We were closer than lovers

Getting dumped by my best friend was harder than any relationship breakup I've been through. And she claims it's because she fell in love with me!

Published April 24, 2001 7:51PM (EDT)

Mr. Blue went to a little Sunday afternoon charity soiree in St. Paul, at one of the big old houses on Summit Avenue, where you had a glass of chardonnay and a slice of carrot cake and sat and listened to a string quartet (the soiree was to raise money for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, a fine group). It was a cold rainy afternoon and the music was Mozart and Haydn and the chairs were comfortable and it was very pleasant, to sit and let your mind drift away in a way that you can't if you are conversing with your fellow music lovers. Conversation runs in narrow and predictable channels at these affairs, we Midwesterners being a cautious bunch, and one's mind does not, not in April after six months of winter. One's mind runs riot. These big old houses on Summit were built for entertaining and many of them have "ballrooms" on the third floor. When you threw a party, back in the old days, your guests fully expected that, at a certain point in the evening, everyone would head upstairs and dance, to a little band, or at least a piano, or at the very least a gramophone. Only the elderly and infirm would sit around and natter. And in homes that aspired to very high taste, there was the custom of the Saturday or Sunday musicale.

Now, of course, that has gone the way of the steamer trunk and the summer at the summer house, but sitting in a chair in someone's living room and listening to a Mozart quartet wash around me that brought to mind some people I used to know and the times we spent in a lake cabin up north, I realized what a boon it is to sit in company and do something other than converse. And to have Mozart is, for me, like taking a drug that loosens up your memory and lets you focus on some distant day and bring it back in tremendous detail. It is better than standing around drinking white wine and talking about how long winter was and how much like winter the Bush II administration is and how do your kids like their school.

A Canadian woman in Scotland passes on this free advice to American women bemoaning their single status: "The world is full of men. According to the 2000 Census, for the first time in U.S. history, there are exactly as many men aged 18-44 as there are women. According to this same source, 95 percent of all American women wind up marrying sooner or later. China is short approximately 20 million women of marrying age. So is India. The world is awash in men. You'd have to hide away in a cave to avoid having a man find you. Take heart, be patient, read some good books, make a contribution, live your own life fully. When you are married and the baby's crying and he's snoring, you'll look back on these days with fondness, if you have used them wisely. Hold on to your dignity and your standards. Marriage is not salvation; it is the gifting of one's most personal essence to a trusted other. It is a privilege and an obligation that deserves the opportunity to develop in its own time."

OK. That settles that.

Dear Mr. Blue,

For many years my closest friend was a woman named Louise. Whenever I was going through a rough time, I would turn to her, and she to me in her hard times. We were closer than lovers. Our lovers came and went over the years, and our friendship remained. I expected we would be friends into old age.

About two years ago I moved away and she stopped making any effort to keep in touch. When I asked her what was wrong, she was very reluctant to talk to me. Finally, I squeezed an explanation out of her: She said she had fallen in love with me. The thing is, it's not true. I know that her boyfriend, an alcoholic, never liked that we were so close and I think it was too much of an effort for her to continually placate him. So I got dumped.

I'm having trouble making peace with the situation. This is harder than any relationship breakup I've been through. Her memory haunts me.

Missing my Best Friend

Dear Missing,

Keep in touch with her in a loose and comfortable way, short friendly notes, nothing reproachful or demanding, just enough to let her know you think of her in a kindly way. She can decide what she wants to do. Good friendships seem so hardy and durable, like the maple in the backyard, and you depend on them, but they're as fragile as we ourselves are and susceptible to cracking and root rot and insects and high winds and everything else. I've lost old friends, and my only advice is to keep the dispute (if that's the cause) as gentle as possible, to leave the door open for some eventual reconciliation. But it's hard. Man, it's hard.

Dear Mr. Blue,

My 12-year-old boy shows signs of being a writer. He was an early reader and continues to devour books -- and he's writing a lot, just for fun, trying to tell space-opera stories. He's a dreamer and loves to draw cartoons and Japanese manga-style action figures to illustrate his stories. He's been happy in his public elementary school, where he's not straining himself, but now, facing the seventh grade next year, he's at a fork in the road. It's time for him and his mother and me to decide whether to keep him in public school or enroll him among high-achieving strangers in a relatively new charter school for college-bound kids. His mother and I both went to general public schools and became progressively more bored and alienated, and though we both eventually succeeded in the world, we both suffer from a sense that we really don't deserve our comfortable life, and that we have somehow escaped a drearier fate that was meant for us. Our friends who went to private schools seem to avoid this guilt.

Should we put our son among our friends' children, who are being groomed for Stanford, Harvard and Princeton? His test scores suggest he would be able to hold his own with them. Or should we let him wander among the ordinary kids, find his own way and probably learn more about himself and his abilities but much less mathematics and science? Although both his mother and I recoil at our friends' kids' unconscious sense of entitlement, we don't want to deprive our boy of the greater range of choices open to well-educated kids. We especially don't want him to be as discouraged with school as we became. What should we do?

Writer's Dad

Dear Dad,

A fine thoughtful letter, and there's a whole novel here, about social class and upward mobility and that ease and elegance of the well-to-do that we public school boys have always envied, you and I and Scott Fitzgerald. Your son's situation, though, is fairly simple and secure, and you shouldn't project onto him your old miseries with school and your subsequent uneasiness among the tweed jackets and boat shoes. Your son, first of all, has two parents taking an interest in him and encouraging his literary revels. He's enjoying school. And it seems to me that you make the decision about public vs. charter on the simple basis of quality of teaching. Good students should seek out inspired teachers. I yanked my boy out of public school when he was in second grade. He got stuck with a burned-out teacher, a screechy and bitter woman who all the involved parents knew about and steered their kids away from and only the kids of us too-busy parents fell into the pit of her classroom. It was impossible to leave him there, so I put him into an open school, where he thrived.

I think you should go shopping for good teachers, as good parents do nowadays. I don't think identifying them is so hard. They have a passion for a subject and a sense of humor about kids and they enjoy their work. They aren't necessarily warm and fuzzy or involved in campaigns to save whales, but they do enjoy their work, and that's easy to detect. A boy who loves to write should not necessarily be thrust into a school geared to turning out high achievers and happy test-takers who will push to the front of the professional treadmill. (I don't know exactly what I mean by that last sentence, but it sounds good, doesn't it?)

Dear Mr. Blue,

Please help. My boyfriend tries too hard to be funny. He's constantly cracking jokes, which requires me to be "on" all the time when I can't be that alert. To make matters worse he gets upset and pouts when I don't laugh at his remarks, which I am starting to resent lately. I love this man, but I want to strangle him sometimes for being so cheesy. Is he trying to drive me bonkers? I'm tired of all his joking around.

Sick of Smiling

Dear Sick,

Nobody is required to laugh at a joke she doesn't find funny. Laughter is a physical reflex and you needn't fake it. If you like, you can say, "Funny" or "Ha ha ha ha," but you don't even need to do that. If he pouts, then he has no sense of humor, and the jokes are only a sort of aggression. Get yourself a good joke source, a joke book, a Web site or news group, and start firing back. Tell him two good jokes for every lame one of his. And think about practical jokes -- the old dogshit-in-the-burning-sack one or the old reliable car bomb. See if this speaks to his condition. If not, maybe strangling is your next step. How big are your hands?

Dear Mr. Blue,

This is a problem I suppose every other 18-year-old has, but I have it with particular ferocity. I go to school, have stupendous friends, enjoy what I'm studying and feel OK about how things are going in general. But I have a terrible feeling that there's no way my life could ever work out. I look 40 years into the future and see myself living in a studio apartment somewhere, eating corn flakes for dinner and putting desperately witty personal ads in the New York Review of Books. I have a sinking feeling that I'm just going to end up dropping out of life somehow. I've never had a boyfriend, and am pretty shy. I really would like to have someone to read the paper with, talk to, sleep next to, have kids with and so on, but I don't know if it's going to happen. I think I am strange. I don't like cats, but I can see myself becoming one of those old ladies with 500 cats to keep her company. Any advice on avoiding this fate?


Dear Flummoxed,

If you have friends whom you like, then you'll find romance. Romance is based on friendship, a sort of dizzy, juiced-up version of it. If you feel OK about your life and you enjoy your studies, then you're basically in good shape, and you should move on to the next thing and not think about when you're 58. I am 58, dear girl, and there's a lot good to be said about this time of life, but you needn't think about that yet. Think about 19 and 20 and 21. It's very common for someone your age to take on a label of "shy" or "strange" -- teen society tends to be heartless and unforgiving and shove people into file drawers; it was in my day and is today --- but you get to graduate out of your situation and jump into a new one and the new one will take a different view of you. This happened to me and to millions of other shy people when we went from high school to college. Shy eccentrics blossomed into writers or scholars or social gadflies and suddenly those painful years became just one more interesting story and we went on to our real lives. So will you. As for the cats, set a one-cat limit and tell your friends to intervene if you show cat-lady tendencies. I think you're OK now, though. Meow.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm 43, married to a beautiful, younger woman who is crazy about me. I love her dearly. She is smarter than I am and makes more money than I do. We have two bright, happy and well-behaved children, a boy and a girl. Everyone is healthy. I started my own business several years ago and it is growing and prospering. But I am from the Midwest, and I went to a Catholic school, so you can see what my problem is. I don't know how to handle all of this happiness and contentment. I'm too old for angst, and I have nothing to bitch about, which leaves me feeling left out. Is some calamity about to befall me? Can you help?

Happy as a Clam

Dear Happy,

Great calamity will befall you, of course, but not quite yet. Meanwhile, listen to me while I bitch about my life. It was a long winter in the Midwest that you escaped from. Six months and nine days from the first snow to the last, and now (I hear) six to nine inches of snow are forecast for northern Minnesota. A winter that was about twice as long as a person can bear. And there you are in some paradise place, married to a beautiful woman who is crazy about you. But she doesn't know you, Buster, not the way we do back in the heartland. We've got the goods on you. To the folks out there, you appear to be prosperous and happy, but we know you for the guilty little snot you are. You don't deserve what you have and you well know it. The big hairy hand of justice is reaching for you like a cat about to pounce on a sparrow. God's eye is on the sparrow but He doesn't intervene to save them, does He. A blizzard is coming to your life soon, and when it does, you just wait.

Dear Mr. Blue,

My younger brother, his wife and their two adolescent kids live with my 61-year-old mother in her mobile home. Neither my brother nor sister-in-law have worked for a living, ever. They were teenage alcoholics and druggies when they met, and my mom let them stay with her "until they got on their feet." Eighteen years later they're still there, still drinking, fighting, getting each other arrested and lying around doing meth, and their kids are a mess. (One is autistic, the other is on lithium. Their mom drank and snorted all through her pregnancies.)

My mom thought that at some point my brother would get some backbone or pride, get a job and move his family out. It has never happened, and my brother has mentally deteriorated to the point that I doubt he could ever get a job. Mom has to support four extra people on her salary, and not only are they not grateful, they ask for money for cigarettes, cable TV and vacations. Mom keeps saying she'd kick them out, but she doesn't want their kids to not have a positive adult influence in their lives. She sometimes stays with me or in hotels just because she can't stand being home with my brother's family. Besides giving my mom moral support, a shoulder to cry on and road trips to fun places when I can afford them, what can I do? I've tried talking to, even yelling at, my brother, but nothing is absorbed. I'm really scared that this is going to go on until Mom either dies or goes out of her tree.

Any ideas?

Desperate Daughter

Dear D.D.,

Call a social worker from family services in the county where your mom lives and describe the situation and get some professional advice on how to proceed. The arrest record should tell a social worker what she needs to know, and then a visit to the home can fill in the rest. The crucial question is the two kids and what sort of life they have. That's what your mom is focused on and that's what the county wants to know. The brother and sister-in-law are baggage, but the kids stand a chance and should be rescued. Try to get Mom to look down the road and decide if she's got the stamina to preside over this hellhole for 10 more years. And in the very kindest way possible, you could try to lead Mom to see her own complicity in the whole sad story. A hard truth but a useful one. The situation is one that cries out for intervention by professionals with some legal power. You cannot solve this one yourself unless you can think of a way to lure the young couple into taking a long voyage on a boat with low gunwales.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am 26 and have been married almost five years. My husband is almost 27. I always thought we had a great marriage, but recent events have stunned me to the core. Within the last six months, my husband has had an affair with my best friend, quit his job and separated from me.

Suddenly, I've lost everything my world was made of. My husband is with his brother for two months, and I'm alone in the house, paying the bills, working and doing all the chores. He isn't working, has few responsibilities and spends his days as he likes. I don't know what went wrong; he's never really explained his feelings to me, though I have tried to get him to open up. He seems happy now, and I am miserable. I love my husband dearly and want to work things out. We haven't spoken much since he left and I'm crushingly lonely and heartbroken. I'm trying to give him his room and not be needy, but there's a big void in my life and in my heart. Am I foolish to hope he will come back to me when our two months of separation are up? Should I get over this pain as quickly as possible and move on?


Dear Reeling,

Your husband blew up the marriage because he's immature and unable to manage his own feelings. He felt constricted, or frustrated, or something, and cut loose, and now he's feeling free and breathing a little easier. You're a wreck. But in the long run, you're the one who's better off. Heartbreak is better than cluelessness; it teaches you something, broadens your soul and in the end makes you a more loving person. It's up to your husband to try to work things out, not you. Give him plenty of room. If he doesn't start talking to you soon, like next week, call a lawyer and protect your property rights.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm 21, about to graduate from a computer science program and get a job as a programmer. But I am a far better singer than I am a programmer. When I sing I can excel. If I had my way I'd just rent a studio and spend all day recording music -- that is what I love to do, and I've made a moderate success of selling my recordings already. Of course I can't afford to do this unless I have the programming job, and I won't have the time to do this if I have the programming job.

Introspection doesn't work. Paxil doesn't work. I'm sleeping all day and aimlessly surfing the Net all night -- somehow I'm able to complete this degree despite the fact that I do next to no work -- and I'm in utter despair. Help!


Dear Miserable,

You were so good as to send along a reply to your own question, as follows, slightly edited:

My dear little Malcontent,

What you are feeling is completely normal. You have interests and talents, which is normal for one your age. So is angst. Though what you call introspection seems suspiciously close to wallowing in your own misery. Think about what you really want. You only have one life, and are you going to be happy sitting in your box producing C/C++? On the other hand, how long before the rigors of the music business chew you up and spit you out? (Being spat out is a good learning experience, though.) Get off your little whiny ass and do something. Anything. Sleeping in and chowing Paxil is obviously not making you any happier.

That's your letter to yourself, and it's not my advice -- my advice is to sing your little ass off -- but I'd never stand between a girl and her conscience.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I find myself, at this late date, confused about what it means to be liberal or conservative due to a man I met recently.

I view myself as a moderate liberal who lives in a quiet, somewhat conservative fashion. I never did the drug scene. I pay my bills on time. I go to work every day and try to do my quiet best. I support environmental issues, I believe when a person is having problems, it is appropriate for the government to step in and provide assistance.

My friend considers himself a true conservative and castigates me for my liberal leanings. He dismisses feminism, civil rights, environmental concerns, yet, when I see how he lives his life, I am confused. He is a long-term drug user. He doesn't pay his bills if he thinks he can get away with it. He didn't file tax returns for himself or for his business for nearly a decade but later settled with Uncle Sam after finding a good lawyer. At times, his credit has been ruined due to his insistence on buying new cars, new trucks, new large homes, big-screen televisions, which he cannot afford or doesn't want to pay for. Once the credit is in the crapper, he has devised an amazing variety of schemes to hide from the creditors. And so it goes, on and on.

I am confused. After listening to this man rant and rave about my beliefs, I find myself wondering, am I the conservative? Or just confused?

Liberal Lady

Dear Liberal Lady,

You can't define conservatism by its skankier adherents. You need to read the great conservative writers. You can find any number of interesting anthologies of conservative writing that take in the Greeks and Romans and Edmund Burke and James Madison right up to the present day. Worth your while, much more so than listening to that shyster.

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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