Mr. Blue is in Florida this week, just in time for a cold rainy spell. The pool is frigid and water is dripping from the palms and the gray sea meets the gray sky at a barely discernible horizon. The Weather Channel is forecasting heavy rainstorms for today and tomorrow. Highs in the 50s. In Chicago it's 48 and partly cloudy. Next year maybe I'll look into vacation rentals on the South Side.
Numerous readers wrote in to disagree with my statement, "Computer programming is not a joyful business." I am glad to know that people disagree with that dour sentence. One programmer wrote: "Programming is a joyful experience for some people. It requires a love of solving a certain type of puzzle and a bit of empathy with the poor folks doomed to use the software we write." Thanks for the empathy, but whoever created the software for AT&T WorldNet should come and sit in this cold swimming pool for a while and let us throw gravel at him. WorldNet is a puzzle I don't love.
Numerous readers wrote in horror at my advice to Dragging who claims to have no feeling for her husband. I said, "So? Go." A narcissistic sort of letter, and one could advise her to seek counseling, read the Bible, get pheromone medication, take a vacation in Florida, but this is to play games: If you write to Mr. Blue and say, "I have no feelings whatsoever for this person," Mr. Blue is not about to argue you out of your feelinglessness. Sorry.
Many, many letters about Stuck at the Crossroads, the bright young woman of Asian descent who is ambivalent about going to medical school, feeling that her parents are pressuring her, feeling that her real love is art and literature. Most of the letters advise Stuck to take a year off and try to find herself. One reader writes: "Medical school is better suited to people who have little doubt that that's what they want to do. It is a rough road, with carcasses piling up in the ditches. The long hours of memorization, the congenitally competitive classmates, the long nights on call admitting the mentally ill, homeless and addicted to the medicine wards, under a great deal of pressure, make everyone who goes through it question their commitment at one time or another. It would be dreadful to have a young spirit crushed under the load, and end up becoming a doctor with a dulled spirit: one who has a job, but not the passion required to really make a life out of it or to advocate for their patients."
And after a wave of letters strongly disagreeing with my advice to the nonbelieving husband to please his wife and attend church on Sunday morning with the family, a second wave of concurring opinion washed in -- people who say that every marriage lives on simple give and take, including one person who says that it can only benefit a couple to sit together quietly for an hour every Sunday.
Dear Mr. Blue,
I think my marriage is at an end. We have a child, a beautiful month-old baby who lights up my life. But I can't forget how badly my wife treated me during labor. She screamed and swore and was embarrassing and awful. I tried to hold her hand, she struck me. The doctor told me to come to the end of the table, so she could press against my belly with her foot, and she deliberately kicked me, hard enough to drop me to the floor. The doctor said this was a relatively easy birth, plenty of room, and a quick delivery. A few days after she came home, I heard her tell someone on the phone that the delivery "wasn't that bad." Since then, she's been on cloud nine, but I can't forget the way she treated me in the delivery room. I don't want to touch her or be touched. Is there anything I can do? I don't want to abandon my new family, but I hate my wife. There's no more exact way to say it. I can't imagine anything that would make me want to share a house with this person who emerged while giving me a child, but the idea of losing my new baby is unbearable. Please advise!
What seems like a relatively easy birth to your doctor might not seem so easy if he had to pass a stool the size of a football out his tailpipe. Try it sometime. Stick your head up your rear end and see if you don't scream and swear a little too. A woman in childbirth is entitled to a great latitude of language. My own dear wife says she looked up at me in the delivery room and saw the beneficent look on my face and fervently wished that I were going through the pain in her place. Maybe your wife struck you because you had that fatuous look on your face. In any case, it's all over and you have a beautiful little boy. Grow up, get over it and be a man. Really. Holding a grudge on these grounds is the dumbest thing you ever did in your life.
Dear Mr. Blue,
I feel embarrassed about writing to you since I am someone who could be described as fortunate. Married, with two great kids, a caring husband, a good job, a comfortable home, but I feel somehow empty and -- I don't know -- I feel that I lack a life. I am a teacher, so is my husband, and we're both involved in community things and I sing in a choir and we do a lot of things with our kids and I work hard at being a good wife and mother and somehow I feel starved. I feel that I have no life of my own. I feel that nobody knows me. I just turned 40 and it hit me hard. I thought, If the next 10 years are like the last 10, I can't bear it. I really can't. What's wrong with me? Any advice?
Lost in the Suburbs
It sounds like you're spread a little thin, trying to cover all the bases and be competent on all fronts, and your spirit is languishing in the attempt. Competence is a great good but the capable are ever in danger of getting swallowed up by their work. They take on more and more responsibility and they lose touch with their most fundamental responsibility, the care of the spirit. Americans are hard workers -- to many Europeans, we seem driven, joyless, a nation of drones -- and perhaps you're suffering the inevitable dullness that results from going too hard too long. Don't take on any new obligations for the next six months and retire some of the ones you're carrying now. Conspire to give yourself periods of solitude. Rise early, if possible, to have an hour alone in which to think, read, walk, pray. Somewhere near you is a piece of land that's comparatively wild: Attend it when you can. And put yourself in the presence of great art, whatever moves and delights you. This is what makes a symphony orchestra such a great community asset, or a fine art center, or a dance company, or theater -- because they produce transcendent moments for hardworking people. You walk out of the hall after a great performance and you're walking on air.
Dear Mr. Blue.
I'm a 25-year-old woman who had a sexual relationship off and on for a year with my best friend, a gorgeous and remarkable man. I ended up crazy in love with him, and told him, and he told me he doesn't really like big girls. And now, a year later, he is dating someone from my very close-knit workplace. I introduced her to him and now they're thick as thieves. Now I'm reminded that I'm not good enough for him every time I see her, and it makes me ill. Would you please impart some advice on how to handle this dill of a pickle with some class?
Find yourself a new best friend, maybe even two or three of them, and when you do, you can tell them the story of you and Mr. Gorgeous and learn how to tell it for laughs. (It is sort of a farce, isn't it?) Comedy is classy; self-pitying melodrama is not. Comedy puts the painful episode at arm's length, and self-pity accepts it as a lifelong curse. Ignore his new romance, except as you can joke about it.
Dear Mr. Blue,
I am a 30-year-old wife and mother who married young, had my two daughters right away, and now I work 30 hours a week in an office job, which is not too taxing and leaves me with the energy to focus on my family, but it is just a job. I was raised with the expectation that I would have a career. But I have absolutely no idea what I want to do. I love taking care of my family and I am good at it. I have the time to nurture friendships, volunteer at my children's school, write letters to the editor, plan great birthday parties and bake the cake, but I can't shake those internal tapes that tell me that I am wasting my education and my potential.
Whenever I think about pursuing a career, I immediately think about the impact on my family. I wouldn't have the time, energy or flexibility that I do now. And I can't figure out my motivations. Am I using my family as an excuse to not get out there and compete? Or, am I torturing myself with my lack of career because I don't want to admit to myself that I am basically a housewife? Should I listen to my mother and be content to enjoy the fact that my family is a success and our relationships are strong? Or do I listen to the culture at large that says a career is the only way to earn respect as a thinking person? Why must one work 50 or more hours a week to be considered motivated when that takes such a toll on our families? Why isn't 30 hours enough to develop a career and have enough time to make sure your children aren't the ones carrying guns to school or shooting heroin in junior high?
Don't worry about the culture and what it may or may not be saying. Enjoy your family and your life and your friends and do what you're doing. You're young yet and if you can keep your equilibrium and have faith in the future, you will surely be struck by a Calling and get a vision of a mission in life so important that you can cheerfully ask your family to sacrifice to make it possible. This calling will come to you with great clarity and you'll see that the world needs you to become a teacher, or an editor, or an entertainer of children, or a baker, or something you haven't thought of yet. Let your calling come to you, don't agonize over psychology -- the question about using your family as an excuse not to compete is not worth thinking about for even a minute.
Dear Mr. Blue,
I have been dating a woman for two years who is wonderful in many ways, intelligent and generous. We are both in our early 30s and occasionally discuss marriage. But I am troubled by her ultrasensitivity to everyday problems. I sometimes feel like I'm dealing with a 17-year-old. Everything that goes wrong -- an encounter with an uncommunicative boss, the dishwasher breaking, a broken appointment -- elicits a "why me" response. I dread calling her sometimes because the first 15 minutes of conversation are consumed by her list of grievances and crimes against her humanity. It sounds to me a lot like whining and I've begun to tune out. I've grown to resent it, and I find that I'm losing respect for her. The prospect of dealing with this for the rest of my life is overwhelming. I'm growing increasingly frustrated and it's really begun to show. I'm not as affectionate or attentive as usual. Can I break her of this self-pitying habit or should I consider this one of those fundamental differences that cannot be changed?
Infantile narcissism is a difficult spell to break and you shouldn't assume it possible and why should you even try? It's the narcissist's responsibility to at least be charming about her obsessions and not exhaust people's patience. Don't let the subject of marriage to this person be discussed again in your presence: If the subject comes up, dismiss it immediately. And if she asks why, tell her in straight flat terms: "Because you're a whiner and you make no distinction between small stuff and big stuff and it wears me out to listen to it." And then let her deal with it however she is able. Maybe it only triggers more grieving. Or maybe it's the bucket of cold water that brings her to her senses.
Dear Mr. Blue,
I am in my mid-30s and have been with my partner for 10 years. I have been struggling to go to school and complete my degree for years, while he has been doing nothing to advance himself at work or intellectually. Ten years ago I think we were intellectual equals and we loved to drink beer and have great sex and pass out in front of the fireplace. But during these 10 years, I've grown up. I want a secure retirement. I want a family. I want a grown-up man beside me.
My partner and I have nothing to talk about anymore. I don't party and drink the way I did when I was in my early 20s, and he has no passion for literature, politics, history, religion or even debating social issues. I feel so guilty for wanting to end our relationship because he always brings up how much he loves me. I can't understand why he loves me so; we don't talk about anything meaningful, we don't do anything together and I think he is only longing for those good old days.
How to get rid of this guy?
At the Crossroads
It's hard to break up with somebody after 10 years. Oh, is it hard. You wish the other person would do the hard work -- go have a fling with someone, be disgusting in public, disgrace himself -- so that you could pull the lever and dump him and that'd be that. But it's terribly hard when the motive is subtle, when you simply have come to the end of things and you stand around in the weeds and wait for one of you to speak the unmentionable. You've said clearly that you're done with this partner and you're ready for something else. When you're ready to break up, you do it suddenly, without discussion, by throwing your essential possessions into boxes and hauling them out and moving someplace else. There's no good way. You just have to do it.
Dear Mr. Blue,
I'm 20, studying English lit at a McCollege State University-type place and I can't get excited about it. I get poor grades and I don't go to class. When I try even in the slightest I do well, my teachers like me and tell me I'm brilliant and such and such, but I long to leave it all behind and escape to someplace bigger and find passion, determination, diligence and self-worth. My dream, like everyone else's, is to write fiction, but I have no motivation for that either. I feel like I'm wasting time floundering in a system that I don't work well in. I've considered applying to some smaller private schools, but I am afraid that I will languish there, not keep up with my work and I'll be back in the same place again, wondering, wistful, lost and loathing. Please advise.
Uneven and Tired
Please don't be loathing or languishing. Someone who is 20 can be wistful or lost or floundering, but it breaks my heart to think of you loathing yourself and being depressed and feeling like a failure. Twenty is a fabulous age. Don't let yourself feel defeated. A 20-year-old is a knight on horseback, a magician, a poet, a hero. The world has been saved by 20-year-olds more than once. I think of D-day, and Gettysburg, but also of the general vitality and humor of the world and of the 20-year-olds milling around in Piccadilly or the Campo Fiori or Times Square or Sunset Boulevard or Unter den Linden who give big cities their life and fervor. Don't waste time in languishing -- if you're going to make mistakes, make active mistakes, not the small soggy ones. Don't worry about not being motivated to write fiction. Don't go to a school that doesn't inspire you to go to class. Go find passion and diligence out in the great wide world. Join the Navy. Or the circus. Or find a dragon to slay. Or make your odyssey. In 10 years obligations will close in and you'll have furniture and goods and you'll have debts and a career path and large organizations will own a piece of you. You'll never be this free again. So be free.
Dear Mr. Blue,
For 10 years my sister has been married to a very warm and fun-loving man. Unfortunately, I have noticed increased alcohol abuse by him. He has been visibly drunk at family gatherings for the last two years. When I spoke to my sister about it, she didn't believe it was a problem because he still manages to show up for work on time and he doesn't hit the kids.
I don't know what to do. The rest of the family is concerned, but won't say anything. This drives me nuts, because we were not taught to ignore such destructive behavior. Any suggestions for a new approach with my sister? I could use anything.
Keeping Quiet, but Not Happy About It
My strong inclination is to keep the peace and I'm pretty certain that I'm wrong and that the better route is to speak to the brother-in-law when you find him drunk and are troubled by it. You put your arm around him and ask for a private moment and then you tell him that you like him a lot and that you're worried about how much he's drinking these days. It's obvious to everyone and you don't want people to lose respect for him. And then you let him say his piece. And then you tell him that you'd like to talk to him at greater length sometime when he's sober. And call him up a few days later and resume the conversation. And meanwhile you might offer your sister some literature on the subject from an organization like Al-Anon.
Dear Mr. Blue,
I am an electrical engineer, a working mother, married to an attorney. We have three small children (a kindergartner and twin 3-year-olds). I enjoy my hectic job, my husband is a saint and I love my kids. My problem is that when he wants to work a Sunday afternoon, I get a sinking feeling. Dealing with all three kids for several hours really stresses me out. They seem to fight more with just me there, no one naps and I end the day really cranky and taking it out on my husband.
I'm feeling inadequate and guilty about this. Why shouldn't I be able to deal with three kids at once? Why can't I learn to enjoy this? All these women quit their jobs to have more time with their kids and I can't even take them alone for a day. What do they know that I don't?
Nobody should beat up on herself for failing to be Julie Andrews and not flying around at the end of an umbrella. Kids can be trying, and all the more so for a woman with a hectic day job. But you can deal with these kids. You can learn how to spend time pleasantly with them. One key to childcare is knowing to take the initiative and to lead your children and not react to them. It's exhausting to sit and yell at kids to behave themselves, it's exhilarating to bundle them up and get them outdoors and lead them on a hike. Your job likely keeps you indoors, so getting outdoors is good for you too. You get three kids outside with a soccer ball, a Frisbee and a small picnic basket with snacks and juice, and suddenly stress dissipates. And you should be telling the kindergartner how much you depend on him/her to help you with the younger ones. Praise them frequently for how mature and sweet they are and tell them how much you love them, and this will head off some of the misbehavior. You're not inadequate whatsoever. Go enjoy your kids. These years will pass so quickly.
Dear Mr. Blue,
At what point is it OK to get out of a marriage? I have been married to my husband for 10 years, and we have a beautiful 3-year-old daughter who we both adore. However, he is such a slob, so lazy and careless. I know that he is depressed over the death of his mother recently and his hatred of his job especially -- but he won't seek treatment. He expects things to just fall into his lap, and when they don't, he becomes angry, bitter and cynical.
I work full-time during the day and am a part-time graduate student. He works five nights a week in order to take care of our child while I work. I do all the housework, most of the laundry, make all necessary appointments, take care of all finances. We tried couples counseling but it turned into sessions all about him. I am tired of being with this man and feel little for him sexually (he has put on quite a bit of weight). I cling to the hope that we can be happy like we once were, but I feel that, at 34, I deserve some happiness. I do love him, but I feel maybe I am not the right person for him, nor he for me. His misery brings me down too; I look at other families who do things together with longing. I loathe him. What to do?
This is definitely a valley and a valley isn't a theoretical thing. When one vows to be faithful in sickness and in health, usually one is young and hasn't a clear idea of just how dark and sorrowful sickness can be. It can be awful. I speak as one who has been unfaithful and who has had plenty of time to think about it. You are the strong one in this partnership and so you have a keen sense of the injustice of it all, as we stronger ones have always had. But you should consider, for one moment, that what happened to your husband could have happened to you. What happened to my first wife could have happened to me: I could've fallen into depression and illness and she could have launched a career in writing fiction. This is what I sit and contemplate in my guilty moments. I think that the golden rule is your best and simplest guide here. Were you the angry and careless and depressed and overweight one, what would you want him to do for you?
Dear Mr. Blue,
I am a man in my late 20s dating a 22-year-old woman who is a writer. Recently, she gave a reading at a local bookstore and invited me to attend, and she read a story about sexual abuse she suffered as a child. I was flabbergasted. I still am upset about it, and I feel pain that my friend had to endure this abuse. After a couple of weeks, she has not brought the subject up, though I wish we could talk about it. Should I mention it, or should I just let it pass?
You can bring a conversation into the neighborhood of what you want her to talk about -- you can talk about childhood (yours) in such a way as to invite her to discuss hers -- but I don't believe you should interrogate her. It's her story and she can tell it as she chooses. Perhaps she chose the reading as a way to tell you about it and perhaps that's all she wants to say.
Dear Mr. Blue,
My husband and I are devout Episcopalians. He's 51, a public schoolteacher, and I'm 38. We have two small kids. Since childhood he has felt a calling to be an ordained minister and now we both feel it is a good time to explore the idea. We live very well, have good retirement savings and are free of debt, and we lead a simple life full of good friends and family close by. Following God's call means we would sell most of our things, open ourselves up to the idea of poverty and spend three years in seminary immersed in a culture of learning and personal growth. After that God only knows. Are we crazy to contemplate making such a big change?
On the Verge
If God calls you to be crazy, then you should go be the best crazy people you can be, and thank heaven for good friends and family. Before he spends all those years in seminary, though, give him an audition and have him prepare and deliver a six-minute homily. Brevity is the first step to good preaching. If he's a gasbag, seminary is only going to encourage his worst tendencies. And can he preach in a normal tone of voice? Or is he going to suddenly get all plummy and Sir John Gielgud-ish? Or artificially chummy like a used-car salesman? And have him read the Lord's Prayer aloud, and a few other prayers: Does he read them warmly but in a formal cadence? Or does he attempt to give them dramatic inflections, as if he were reading them for Oral Interpretation 101? I've come across some Episcopal priests who put topspin on the prayers and they drive me crazy. Check on these tendencies toward the florid and sanctimonious, please. And then march forward.
Dear Mr. Blue,
I'm a fairly successful columnist for a daily paper in the West and for the past six months have been working hard on a book, nonfiction, based on a story I reported years ago. This book seems to me to be my one best chance to break out of the newspaper business and into the literary trade and also my best chance to earn some real money to send my two boys to college. The problem is that I seem to be faltering. I spend a long day at the paper, come home and start work on my book, and before I know it, I've had a couple drinks and everything I write is sludge. I've never had a drinking problem before. How can I finish this thing?
Turn your day around. Work on your book first thing in the morning when you're fresh and go to the office a little late. I'll bet you don't drink at the office -- the old-soak era of journalism is long gone -- so you can work late there and not run afoul of the bottle. Alcohol and writing make a sad combination and many a man has been deluded by the results. Finish your book.
Dear Mr. Blue,
I am a never-married, beautiful 45-year-old woman living in New York. My friends are streaming out of here at the speed of light and I'm about to follow. There are no men for us here! I am a playwright. Now, where in this country should I go? I'd like to be near a good regional theater; I'd like to be in a pretty place where the men are mature and available and want families; I'd like to be in a place where people appreciate the arts and writing. I'm from New York and don't know anything about the United States. Could you give me some advice?
New York Artist
Dear New York,
You came to the right advice columnist. The others would have ducked a straight question like yours, preferring to deal in platitudes, but I'll tell you the honest truth: Minnesota is your new home, Lady. St. Paul, Minn. It's out in the upper center of the country, on the Mississippi River, just left of Chicago, and it's an elegant, unassuming city that happens to adore New Yorkers. Really. St. Paul is not so haughty toward outsiders as, say, Seattle or Portland, Ore., or other urban paradises. Along with its neighbor to the west, it forms the core of a metropolitan area of some 2 million-plus (known as the St. Paul-Minneapolis area) that supports a slew of good theaters and includes several thousand mature, available, family-minded men, almost any of whom would be dizzy with pleasure at the thought of knowing a cool 45-year-old New York Woman. St. Paul is two hours, 46 minutes from LaGuardia by air, and 26 hours by road. Anything else you want to know about the United States, don't hesitate to ask.
Dear Mr. Blue,
My husband is a talker. He is a man of many enthusiasms and will vigorously opine about any of them, talking in paragraphs and subparagraphs, with each point laid out and dissected. He will vigorously oppose any dissenting opinions. If interrupted, he will start over at the beginning and demand that you listen to his whole argument before responding. For most people expecting a normal conversation, his behavior is at best boring and at worst extremely annoying. He is aware of this, and in certain situations tries to restrain himself, but the self-monitoring makes him painfully self-conscious and inhibited and "not-himself." He feels, and I have to agree with him, that it is just the way he is. He is a larger-than-life personality, incredibly intelligent with a great enthusiasm for learning new things, having adventures and creating amazing projects, so a lot of people are willing to put up with the one-sided conversations. However, in the past three months, six of his friends have independently complained to me about his overbearing behavior. My dilemma is whether I should tell my husband about these comments. If I do, I know he will feel hurt and defensive. On the other hand, I feel sad that he may be driving some of his friends away, and wonder if there isn't some way to broach the subject that won't be so traumatic.
The Monologuist's Wife
Let the friends figure things out for themselves; if they complain to you, tell them to deal with him directly. If they're driven away, let him figure it out for himself, and if he wants to make amends, let him learn how to do it. Your interference is only going to confuse things. And, honestly, it's not your problem. You seem to be quite OK with your husband's big personality, and that's the important thing. If I were his friend, I probably would've dropped him years ago, since I have a low tolerance for monologues and lectures in social situations. I have no interest in being someone's disciple. But why should he inhibit himself to please me? I'm a Midwesterner with a passion for quiet good manners and understated styles. A wimp, in other words. For every lost friend like me, I'm sure he'll pick up three new friends who enjoy being in his gravitational field.
Dear Mr. Blue,
I met my first love when I was 18 and in college. He was intelligent, funny, thoughtful and kind, and after five years together I left to go to Europe -- I was sick of my job, and feeling antsy and claustrophobic -- with the understanding that he'd join me here when he'd finished the project he was working on. But now I've met this wonderful Dutch guy and we have great fun together. I am not really beating myself up over getting involved with another person. Although we are intimate, things are still pretty casual. But it's driving me nuts! On one hand, I feel like my old boyfriend is more "like" me. But I like how I feel as if I'm a different person with my Dutch boyfriend -- more passionate, sexual. My boyfriend back home feels like a brother. I'm only 24, Mr. Blue, and I know for sure that I'm not ready to start thinking about houses and babies and serious issues, such as the ones brought up when you've been in a five-year relationship. But on the other hand I can really talk with my old boyfriend.
My old boyfriend is coming over soon, and I can't wait to see him. He's invited me to come with him on some trans-Asian train trip. Am I just scared of something serious? Is my new Dutch love just a distraction? Or is the old one just that -- old? I don't want to mess people around. I just feel like I can't make a decision at all.
Discombobulated in Dublin
The first decision is whether to introduce these gentlemen to each other and perhaps form a trio. Probably not a good idea. So you should give Hans a leave of absence and turn your attention to the First Love and see how things stand. The sentence that leaps out is "My boyfriend back home feels like a brother." If this means that you don't have sexual feelings toward him, and if you're sure about this, then you should find a kind way to tell him that spares him humiliation and suffering. Tell him in person while you're sitting in St. Stephen's Green or Merrion Square or walking around the streets of that good graystone city. Tell him that things have changed and that you cherish the five years and you see him now as a friend and confidant and not as a mate. Take him to a good pub where he can look around and see that he isn't the first man to be disappointed in life. And enjoy the intimacy that honesty and clarity can create between people, that is better than play-acting. As for your Dutch love, he's a diversion, a fulcrum, an agent of knowledge and change, but probably not a good bet in the long run. Maybe you went to Europe to escape the comfortable clutches of this five-year serial. Time to come home.