Solo sex

He insists on pleasuring himself before he sees me, so when we get together it's like trying to stuff a marshmallow in a piggy bank.

Published May 1, 2001 7:13PM (EDT)

Many readers responded to Miserable, the computer programmer who wants to be a singer.

A human resources director at the software company writes: "If she has skills, she could consult freelance and take short-term assignments or find a steady job of 20 hours a week (especially if she has a few connections) and have time to pursue more soul-satisfying things."

A singer in New York writes: "I am living proof that with a bit of ingenuity, the daily grind can be shuffled off in favor of a fabulous 'fly by night and the seat of your pants' musical life in the big city. I am a fairly successful singer making a comfortable living and it's easier than you think.

"Give yourself five years to see what you can do with your art. Come to NYC, go to Paris. When you get where you're going, go out and talk to singers and musicians. You'll find there are so many of us who took that risk and never regretted it. In the city you can use your programming skills to get temp work and pay the bills. That will leave you with money and time to pursue music. Don't give up your dream until you have to. If you do, you will regret it for the rest of your life. BE BRAVE! BE YOUNG! DO IT! If it's meant to be, and you really want it, the forces of nature will push you forward. Opportunity comes to those who seek it.You can always get a desk job later."

Dear Mr. Blue,

Is there some law that says a close intellectual and emotional relationship must come at the expense of great sex? Can passion only exist where there is emotional turmoil? I was married to a man I could talk to all day but who I wasn't attracted to. After the Husband came the Lover, who I could make love to all day but couldn't talk to without fighting. Now there is the Boyfriend. Kind, highly intelligent, very attractive and I truly enjoy his company, but the sex is like trying to stuff a marshmallow in a piggy bank. (Part of the problem is that he pleases himself every day before he sees me.) I beg him to stop, but he can't handle any discussion of the problem. He won't seek help because he says it's too embarrassing, and shuts me off if I try to talk about it.

Mr. Blue, should I just reconcile myself to a passionless life? I'm starting to wonder if this is my destiny. Would I be terrible if I told him I want to be "just friends" until he is willing to face his problem?

The Piggy Bank

Dear Piggy Bank,

Once again sensitive Mr. Penis rears his head. Your friend may have a problem, he may need to seek help, but I do wish women understood that the little gentleman is sensitive to them and to their attitude, their indifference or whatever, and that the harried male of middle years finds it difficult to be a wild stallion on cue. It is just darned difficult to sit around discussing child care or gender issues or whatever is on someone's mind and then climb the well-worn stairs and engage in 27 minutes of ingenious foreplay and then turn the page and, boing, the pop-up penis leaps to the fore. Stop and consider the harried male for a moment. For one thing, he is harassed by women writers everywhere and advice columnists and authors of how-to articles on Mounting & Penetrating, and this can have a dampening effect. Find me something written by a woman in the past 10 years about a wonderful male lover she had and I will show you 20 that are rich with contempt. I understand the pleasures of satire, but satire is not a stimulant to lovemaking, sad to say. I never heard your marshmallow/piggy-bank metaphor before, and it's hilarious, except to the marshmallow, I suppose. Of course his masturbation is a problem, but what a sad reflection that he finds solo sex so pleasurable despite having you on the scene. One great aphrodisiac, for a man, is to hear a woman whisper in his ear, "My god, you're hard. I love feeling you inside me. God, you're like a teenager or something." Maybe intellectual women have a harder time saying that. I wouldn't know.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I will be 49 in a few months. I have practiced law for 22 years, and I sometimes feel like screaming at the judge or telling a client to quit whining and get a life. For the last 12 years, I've been a single mother, and my only child goes off to college this year.

I am afraid that I will die feeling like I've just been "in the harness" my whole life, without having a chance to follow the dream I've had since I was 12 to be a writer. How do we balance our responsibilities with what we feel we need to do? Why is it called a midlife crisis when I feel like if I don't make a change it will be the same as dying? Are we expected to quit growing as we face middle age?

Counsel in Crisis

Dear Counsel,

Don't scream at the judge; she is frustrated too. And don't be afraid. This is your big moment, when the heir leaves for college and the house is quiet, to do what you need to do for yourself. I know nothing about your practice, or your circumstances, but after 22 years in harness, you need to make a plan for cutting back on your responsibilities. Imagine retiring when you're 55, when the heir is safely in graduate school and winning lucrative fellowships. In any case, start now to pull back from the morass at the office. It's a fight and you need to fight it. If people wonder why, tell them you're writing a novel. People respect novelists more than any other sort of writer, and you needn't tell them one word about this novel -- writers are famously tight-lipped about works in progress. Just use it as your umbrella. Your fictitious novel should help you get out of meetings, avoid entrapment in do-good projects, spare you from law firm cookie baking, etc. Redo your home a little to suit yourself, and make a space for the writer you want to be, a comfortable spot that reflects the furnishings of your mind, where you can apply yourself to what matters to you.

To be a writer simply means to become an independent thinker, one without portfolio, and the world needs more such people, whether you eventually write crime novels, or poems about trees, or treatises on law, or blazing social commentary, or a cookbook. Independent thinking is a fine and worthy project for one's middle years. Start out with exercises. Stake out the most radical position you feel you could possibly defend, that you would like to support, and argue for it. Write the most scathing jeremiad you can manage about something you know about. Write about your child. Write a homage to your favorite show, or your favorite shoes. Do these exercises for their own sake, to get you moving, to amuse you, to make you work, and meanwhile, look for what else you might put your hand to. And good luck.

Dear Mr. Blue,

My passion is and always has been fiction. The written word is the miracle of life for me. However, I got a great corporate job after college, realizing how isolating a writing life can be, though my parents always supported my love of literature. I was miserable in the corporate world and quit and moved to Southeast Asia to teach high school English. I loved it. It rejuvenated me. I could not wait to go to school in the mornings. Furthermore, I could talk about literature all day.

Then my father died, tragically, accidentally, at the age of 53.

Losing him broke my heart and it has taken me three years to even start living with the grief. But in typical fashion I have managed to get myself into an anthropology Ph.D. program and finish my master's. But I hate school. I am bored and isolated, and miss fiction terribly. The only time I have been really happy since losing my father was during a two-month writing workshop I allowed myself to splurge on before starting grad school.

I am exhausted mentally and emotionally and still grieving for fiction as well as my father. Part of me says that I can become a good academic and love teaching so I should just tough this part out, but part of me says I need to try to make literature the stuff my life is made of. Can I give my writing the attention it needs if I am a dedicated teacher? Why do I have so many doubts and what am I to do? After 27 years of doing what I should, how do I make sure I even know what I really want to do?

Still Grieving

Dear Grieving,

I don't understand your jump from something you loved to something you hate, but I assume that some interior logic directed the move, that a mature 27-year-old doesn't leap willy-nilly into an ambitious Ph.D. program on the basis of nothing. You now need to decide whether to go ahead with the doctorate or accept the master's and move on. I suggest that you can't tough this part out if you're exhausted. Take the summer to yourself, no coursework, and rest up and figure out if there's anything for you in anthropology that's worth the push to the summit. You don't sound confident of this at all. Becoming a "good academic" is not the same as being passionately happy. You found that happiness teaching English and attending a writing workshop. When life gives you strong cues, you should heed them and find a way to do what makes you happy.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I find myself at the age of 51 not liking the person I've apparently become. I start out to say something that in my mind was brief and insightful, and then hear myself meandering on and on through the long boring details, sounding dull, petty, even stupid. I catch myself interrupting others because something they've said has triggered a thought and before I know it, I've jumped right in. I notice that I finish people's sentences quietly, with the idea that I'm conveying support and encouragement, but in the end, of course, I'm just finishing their sentences for them. I seem to always feel the need to explain my decisions, and this often entails presenting the pros and cons of whatever the issue is, and I end up sounding whiny, or wishy-washy. When I try to avoid all these pitfalls I sometimes find myself trying to be funny and really putting my foot in my mouth.

In short, my mouth causes me all sorts of pain and embarrassment. Add to this the fact that age is causing enough memory loss that I frequently can't remember the names of people I run into around town, can't think of the words I want and can't always completely follow a brisk conversation, and all I want to do is hide at home. But that gets lonesome. If I keep silent all the time, it's like I'm not even in the room.

Losing My Mind

Dear Losing,

Welcome to the golden twilight years and life as a tedious old coot. There are lots of us in the club. The part about starting to say something brief and insightful and hearing yourself lost in a senile recitation of trivia strikes a chord with yours truly and makes me want to weep, or take medication. But discipline can work wonders for us garrulous oldsters. Train yourself to listen. Become a listener. Avoid monologues as you'd avoid picking your nose in company. (You could poke a little finger up one nostril in an exploratory sort of way and hook onto some long skein of snot and there you are, a creep and social pariah, instead of the elegant wit you used to be.) Of course, you want to pull your weight conversationally, but try taking a back seat while you get these gnarly habits under control. Think of yourself as a genial listener who, when appropriate, tosses off a modest line or two, always by way of encouragement. That's the key. Get other people to talk, smile at them, nod, chuckle when chuckling is appropriate. Many people love to do this, you know. Help them, and you help yourself.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm a college student with great friends, great classes and a developing passion for writing. In one of my closest male friends I have everything I could want in a boyfriend. We laugh at the same jokes, find the same things inexplicably beautiful and can truly talk about anything with each other, from bellybutton lint to Shakespeare. Everyone -- my friends, his roommates, our parents -- tells us that we'd be perfect together, and I tend to agree, although I cherish his friendship and don't feel any need to change or speed up the course of what may come.

We've kissed once, and it was wonderful, slow, tender, comfortable but exciting. I definitely love this guy, which is thrilling, because it's the first time I've felt this way about anyone. Trouble is, this kiss followed shortly after a melodrama in which he confessed to another close friend his attraction for her. I know he's emotionally confused, but I'm having trouble looking elsewhere in the meantime. I'd like to make the most of this time in my life. I tell myself to stop pining for romance, but I can't stop thinking about it.

How do I put my feet on the ground again?

In the Clouds

Dear Clouds,

This one-kiss romance is under too much pressure. Too many onlookers, too many matchmakers. Dismiss the information about what he said to your close friend (which, I assume, comes from her). You don't know what it means, and there's nothing you can use it for. Put the slow and tender kiss in your scrapbook. Cherish him as a pal and feel free to look at other men and commingle with them and learn the pleasant art of flirting. It's fun. This is the time in your life when you have the freedom to do it and to kiss other men and compare their kisses to his and each other's and learn how to bounce around in mixed company and be fun and enjoy talking to different sorts of people and attain a certain lightheartedness. This is preferable, far preferable, to allowing oneself to be steered straight toward The True Love Meant for You According to Nine Out of 10 of Your Friends. That is a dreadful fate for one so young. Accept that your pining for this romance is, in some part, a reflection of your insecurity and a longing for a safe harbor. But it's not safe. You're too young for monogamy: You need to learn about men. Get out and mingle. And come home afterward and write it all down.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I married a woman I loved during college and we had three fantastic children, after which I became depressed and looked for other things in all the wrong places. After an affair, my wife forgave me but then went back to college, and after graduation, she told me to get out.

She was right; I was a jerk. I acted terribly, had affairs, rejected family life and concentrated on making money to buy toys. She found all this out during the divorce and became so revengeful that she tried to destroy me. She persisted and was partly successful and I lost my job. I was broke, depressed and suicidal, jobless and could not afford to see my children regularly. She took the children and moved across the country. Despondent, I spent three years volunteering my services to Indians in Montana. During those three years, I tried to see my children but found it hard because of her anger. All of them are scared to death to admit they want to see me because "Mommy gets in such a bad mood when your name is mentioned." Every holiday they tell me, "I can't see you, because Mom has plans for us."

What can I do? How can I talk to the woman who hates me? How is it possible to convince my children I am not a serial killer and stop them from seeing me only if Mom doesn't know? Crazy enough, I never said goodbye to the ex-wife and still have feelings for her, but what can I do? (I have had two psychoanalytic therapies and a psychotherapy adding up to 12 years of treatment.)

Analyzed and Paralyzed

Dear Analyzed,

I assume the divorce settlement gave you some rights of visitation. Stop tiptoeing around your ex-wife. Pick up a phone and call her and tell her, "I'd like to take the kids biking in Vermont over the Fourth of July." Understand that anger is an awful mistress and she may say or do dumb things in its service, but her anger is not your problem. Focus on the kids. They need you and deserve your love and attention and the pleasure of your company. They don't think you're evil, but probably they're more than a little curious to get to know you -- since, back in your married years, you were otherwise occupied. Don't postpone this any longer. She may be very reasonable about this, or she may scream at you, but it doesn't matter: The point is to start being a dad to these three kids in the best way you can. Can you resettle near them -- maybe volunteer your services to the Penobscots or Algonquins or some Eastern Indians? And then be a good dad, of course. A wise, cheerful, forward-looking father who helps with algebra and cheers on the soccer team and fixes the bike sprocket and listens to complaints and plans fun expeditions. That's your goal, and dealing with your ex-wife is only a means toward that. You can't make her like you, so don't try.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm beginning to feel like a cartoon character, I've had such a continuous string of bad luck. I've lost my mother to cancer, suffered with my best friend through two bouts of breast cancer and seen the love of my life walk out the door, never to return. I was then hospitalized with a serious illness (after decades of nearly perfect health). Then, having been told I was to be transferred by my company and having given up my nice apartment, I was laid off. (Ironically, I lose my job and home on the same day.) To complete the picture, my new boyfriend, who is living with me, hasn't worked in months. I'm trying to keep things in perspective, working hard at staying healthy, finding a new job and a new place to live, but it's bleak out there in Want Ad Land. How do I change this damnable luck and keep myself from going crazy, or thinking that I'm cursed?


Dear Luckless,

A flood of bad luck, a whole series of plagues, but here you are, on your two feet, moving forward, and there is the triumph. You survived, you're standing and you're looking to the future. Get some job soon, even if it's not what you want to be doing for the next 10 years: Getting back into the rhythms of work life will be good for you, assuming the workplace isn't depressing or the colleagues bitter and demented. And what's with the unemployed boyfriend/boarder? This is the one piece of bad luck that you chose. If you keep him on the dole, then why not dye your hair neon green and go around in paratrooper boots and a heavy-metal T-shirt and change your name to L-Dawgg? I mean, why dig a hole? You've had a bad run and now things are going to get a lot better. Tell the boyfriend to find work.

Dear Mr. Blue,

Sometimes I feel I'm kidding myself, yet I can't let my dreams die just yet. I'm 35 and make my money doing P.R., but my dream is to support myself and my wife with my music and, later on, with my fiction. I've always done things my own hardheaded way and have managed to find some measure of wisdom in my misadventures -- the year in Asia, the years of substance abuse, the self-destructive relationships, the list goes on and on. Four years ago, after clawing my way out of a hole, I spent a year of solitude, then met her. She's wonderful, well adjusted and completely supportive. I've never been so happy, yet self-doubt and insecurity haunt me, along with a terrific struggle to be practical. I've been composing some truly strange and possibly brilliant electronic music on a borrowed computer. The project is nearly complete and I have a plan to distribute and publicize my CD. But I'm having a difficult time sustaining interest in my day job, which can be overwhelming at times. All I really want to do is make music, but I worry that I've been deluded about my musical abilities. I've become terribly depressed over what I will do if I can't make the music work. (Or my unfinished novel, also brilliant, disturbing and strange.) I've been happy at those times when I've followed my peculiar muse, and miserable when I've tried to be practical. Right now, I'm trying to find a middle ground. Am I just full of shit, or what?

The Brooding Artist

Dear B.A.,

Artists must work in solitude, but they must also seek allies and find an audience, as a sort of reality check. The joy of creation says nothing about the viability of the work. If it isn't viable, if it doesn't move or amuse or fascinate anybody, then it goes the way of a lot of avant-garde work that while, in some sense, "brilliant," was nothing that anybody except the artist's closest pals wanted to spend time with. If you worry about delusion, you need to get with other composers and musicians of similar stripe and stature and trade assessments. And you need to put your work in front of some sort of audience, to get a depth sounding from them: If it underwhelms them, you'll know it. You don't need to accept the judgment of others, but nonetheless it's healthy to get it and to ponder it.

Dear Mr. Blue,

My wife and I have agreed to attend a party with my family. The situation between us and them has always been lousy, with a lot of bad scenes -- yelling, putting me down in front of my wife and stepson -- and we have stayed away for a few years. My role has always been that of the family screwup. I moved away, got an education and made my own life. Going home makes me feel unwanted. (I've been told by my brother not to come.) The party is for a relative who has always been kind to me. And these occasions do mean a great deal to my mother. What to do about this occasion? I know I can't change them.

Dreading It

Dear Dreading It,

I can't get a clear picture from your account, so I'm at a disadvantage here, but I suggest you go and leave your wife and stepson at home. It can't be any fun for them to walk into a hornets' nest, and why subject them to anything so unpleasant as relatives yelling at each other? You should go, for the sake of your relative and your mother, and focus on them, and let the brother and any others say what they wish. But if you feel that you're cast in a demeaning role in a family psychodrama that you're powerless to escape, the sensible thing is to stay away from it in the future. Nobody has to have a big happy magazine-cover family. You can live your life very well without your siblings, if necessary.

Dear Mr. Blue,

Feeling inspired one day, I wrote 800 of the best words I could manage and sent them off to a hip local weekly, whose new editor is supposedly looking for fresh material. I've heard nothing from him in two weeks and he didn't return a call. I know nothing of the ways of editors. What am I to conclude from this silence?

Will Write for Food

Dear Will Write,

If the 800 words you sent him are anything like the 800 you sent me, he may be trying to edit them into two or three cogent sentences. This takes time.

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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