivion when I am working. He is in counseling now and I have begged him to try Viagra. But he meanders dopily along quietly content in this farce of a marriage. I am utterly and inconsolably miserable. He acts more like my little brother than my husband. Now I am just exhausted. I can barely stand to hear his voice; I dream of the day I can take the dogs and leave. He has had sex with me once in the last 18 months and even then I had to get him half drunk. After 11 years of being ignored I can't dredge up any interest. So do I stay and try to swallow these feelings of anger and disgust; is it possible to create passion in a marriage where there was never any to begin with?
If you don't see any hope, neither do I. You and the dogs should pack your bags. Tote up the assets, divide by two, say au revoir and back the car out of the driveway. You might pause at the end of the driveway and think a merciful thought or two for this man. A woman's anger is a terrible debilitating force in a man's life. It really tears us up. A man doesn't know how to deal with it, this poison with his breakfast, and he loses his bearings. Pause for a moment and think that thought and forgive him, and then drive into your new life.
Dear Mr. Blue,
I'm a woman, 21, a senior at Harvard, applying to medical school. Since I was a child, my parents have wanted me to become a physician, but I have been hoping for the epiphany of my True Calling, which I suspect is in the arts. Whenever I take too many science courses, I feel like I am going mad and I sink into a deep depression and apathy. Poetry and literature and art history courses make me come alive; when reading Keats or Yeats or Faulkner, or when studying the paintings of Degas or Manet or Rothko or Jasper Johns, I feel an excitement and comfort and feel my soul is actually involved in the work, rather than memorizing systems of organs and cells and showing off my excellent capacity for cramming shitloads of information and regurgitating them on exams.
However, I never did as well in literature or art history as I did in the sciences, and I convinced myself that the best contribution I could make to the world was through science. Also, as a feminist, I pushed myself to prove that as a woman, I could excel in science just as well as the men. On the other hand, because of my Asian ethnicity, I dreaded becoming the stereotypical Asian science and math premed automaton.
I went through a very difficult time last semester and felt like my life was spinning out of control; my parents orchestrated the filling out of applications and scheduling for interviews. I have always felt tremendously indebted to them and didn't want to shun the time and effort that they put into "helping" me. I went through the interviews and convinced myself that medical school was what I wanted to do, although I felt somewhat false about the enthusiasm that I had to display. Although my GPA and MCAT's, according to past data of accepted and rejected Harvard students, should have secured me interviews at all the top schools, several declined to interview me. And now the waiting list and rejection responses are starting to roll in.
I feel a mild relief at the thought that perhaps medical school is not right for me after all. It's difficult to let go of it, because I seem to be perfectly suited to the profession, with my natural ability in science and physiology, and my empathetic nature that makes me the attentive listener/counselor to whom all my friends turn. And I'd probably do a hell of a lot more good for other people as a physician than as a second-rate artist or writer or whatever the hell else I could come up with on my own. But I honestly have no idea what I want. I've been so passive about my life so far, that I don't know what makes me happy. And I suspect that perhaps following the rigidly structured path to becoming a physician was an escape from the difficulty and awkward stumbling toward discovering what I really want out of life.
Should I just give up on the medical school thing for a while, move away from my parents and their medical school obsession, and stumble around and discover myself and what I really want my life to be? Should I just take whatever medical school decides to accept me, even if it's not very good, and try out that path for a while? Should I somehow pursue art and writing, which truly make me feel alive and fulfilled?
Stuck at a Crossroads
Your problem isn't medical school vs. the arts so much as it is emancipation. You need to cut loose of your parents so you can see the future without them standing in front of you waving and gesturing. I hope you get into medical school. Preferably one far away from Mom and Dad. The profession needs more people of your sensibility. The intense studies that have tried your endurance are only to give you a vocabulary, a foundation; the actual practice, the care of people, is art and music and literature all rolled into one. You'll hear stories more fascinating than any you could invent; you'll see beauty and suffering, profound and true; and you'll see into mysteries that put art in the shadows.
You are getting rejection letters, not because you're unqualified but because your ambivalence comes across in the interviews, and medical schools know that the ambivalent are poor risks and likely to drop out. If you get into medical school, do what you need to do to keep some space for yourself to write and draw and love what you love and to save yourself from that perfectionism that is withering to the soul. Good luck. And if you should go into geriatrics, maybe we'll run into each other.