Out of the past

The man I'm falling for is resisting getting tested even though he has slept with junkies. Am I being too judgmental?

Published March 27, 2001 8:16PM (EST)

The sun has come out in Florida and all is well with the world. The videos have been returned to the video store and we are spending our evenings outdoors looking up at the Pleiades and thinking the long thoughts of our dotage. I think of the flocks of Midwesterner snowbirds over the years who climbed into their Buicks in January and nosed south to spend three months in modest rented quarters in St. Petersburg or Sarasota, and how some got the knack of retirement and others never did. Years of hard work weren't necessarily a good teacher when it came to keeping yourself entertained through the long afternoon. This is one of the little injustices of life. The honorable, industrious, loyal and self-sacrificing man and woman who in life's hard struggles lose the simple ability to enjoy pleasure and delight. The Calvinists moping in the Garden. To really enjoy retirement, I think, you need to return to early teenhood and relearn the skill of hanging out. And it makes a big difference to be limber and have good hearing. Take your daily walk, young people, and turn down those Walkmans! Your time will come.

Mr. Blue's advice to New York Artist that St. Paul is the perfect city for her brought a sharp rejoinder from a Seattleite: "Seattle is a city of transplants, much like Manhattan, and she will find herself surrounded by friends from all over the world in this gorgeous city surrounded by water and mountains. As for guys, this city is full of gorgeous single men who are culturally and environmentally aware. I dated 12 of them last year alone!"

The letter from Desperate who is embarrassed by his wife because she kicked and cursed him during labor brought this response: "Yikes, if pregnant women didn't have enough to worry about! Here I am six months gone and now I have to worry about embarrassing our loved ones too? I guess I can picture myself being less than gracious to someone trying to comfort me when I'm in extreme agony. Really, it's not surprising that the animal instinct is to drag oneself off into hiding when the time comes! But if loved ones want to witness this miraculous event, they should cut the mother some slack. Is he a total jerk? Or should I gently dissuade my husband from attending the birth?"

A mother of three writes: "I'll tell you what's embarrassing. It's embarrassing to have an uncontrollable bowel movement while medical people are hovering about your exposed nether regions. It's embarrassing to cry for your mother in front of strangers. And it's embarrassing to lie helpless while various people poke, prod and reach up inside you. Any behavior during childbirth is embarrassing, if you look at it in the light of day, because you are in excruciating pain, terrified by what your own body is doing and stuck in the middle of a process that you have no control over. I don't look back on my birthing experiences that way, however, and neither does my husband, because something else important was going on. I was bringing a brand-new human being into the world."

Dear Mr. Blue,

I just met a great guy and we get along wonderfully. I'd like to enter into a relationship with him but am held back by the fact that he was romantically involved with junkies and may have used needles himself in the distant past. Neither he nor I feel comfortable discussing his history -- he feels I'm interrogating him if I ask questions. I asked him to get tested before we slept together and he was offended. He thinks I'm judging him. Am I being judgmental, or is my request justified? I have never gotten tested because I've always used protection and my past partners didn't have such a risky background, but having experienced two broken condoms, I am wary of exchanging fluids with him.

In Love With a Bad Boy

Dear In Love,

Yes, you're being judgmental and it's good judgment to be. You have grounds for it, in that hazy history that he prefers to keep obscure, and his reluctance to be tested is not a good sign. Nor is his discomfort in discussing his history in as much detail as you care to hear. There is a point in courtship, or around the time people become lovers, when they delight in exchanging their life stories and getting that delicious sense of two trajectories intersecting miraculously. Don't skip this step. It's crucial. Tiptoe away from this relationship, is Mr. Blue's advice. Every love affair has inevitable complications and miseries, but this one is starting out with one foot in the bucket. Flee.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I believe I am a woman of supremely good judgment and somewhat conservative when it comes to life's choices. So far, at 33, it seems to have served me fairly well. I opted to forgo the marriage option with my one great love years ago (he wasn't ready either) and worked at good jobs and tried to improve myself and live my life with integrity and good humor. But somehow I feel like I live in a vacuum and am puzzled by my inability to find another great love. All the men I know in this town are either gay or married. Hanging around bars is not an option. I feel like a freak. I try to see the good in my life but am bewildered and discouraged by being single. In sum, I wonder if I should have exercised less caution and good judgment and maybe have had a more interesting life. What's a girl to do?


Dear Bewildered,

What's a girl to do, indeed. There is a sort of pessimism and extreme guardedness that passes for good conservative judgment and I don't say that this is your problem, but the effect of it is chilling. Life demands a measure of spontaneity. You hear a shout and someone is calling to you to come see something and you go. There is distant music and you hike over the hill to find it. Someone fascinating comes into view and you practice the art of flirting. There is no conflict between adventurous curiosity and integrity and good humor. I think of people who, in their 20s, seem 40-ish or older, as if they had always aspired to skip their youth and go straight to the conventions of middle age. They listened to their parents' cautions much too well and avoided excess and frivolity and they land in their 30s in good jobs with good benefits and wind up feeling that they skipped an essential step in growing up. It sounds as if this is not a good town for you. You need a town that offers a good selection of single, 30-ish men who've been enjoying years of poor judgment and now are ready for something else. If you decide to be incautious, do it with someone you trust and think highly of.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a 24-year-old public relations woman involved in an office relationship, or so it seems. Since I arrived at this company, a senior executive has flirted madly with me. And a few nights ago, at a karaoke bar, he got very touchy-feely and suggested we sing Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing" together. We did so and the night turned into a touchy-feely love fest. But then at a co-worker's birthday party this weekend, he practically ignored me. (I think I've actually fallen for him.) Is this guy playing with my emotions or confused about his?

Confused in a Cubicle

Dear Confused,

Never believe what you hear in bars. Old guys get in a bar with a 24-year-old woman and a double scotch and they lose track of who they are and start playing Cary Grant. You're probably tall and slim with long auburn hair and cool green eyes and your effect on men is to stupefy them and make them fall on the floor and wave their arms and legs. At the birthday party, the lights were too bright and he was unable to have the same out-of-body experience. The poor guy is stunned. Use your charm to rise swiftly to the top of your company and when you get there, fire him. He's unreliable.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm sad. My girlfriend of five years has moved far away for school for a year. For the last two years we lived together. And to be honest, she is missing me much more than I am missing her. She's been talking about coming back and even marriage. I don't share her vision of the future. I am sort of enjoying being alone in my apartment in the Village. I am 43 and she is 28. I'm divorced and I don't want to be an old dad and can't see myself married again. And I feel I haven't accomplished enough in life and am self-conscious about that. But I love her and don't want to hurt her. On the one hand, I could just surrender to this woman who loves me so much, marry her and take what she and life offer. Or I could go it alone. What to do?

Alone in the Village

Dear Alone,

Take some time alone to get your own vision of the future, some clear fix on what you want your 50s and 60s to be like. Some outline, at least, of where you want to be and do or try to do and what pleasures sustain you and which friends you really need to hang onto. Project yourself forward 15 years and imagine your daily life and what you hope it to be. Do you accept living alone when you're 45? 50? Are you still there in New York? What's your work? How do you manage to keep a toehold in lower Manhattan against the incursions of the young and well-to-do and still save money for your old age? In the end, of course, you will take what life offers, but often life offers more to people who ask more of it, and this is the time to stop and get some clarity about your life. The combination of "I love her" and "I don't want to hurt her" is a tricky one, offering great room for self-deception. Every relationship has its stresses, and time apart can feel good, but if you honestly don't miss her that much, then this is a cue not to be ignored. And I feel that a man of 43 cannot deny a woman of 28 the possibility of children and marriage, and if he can't bear the thought of it, he must make this stone-cold clear and take the lead in breaking up the relationship.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm a 35-year-old guy who was dating a woman and when I started making noises about ending the relationship she became pregnant. At that point I ended our romantic relationship and chose the role of caring and supportive dad. I take pride in this role and have been a big part of my daughter's life and always will be. I pay child support and have extensive visitation. I love my daughter to death.

After three years of single parenting, I thought it would be a good idea to resume the relationship with my daughter's mother (a wonderful person) so that we could be a family. Well, after three months of resuming, I can see that what was lacking several years ago is still lacking now. She is a great mother and a saint and would marry me in a heartbeat but I just don't have a whole lot of sexual or intellectual attraction to her. There is some, but we're not soul mates by any means. Being a family unit is such a nice and tidy way to go through life -- we still live separately, but she's gung-ho about moving in together and getting married -- but I often think about other women. What's my next move?

Navigating Without a Compass

Dear Navigating,

I don't have a clue what to tell you. You've been thoroughly honorable about everything so far and so your instincts are good and I can only suggest that this may be one of those decisions that sneak up on you. The calculus may seem impossible in the abstract but your heart will know where home is and will tell you. This is a long and winding route to marriage, highly unusual, and I wish you well, regardless of where it winds up.

Dear Mr. Blue,

My father is a writer, a pretty successful one in that he supported our family, but he never set the world on fire, or got that novel published, or wrote those children's books based on the stories he made up for my young daughters, and his best screenplays were never produced. To me, he has always been successful because growing up I saw how his writing provided for us. I got to visit the TV sets and meet some TV stars and visited his office and heard the old Selectric tapping away and saw the piles of fresh pages. He wrote for the soaps, which he loved -- the people and the scene and the money were great. He and Mom enjoyed New York and their dogs and opera and food and wine and travel. And now he has terminal cancer and is weak and riddled with tumors and maybe regrets. I know he has them and I know he is dealing with them, and he may be making peace with it all -- but I sure as hell am not. I want him to feel good about his career, but how does a writer who was notoriously hard on himself in the best of times make peace with piles of unfinished work? How do you make a legacy out of it? He knows he is loved and he knows he is respected, but I am trying to help him and prove his worth to him.

Sad and Strong and Stupid

Dear 3S,

Your father has had a very good life and you should help him enjoy what is left to him and not think about his legacy. A writer is in it for the pleasure of the game itself, and if he can support his family by doing it, this is a real triumph, and beyond that, you simply can't tell. You send your best screenplays out and some of them sink and others drift into limbo and there is no understanding this, so you learn not to anguish over it. You intend to write the children's book, but somehow what was so charming in the telling doesn't settle naturally on the page. Your novel doesn't get published. Great ideas don't come to fruition. But there are lovely, lovely compensations and it seems to me that your father found those, all of them. When you match his life against the lives of any number of tortured geniuses we could name, doesn't it look pretty good? Think of men who lurched through life struggling with demons and died young and left behind some notable work but who were incapable of enjoying a tranquil day walking their dogs around the Upper West Side or seeing "Der Rosenkavalier" at the Met and going to the Cafi des Artistes afterward for the steak tartare. Your father's legacy is you. You're his big work. After he's gone, when you have the time and strength, take a look at his unfinished work, the screenplays, the novel, and make your own judgment as his literary executor. But don't worry about this now.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I have my 10-year high school reunion coming up and am feeling totally insecure. All my old friends are married with at least two children and then there's me. Still not married, no kids, living by myself with my cat and my job in a big city. Went to college and grad school and I have a boyfriend, but we don't even live together. And what are they going to think of me? If I talk about my job and education they'll think I'm a snob, but I don't want them to think of me as an old maid either. Plus I'm, like, 10 pounds overweight. I don't even know if I should go, but I'd really like to see everyone. Why do I care so much? I haven't seen most of these people in 10 years, but I'm finding myself obsessing about what they'll think of me. The reunion is in June. What should I do?

Class of '91

Dear Class,

I think you're going to go. Your life is just fine and 10 pounds isn't much and you're curious about these folks. You want to see how the story is turning out. Amazing changes occur in 10 years -- wallflowers bloom and big shots fade and the Most Likely to Succeed turn out to be drones and some people you didn't think worth knowing at 18 are, at 28, really interesting people. Don't obsess about yourself: It's not about you. It's about life itself and what happened to all those kids you ran around on the playground with. Go find out.

Dear Mr. Blue,

This has been a painful year, letting go of a partner who said he wasn't ready to commit, making a difficult career change, saying goodbye to family members and friends who passed away, helping two close friends crippled by strokes, dealing with my own health problems. I know that with time I will pull through. But how do I get rid of this sadness in my life? My heart has been julienned, minced, mashed and put through a sieve. I want to laugh and dance again. How does one make the pain go away and mend a heart that's been broken over and over again?


Dear Heartbroken,

I recommend therapy, first of all, the garden variety in which a caring professional, one without a big agenda or grand scheme of her own, sits in her chair and you sit in another chair with a box of Kleenex and spend 10 or 20 or 40 hours narrating the events of the past year. I'm sure you've talked a lot about these disasters already, but telling it to a psychologist or psychiatric social worker can help you explore the events and get a more coherent story and that's important. This is a short-term exercise, and you do it and get it done, and then you move on. You and a good friend or two, survivors all, make a ceremonial visit to the most beautiful place in the world that you can find and you spend two weeks there. You delight the senses. You look to the future. The loved ones who fell by the wayside did not mean for you to lie down by the wayside too -- they meant you to move ahead and enjoy life fully and honor them in joy and not in sorrow. I know this sounds glib, but there's truth in it.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a single mother of a boy in his first year of middle school. We live in a cramped little apartment in Los Angeles, where my son goes to public school. He's small for his age, brainy and "sensitive." He's a member of a very small racial minority at his school.

He's fine with his life most of the time and has friends and excels academically. He likes his school and it's within walking distance. I'm a newspaper writer, able to work at home most of the time, so in many ways, for a single-parent family, life is good.

But I dream of moving to a smaller town near here where I could afford to buy a small house and where my son could go to better schools. It's a very pretty place with a low crime rate and it's near where I grew up, so I know people there. But my urban son doesn't want to leave. This is the best year he has had socially and academically. He doesn't see anything unusual in crossing the street to avoid the drunks at the neighborhood bar and the mentally ill homeless we see every day. A homeless man set himself on fire on the playground of his day camp program. Our neighbor across the hall was viciously mugged near our building. Soccer was canceled because a woman driving by threatened the children.

How much of this can a child be exposed to before he loses something he can't get back?

And life in a dingy, small apartment with a pre-adolescent boy is taking a toll on me. Should I push to make the move now so that we can be settled by the time he goes to high school? Or should I just save money and stay here, try to focus on what's good and think about moving just before high school when he'd have to change schools anyway?

His father, who is very involved in his life, is ganging up with my son on me to stay here. It all feels pretty bad. How much of this problem is me?

Conflicted in La-La Land

Dear Conflicted,

The thought of a young boy living in the midst of such squalor and cruelty sets my teeth on edge, too, but I grew up in the sticks in the '50s so what do I know? In my childhood, we kids ran around in herds and made up elaborate fantasies and games and our parents never worried about us much, except to warn us to stay away from the river, which of course we did anyway. You're the best judge of what effects, good and bad, city life is having on your son, and if you feel he's at a crisis point, you should fight it out with the father and drag him into an alliance and present the decision to the boy. It doesn't sound as if you're quite to that point, but I'm not sure. Barring a crisis, I think your son should be a participant in such decisions, so far as possible. Try laying out a four-year plan for the two of you, based on real options, and initiate a discussion with him in which these options are given a fair look and nothing is dismissed out of hand. Play to his sense of maturity. Maturity means taking other people into consideration. You want to get out of the small dingy apartment and he mustn't overlook that. Meanwhile, are you comfortable with the thought of the boy living with his father? This may be a good time for the father to be even more involved. At least, it's an option to put on the table. If the father is not in a position to offer this, then he shouldn't be a full partner in the discussion.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a 28-year-old single woman. I love my work, and my work takes nearly all of my time. I feel like the rest of my life is passing me by. I've never had a romantic relationship that was both serious and long term. I've fallen in love with people, and been hurt one way or another by them (and I suppose I've hurt people too), but these romances have taken place years apart, with long stretches in between. For whatever reason I find myself quite afraid of getting involved with men. I have friends, so I'm not desperately lonesome, but I'm not presented with many romantic opportunities. I've never enjoyed casual dating, but I get tired of waiting around for the men who seem special, and wonder if I shouldn't try to change my ways somehow or other. I was in therapy for a while after the last time my heart got broken, and that helped me feel better, but I still haven't taken the next step. I'm not even sure what the next step is. I'm attractive, and charming (from what I can tell), and I'm accomplished in most of the other things that matter to me, but I don't know what I need to do to break out of this. The years keep dragging on, and I'm worrying more and more that I'll spend the rest of my life single. I see my friends get married and have babies and I wonder if they don't know some special trick that I don't.

Single Girl

Dear Single Girl,

Work should not take nearly all your time. Maybe for brief periods but not over the long haul, and perhaps work is the first thing you should look at: As we become more competent and confident and productive, we must return some of the benefit to ourselves in the form of time, life's most precious resource, and not let ourselves be eaten alive by voracious corporations or by incompetent colleagues. The overachiever who delights in knowing more and doing more than anybody else may be cannibalizing her or his own life and breath and sinews, and in exchange for what? We're awash in motivational propaganda that promotes achievement and sacrifice and killer hours, all of which is fine for Amalgamated Grommet, but what about you? There is much to be said for mediocrity as a way of life. (Look at me.) I think that a 35-hour workweek should be the goal for any person who wants a decent life and that by the time you're 50 you should be carving that down to around 30. Shoot me but it's true.

As for romance, it's unpredictable of course, like any sort of epiphany. But if you can free yourself from the octopus, you'll enjoy constructing a social life that really works for you and that puts you in contact with like-minded lighthearted men and women engaged in common pleasant pursuits -- saving the world, discussing books, practicing the schottische and polka and Cajun two-step and jitterbug, sailing the sea (or lake or river), doing good works for the needy and forgotten, writing, singing in choir, climbing cliffs, jumping out of airplanes, whatever makes your heart sing. Forget about pairing up with men and concentrate on having a great time in groups of people.

Dear Mr. Blue,

Where I work, team members share a single large gray cubicle so that we can all work together. The guy who sits nearest me is like some hyperactive third-grader. He makes noises. He sings (badly), crunches ice and pretzels with his mouth open, groans when he eats a doughnut, slurps, slobbers, talks almost without pause (even while eating) about ... NOTHING! He knows, from the way that I ignore him, that I am not interested in the same things, yet he continues to talk about them as though we are old friends. He sings my name. Sometimes he just sits and stares at the back of my head. It would be understandable if he were gay and had a thing for me, but he isn't. He's just obnoxious. I relish his vacation and sick days in a way that is not healthy. I am a nice person, but the only way I can get any peace is to rudely ignore him, get up and walk away while he is talking to me or turn my back and pick up the phone in the middle of his sentences. But sometimes not even that can stop him.

What am I going to do? He is an insufferable brown-nose, and the boss thinks he's wonderfully creative, yet he can't think his way through even the most ordinary problem without consulting the entire team. Plus, he's been here longer than me, so I am afraid that if I complain, I'll be asked to leave.

Man in a Gray Holding Cell

Dear Man,

Look for another job. I assume this is a good job or you wouldn't have put up with this goon for so long, but if you're good at this good job, you can get another one as good or better someplace else where you won't be chained to such a clueless colleague. Sure, there are strategies for dealing with the mouth breather -- you can freeze him out, you can go to the boss, you can scheme to get him promoted up and out to where he'll fall on his face -- but the best thing for you, I think, is to gather up your self-confidence and get your résumé circulating in high places and find employment in a place where you have a desk in a room with a door and the only noises you must endure are your own.

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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