Long-distance love

I thought the Boyfriend away in graduate school was It, but then along came the Other Man, who lives right here.

Published May 8, 2001 7:17PM (EDT)

Dear Mr. Blue,

I feel silly writing to an advice columnist, but I am so overwhelmed right now I'd try anything. I am in a long-distance relationship with a wonderful man whom I adore. We are planning to be together as soon as he finishes graduate school, and we have exciting talks about our future. I love him dearly, he adores me and I think this one might be capital-I It. Then the other night I had a drunken fling with an acquaintance, and we've spent several nights together since then. I can't believe I am doing this; I am always such a moral, ethical person. I know I have to break it off with my acquaintance because I can't bear the thought of being without my boyfriend, and the Other Man does not offer much long-term potential, which Boyfriend certainly does. So ultimately, I guess, this is not so much about choosing between OM and BF as it is between spontaneity and future. I know who I love and want to be with. I'm trying to keep in mind that a big part of OM's appeal is simply that he is here in my city and can offer the day-to-day parts of a relationship that I don't have, and I don't want to confuse that with genuine feelings. That being said, there are wonderful aspects of OM that I am very much attracted to, and part of me doesn't want to give them up. I'm a mess here; any thoughts?

Disaster Ahead

Dear Disaster,

I feel silly being an advice columnist but sometimes people are overwhelmed by life and it can be helpful for them to describe the situation in a cogent manner, and if writing to a columnist helps them do that, then I'm glad to be the addressee. This is usually worth more than the advice itself. My advice is to experience your life fully and joyfully and to dance with who you want to dance with and not declare martial law and seal off the borders. You are young and you have to live life if you're ever going to know something for sure. So you find yourself torn between spontaneity and The Plan. Look down one road and look down the other road and you'll figure it out. But don't be too hard on yourself. This isn't a play you're in, cast in the role of the Girlfriend: It's your life. Play it as a comedy.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm 51; he's 57. I've been married twice; he thrice. I've been single six years; he 17. Friends fixed us up and he wooed me right out of a decade of celibate despair. He charmed my child, my mother, my friends, and won my heart in a heartbeat. For about five weeks, it was near-daily contact, little notes, romantic poems and gifts, billing and cooing, telling me he loved me. Then, after he took me for a weekend visit with his family, he began to emotionally withdraw. Weekends came and went without contact, the daily messages dwindled; I fired off anguished e-mails. Finally, he told me he's too old to change, that he'd like something "more than friendship but less than marriage." He doesn't promise anything, but I am welcome to call him on Wednesdays to see if we have plans for the weekend. I am feeling utterly pathetic, confused and heartbroken at the change in him, but I'm having a very hard time letting go.

Does this sound like a dead end to you? Should I let it go, or keep loving him and hold steady, on the chance that he'll discover he meant what he said in the first place and wants to have a real relationship?

Hanging By My Thumbs

Dear Hanging,

Who can tell? Maybe his family got all happy about the romance and told him how terribly terribly lucky he was, and he felt the wind rushing past his ears and decided to apply the brakes. Three marriages should be enough to make any man cautious. He thought, "Stop. Look. Listen." And that's maybe what he's doing, sitting in his house and asking himself what he meant by all the notes and poems and gifts, the declarations of love. A 57-year-old guy thrice-married has had a fair amount of practice at courtship and should be good at it and maybe he enjoys it for its own sake. It's a big thrill to be in love and to say all those sweet things and hear the violins throbbing. And now he needs to think things over. Never interrupt a man while he's thinking. Don't call him Wednesday. Let him think over the weekend. Make your own plans.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm a 28-year old virgin who has been on four dates in the past eight years, all of them arranged by friends who were "worried about me," and insisted that "this is the time in your life when you should be having lots of sex!" It's not that I can't get dates but I've had zero interest in dating. I think I'm happy without it. Prior to this dry spell, I was involved with someone for four years, my high-school First Love. As we were breaking up, my parents divorced. I don't know if my lack of interest in dating is related to this intersection of events, or something that would have occurred anyway. Is it normal to not have any interest in dating? Or have I constructed a horribly effective self-defense mechanism? I have a close relationship with my family and wonderful, supportive friends. They are evenly split between leaving me alone and subtly hinting that therapy might be helpful. What do you think?

Lady in White

Dear Lady,

You needn't be in dire straits to find therapy helpful, particularly the kind of gentle therapy in which you get to sit in a comfortable chair in dim light and tell your story to someone who won't laugh in the wrong places or start snoring. Go back to that time when things were breaking up and try to give an account of it and tell what's been going on in your heart. And meanwhile, live your life and enjoy the summer and don't let your friends bully you into going out with people you don't want to go out with.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I've been asked to give the commencement address at my old high school. I'm 30 years old and about to embark on what I hope is my life's work, something I'm passionate about -- I finally feel that I've found my way. But I'm not a success story (yet) by any stretch of the imagination. My problem is the speech. How do I talk to these students without falling into cliché? How do I make a speech about learning and pursuing your dreams without seeming cheesy? How do I hold their attention and maybe deliver some sort of meaningful message? I'm suffering from severe writer's block. Can you help?


Dear Speechless,

The speech should be about four pages, double-spaced. Could be shorter but absolutely no longer. You must remember to work the microphone very close, but without blowing into it and popping it: Commencement venues have notoriously terrible sound systems. You must avoid the Large Man-On-The-Mountaintop Opening, which is an audience killer -- "As I stand here before you, looking out at all these hopeful faces, I can't help but think of what Kahlil Gibran wrote ..." That sort of thing. Also avoid indirection. Start with a simple story. Something about an ancestor of yours or some ancient figure in that town, a story in which the identity of the hero and the era in which the story takes place is not revealed until the end. ("That man was my great-grandfather. He graduated from this school 100 years ago yesterday.") A story that exemplifies confidence and self-reliance and bravery, but with some humor. That's Page 1 and part of 2. Then you amplify on the meaning of the story a little. Perhaps you tell another story. You end up by congratulating the grads and congratulating their parents. You wish them well. And then, to their amazement, you sit down. You haven't told them to march to their own drummer or light a candle and you haven't tooted your own horn and you haven't droned on for 20 minutes. You were graceful and cogent and you only took eight minutes. They'll be stunned with gratitude.

Dear Mr. Blue,

It's been five years since my last serious romance, two years since my last fling, and I'm starting to get antsy. For a while I avoided relationships because of a broken heart, and I needed to get comfortable with myself, and then I was busy getting my life in order. So now it's in order. But I hate dating. I don't like putting on a date face or dealing with someone else's date face. Am I self-absorbed and shallow? Do I have a deeper fear of intimacy than I ever suspected? Will the Cubs win the pennant?

Lonely Guy

Dear Lonely,

The Cubs won't win the pennant, but each Cub will have the pleasure of dining with a beloved and dancing with her and walking and talking and necking and so forth. The date face is only for the first half-hour or so and after that, if you can't be yourself and she can't be herself, then forget about it. Get out and mingle. Your life is too orderly. You need to get confused.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm a man with a broken heart from a love gone wrong. It was the most beautiful (and painful) romance I've ever experienced. Two years ago she ended things. The worst is over. I no longer want to die. I no longer sleep with the lights on. I no longer avoid my old friends. But I still dream about her every night, I still see her on street corners in places where I know she is not; I still get teary several times a week recalling times we had together and the pain of her leaving. None of my friends or family can relate really, and I tend to keep it all to myself. I am in despair. I've tried dating, I've tried forgetting, nothing seems to help. I will never be with this woman, ever, and in my heart I will never be without her.

Dante Sans Beatrice

Dear Dante,

Two years is not too long to grieve for the loss of something so beautiful. The breakup was a sort of death and you might mourn the death of a loved one for two or three or four or five years and see her in dreams and get weepy and feel out of control. There are ways to make this more bearable, though, and one is to turn your face to the future and make some plans. Decide that you want to change your life in certain definite ways and make a list and set about doing it. Forget about dating. Concentrate on expanding your own life and having those experiences that you crave -- learning to sail and play the guitar and acting in a play and traveling to India and building a house -- and also focus on your work for a while, and if your work doesn't satisfy you, then change that. A man without a woman to love has plenty of time on his hands, so turn it to good ends, and don't invest it in the shadows of lost love. When you start doing the things you've always wanted to do, including the things you forgot you wanted to do, you'll get some buoyancy in your life and float off this reef of despair and start the next leg of your life, which likely will turn out to be far better than the previous one that you're in mourning for.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I left my husband three months ago for my lover who now, alas, has lost interest in me, though I still love him. Now, my husband is telling me that he can't afford to run two households, that money is running out and soon there will be no money left for our daughter's college education. He says that he still loves me and wants me back. I have told him that I will return, but we will have to go to counseling together. But I still think about my lover all the time. Even though he hurt me terribly, he was sexy, exciting, charming and intelligent. We shared a love for literature and classical music. We had wonderful conversations. My husband and I can only find things to talk about like our children and computers. He does not read and has no interests other than a passion for Jimmy Buffett. And he is depressed much of the time. But he is considerate and kind and loving and we've been married 30 years and I care for him very much, and could, over time, love him again. What do I do? I just can't get the other man out of my heart. What does one do with welled-up passion?

Pining Away

Dear Pining,

Good for you. You got the affair out of your system now, and your life wasn't thrown into shambles over it, and now you're heading back to the man you really care for. Bestow some of the welled-up passion on him and make believe he is your lover and in time he will be. Sexy and exciting and charming are great, but kindness is greater. Kindness is a primary virtue. Do him the kindness of addressing his depression and extending his horizons, and I'm sure that, over time, you will be glad you returned.

Dear Mr. Blue,

My problem is my mother. She's in her 70s, a widow and very religious, and she does nothing but complain and criticize. She's had a fairly good life, raised five successful kids and had a fulfilling career. Yet when you speak to her all she can focus on is negatives. Everyone is plotting against her, her children don't call/visit/confide in her enough, people shut her out.

Her attitude is causing exactly what she fears the most -- people are in fact avoiding her now. Her grandchildren dread going to her house for visits. Friends who used to travel with her will no longer do so because they don't want to be trapped with her negativity. I have to gear myself up for calls and visits because I know I'm going to get pounced on once I do connect with her.

How do I maintain my relationship with this woman?

Weary Daughter

Dear Weary,

What relationship do you have with her, other than to serve as a receptacle for her anger? What did you ever do with her that made the two of you happy? Find it and do it again. And if the two of you ever find a calm moment when the fires dim, perhaps you could suggest to her that a person is never too old to seek help. You may only get one chance to suggest such a thing to her, so use your chance wisely. And if she is infuriated at the suggestion, well, so be it. Let her speak in whatever language she chooses, and you choose when to listen to her.

Dear Mr. Blue,

Ten years ago, I became involved with a man of Chinese ancestry whose family detested me, an older white woman. He was tremendously bright and accomplished and we found complete relaxation and comfort in each other's presence. He hid the relationship from his family for a long time until we made plans to marry, then he spilled the beans. Whereupon his family gathered its forces against the alien intruder and I lost him. The loss was shattering and I became deeply depressed. Two months later, I found I was pregnant. He told me his family would disown him if they found out about this and he became very distant, and eventually left the country for a few years without more than a vague promise to provide for the lovely daughter's education in the future. He returned to this country and we did not hear from him. I felt it was time for him to help and I contacted a lawyer. This hurt and angered him greatly. We finally agreed he would pay half her grade school tuition. I dropped the suit. So far, for three years, he has been holding up his end. He is now a well-known physician with a large income. His contribution to his child's welfare is minuscule.

And she has not seen him in years and feels very badly about it. All this time, I have felt brokenhearted and have not dated. I also feel betrayed, abandoned, angry, resentful, deeply mistrustful about men's motives. If my best pal could turn into someone who abandons his own child, then I feel I could never find anybody whom my daughter and I can trust. Did he ever love me at all in the first place? Our daughter is the most wonderful thing that ever happened to me. I feel disgust at the thought of trying to get more money from him and do not contemplate doing so, even though I feel that somehow he should be doing more. And against all reason, I still entertain a hope he will do an about-face and begin to care for his daughter (a remarkable, astonishing person) and maybe even want to see me again. I still miss him dreadfully and wish he was here to talk to. This is insane. How in the world can I get beyond this? I feel I should try to date again but I can't even imagine it.

Lost on the Silk Road

Dear Lost,

I can't begin to address all the issues you raise, but someone can, and I suggest you go see her or him. I mean a therapist, of course. Your old pal will have to deal with his conscience, but you can deal with this debilitating anger you feel. And when you do, you will see the magnificent gift he gave you, in the form of this child. This is a gift that nobody would trade for a high income or social prominence. You're angry at him for skipping out on you, but in fact he is a man who ran away and lost out on the great prize and is more to be pitied than censured.

Dear Mr. Blue,

My girlfriend wants to get married and settle down and have kids, and I don't. We are vastly different people. I like to party hearty, and she is a homebody whose idea of a fun Saturday night is watching TV at her house. Even getting her to go to the movies is a struggle. This drives me crazy. I'm pretty sure I would be a terrible father and worse husband, but I can't find the words to say so to her. Lately I've been ducking the issue by avoiding her, but that's no solution. I can't go on like this, but neither do I want to lose her friendship. I just don't know what to do.

Going Slowly Crazy

Dear Going,

You don't want to marry her, and the longer you postpone telling her so, the thornier the situation becomes. If you want to preserve even a modicum of goodwill, you must sit down with her and tell her honestly that you can't marry her. It isn't rejection that stings so much as it is deception.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a recent college graduate with a history of familial turmoil. When I was 18, I stormed out of the house, a hardheaded, righteous teenager, after an argument with my father and stepmother and had no contact with the family for two years. I have since made peace with everyone except my sister, whom I was so close to growing up. She has yet to even speak civilly to me and her anger is overwhelming and painful. She reduces me to tears when she says she doesn't consider me her sister anymore, and to leave her alone. I love my sister more than anyone on this planet, and I miss her desperately. I can't bring myself to pick up the phone and call her and get the inevitable rejection. Is it time to give up?

Desperately Seeking Sister

Dear Desperately,

Your righteous hardheaded sister is acting this way on her own dime and it hasn't very much to do with you, but if you want to make another attempt to make peace, don't pick up the phone, pick up your pen and write her a letter. Don't explain or plead, just talk about your common past and the ties between you and wish her well and tell her you're going to come see her. And then do it. A friendly visit, apart from family occasions, just you and her, over lunch. This won't work magic, probably, but you'll be able to sense a relaxation of tension, if there is one. And then you can tell her how bad you feel and ask her to forgive you. And if she won't, or can't, then let a few years go by and ask again.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm a writer in the Deep South, trying to write fiction that is authentic and addresses sex and relationships realistically, which folks around here don't necessarily want to hear about. I once wrote a story about gay marriage that made my Southern Baptist grandmother rewrite her will. I love people here and feel a responsibility to make their lives better. For, complacent though they may be, our education system is the pits, we have pollution problems, high AIDS transmission rates and terrible poverty. I've enrolled in law school because I want to change things here. But if I want to accomplish anything politically, I have to keep my nose clean. I can't send in that novel about a religious crisis -- we only acknowledge one personal savior here, and questions are heresy. Hell, our school system banned Harry Potter because magic is a satanic concept. Should I just keep my mouth shut, or publish under fake names?


Dear Scarlett,

The urge to make other people's lives better is a two-edged urge, and though it's noble of you to want to change things around you, you can only do this with the permission of the changees, and this does demand a certain sense of humor. Democracy demands humor. Great crusades tend to fail, and affable public servants who enjoy the work tend to go on and on. Be one of those, if you like. Or, if you want to write a novel about your religious crisis, do that. You probably can't do both. Same as you can't smoke three packs a day and run the triathlon. You can't model underwear if you weigh more than 400 pounds. There are a lot of little rules like that. Political candidates can't write novels about religious crises, because we the people don't want to know that much about a candidate. A novel about health insurance might be more to the point.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I recently broke up with my boyfriend of two years, whom I have known for four. I had a good long time to become very attached to him and to draw joy from his existence. But when it became clear that he doesn't love me, self-preservation took over and I voluntarily quit the relationship. I am in terrible grief now, because although he could do no better than feel friendship and fondness for me, he is just about my ideal in every other respect -- handsome, intelligent, witty, fun. It feels like no one will ever live up to him or what I've attached to him. He was my first lover, as well. I'm afraid I'll never be able to love anyone else. My friends and family do their best to laud me as a lovable girl, and I know they are sincere. But my life feels like that Bonnie Raitt song -- why couldn't I make him love me? I'm in my 20s, fairly successful, doing well in the big city and those around me seem to like my company. I don't even know what I'm asking you, Mr. Blue.

Sad Songs

Dear Sad,

You're asking if the pain goes away and, yes, it does. And the experience of having loved someone deeply, no matter what the outcome, is good for your soul. Nothing about love is a mistake, everything that happens between two people that is lovely and lyrical somehow makes the world a better place. And your capacity to love has less to do with his qualities and more to do with yours. So you will give this lost love a decent farewell and meanwhile you'll soldier on in your life and work and then one morning you'll get on an elevator and suddenly realize that you feel elated again, for the first time in months, and that the business of Him is all over, and you can now live your life again. Look forward to that day. It will come.

Dear Mr. Blue,

My husband encouraged my interest in martial arts and thought it was cute and feisty until he came to see a demonstration, and instead of Tae Bo, which he'd apparently been expecting, he came face to face with kung fu, complete with flying kicks, joint locks and bladed weapons. Soon his remarks about my toughness took on a sharp edge. He felt frustrated that I no longer needed him to protect me. I said that my desire for him had always outweighed my need, but that wasn't enough. We're now divorced. I'm starting to think about dating again, but I wonder if history will repeat itself. Are there men out there who can appreciate a witty, fit, 30-something woman with her own sword and saber, or should I plan on renting Jackie Chan movies alone?

Crouching Tigress

Dear Crouching,

It's not the weapons that bother a man so much, it's the crouching. He looks up and there you are on the armoire, with a knife between your teeth. He puts the coffee beans in the grinder and suddenly you leap out of the cupboard and turn backflips in the air, like about 20 of them, and hover, and the hovering makes him uneasy. Kung fu is not an icebreaker, I'm sorry to say. It doesn't open up large realms of conversation. And conversation is the key to romance, if you ask me, which I believe you did.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm married to a nice guy, a very devoted father to our little girl, and he's kind to me. But he's not introspective. His parents were both alcoholics, and rigid Republicans, and he escaped into a dream world. He works compulsively, is wracked with fear and anger, and manages to maintain a social demeanor that is always upbeat and calm. Now this would all be fine if we shared interests and tastes, but we don't. He plays computer games for hours, I read the classics. It's a very weird marriage, not very passionate for me since half of my brain doesn't get involved, but sometimes OK. Probably pretty typical. I wonder if I could develop some strictly literary relationships, but what kind of man would be interested in that? Maybe all marriages are like this: You get some things and you don't get others, and you learn to live with it. I don't know. Any ideas?

Married in Minnesota

Dear Married,

"Wracked with fear and anger" does not sound typical or OK to me, and I wonder if you shouldn't use your brain to try to engage the fearful part of him, behind the calm demeanor. Introspection can be helped along by a good listener. Put down the book, lose the power cord for the computer and get the conversation started. Start by talking about the little girl and what her life might be like and what she picks up from her parents and their marriage. This shouldn't be an accusation, it's a question. It's a door that opens up other large questions. Whether you share tastes or not, you share a life, and it shouldn't pass without comment.

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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