It is très printemps and vive l'amour here in the Midwest and as the Sun Belt descends toward its hellish summer, we sit blissfully in our backyards, inhaling the lilacs. An old friend from Chicago drops by and we mix up gin and tonics and talk about our children as the neighbor's cat wanders across the terrace and a little girl blows bubbles and watches them drift across the lawn and crash into the tulips. A paradise time of year, which continues right on into October. How grateful I am not to live in Arizona or Texas. I visited Dallas once in August and made the mistake of leaving the hotel on foot in search of a bookstore. A person should never go around on foot in Dallas -- the city was not designed with humans in mind -- but especially you shouldn't go outdoors on an afternoon in August.
To walk through this landscape of glass and steel and vast plains of asphalt on a summer day is to experience a foretaste of the lake of everlasting fire. No wonder the Baptists keep pulling in converts. I walked for a couple of miles before I saw a mall and was sucked into it and roamed around and found a bookstore, whose young clerk seemed not to care about books and had no particular opinion about whether the store had a copy of the book I wanted, which, it turned out, it did not. Her lassitude seemed typical of Dallasites on that particular August day. A great torpor seemed to grip the people I met. I would not care to be a writer in Texas trying to write in the summer. Whereas, in the Midwest, we have a little end-of-winter slump in March, and otherwise the climate is generally hospitable. You can dress for any degree of cold, but past a certain point you can't dress for heat. You have to sit in the fridge and wait out the blast. Our January blizzards get big play on the network newscasts, since blowing snow is visually dramatic and even terrifying (not to us, not in the least, we just sit indoors and read books), but it's impossible for the camera to capture heat and the enervating bleakness of a mall parking lot in Texas in August.
Many, many readers wrote in to chasten Mr. Blue for his response to the ex-girlfriend of the divorced dad, the E.G. who wants to keep in touch with the D.D.'s little boy, though he is now living with his mama, who gives E.G. the cold shoulder, thus forcing E.G. to maintain (false) cordial relations with D.D. so as to see the boy when D.D. has him on certain weekends, an arrangement that will surely end when D.D. gets a new girlfriend. It's been a couple of years since D.D. and E.G. broke up. Mr. Blue told E.G., who had been the boy's de facto mother from age 4 to 7, that he doubts the boy is as attached to her, two years post-breakup, as she is to him. Mr. Blue suggested that a child's loyalties are rather malleable at this point, especially toward ex-girlfriends of Daddy's. Mr. Blue was, in his own clumsy way, trying to spare the woman guilt for having abandoned the boy, which was strongly intimated in her letter -- she said she didn't want him to think that she didn't still care about him. The readers suggested that Mr. Blue was cruelly wrong, that the boy might well have bonded with her and that she should do everything in her power to maintain contact with him. Nobody disagreed with Mr. Blue's main point, that there are no visitation rights for ex-girlfriends and she is on a very slender branch indeed when it comes to maintaining contact.
Dear Mr. Blue,
I'm a 31-year-old guy dating a wonderful woman for the past two months whom I met on the Internet. It feels right emotionally as well as physically. Until the other morning. I used her computer (with her permission) to check my e-mail and, using the "back" browser button to go to a previous page, I found to my surprise a message in which she described herself as a "fun-loving lesbian looking for the same" along with a description of herself. Upon reading this, I found myself compelled to do some actual snooping and uncovered an eight-month-old chat log wherein she describes her relationship of two months with another lesbian.
I have not confronted her about this at all, but it nags at my very soul. She did once admit to a brief lesbian relationship back in college eight years ago, but said that nothing of that nature has happened since. She is obviously lying yet I cannot let her know of my "secret" without her obviously thinking that I was really snooping.
What's a guy to do?
You were snooping. And you discovered her in an evasion, or lie. So what? She's a conflicted person and she couldn't bring herself to confide in you. Don't confront her with this information. It's your problem, not hers. Either you can put it aside, or you cannot, in which case you must back out gracefully. I suspect that you cannot, if her interest in women nags at your very soul. Write her a letter of apology and tell her she should find someone new, someone who isn't going to browse in her private life.
Dear Mr. Blue,
I've always been a closet romantic with a cynical edge, but two years ago, at my best friend's wedding, I met a guy I'll call Ivan. We chatted that night, and spent the next three days and nights together before I flew home. Ordinarily, I'd be totally realistic and chalk it up to a fun interlude, but we've stayed in each other's lives, we've spoken regularly, we're honest about our feelings for each other and he spoke of relocating to the East Coast where I live. And then ... it stopped. No reason, no excuses ... he just stopped contacting me. And stopped responding to my calls. According to our friends, there is no new woman in his life, and he has admitted to "missing" me. So what's his problem, Mr. Blue? Where'd he go? I tried to be as low maintenance as possible. Do I fight or flee?
Ivan rode into the sunset. He's gone. Don't chase after him. It was a fun interlude that you two then toyed with over the phone, by e-mail, via sonnet, ode, etc., but the interludinary nature of the thing struck him and he has now taken a powder. He has stridden from the stage. People do this sometimes. They wake up one morning and there is Clarity sitting by the bed and they tiptoe from the room and don't look back. You called him more than once and he didn't respond. Don't call him again. Loss is a risk when one ventures into these waters, and one should bear the loss valiantly, even recklessly. And next time maybe charge more maintenance.
Dear Mr. Blue,
I'm coming to the end of the first draft of my first novel and I seem to be falling apart. I started writing it about a year ago, taking a break from my job as a freelance radio and magazine writer. At first, it was lovely. I was laying down a few thousand words a week, happily losing myself in the creative process, and not worrying too much about the construction of each sentence. About four weeks ago, life started to become a lot harder. Although I still love my book, it takes at least twice as long to get anything written, and by the end of the day, I'm in a toxic mood. I've developed a rash on my hands and forearms, I'm having trouble looking people in the eye and this morning I yelled so loud at my dog that my throat still hurts. He was about to bite the head off a tulip, but still. I think I know why I'm freaking out. I'm moving ever closer to the point where I'll have to open my work up to scrutiny and it terrifies me. What I'd like to know is whether my state of mind is normal. My second question is this. I should be finished with the first draft next week, and then I'll have about a month off before I need to start rewriting. What should I do?
1) Yes. 2) The second draft will be easier. You'll be horrified at some of what's in the first draft -- maybe horrified at much of it -- but it'll be clear what you need to do. The flabby stuff needs to be toned and shaped, the pointless digressions cut, the throat clearing cut, the wooden dialogue made real, and as you go along cutting out the underbrush, you'll see where whole new passages need to be created. Somewhere you should put in a tulip-eating dog. You'll expand on the dialogue. Little fragmentary episodes will develop into scenes. Jokes will suddenly crop up. And the shape of the thing will become clearer and you'll correct the lopsidedness of the first draft and pace things better. 3) You don't ask about the third draft, but surely you'll want to do one, and it will be even more fun than the second. With the third draft, the book should start to shine, and you'll look forward to opening it up to scrutiny (and admiration). Maybe there will be a fourth. Of course, if you're using a computer or word processor, the concept of "draft" is shaky, but nonetheless we writers use the term to represent a definite stage of composition.
Dear Mr. Blue,
I am a heterosexual male, 20, in college, who has decided to wait until marriage to have sex. There are many factors in my decision, including religion, but most of all I feel it would be smarter for me to wait, what with all the diseases, unwanted pregnancies and such out there right now. Add to that my decision (based on family history) not to drink alcohol or do drugs and I'm the life of the party! With two strikes against me, am I weird for making such a life choice?
V Is for Virgin
Your choices are not a matter for public opinion, and so weirdness is not an issue here. Your choices are your choices. Stick to them. There are no strikes against you that I can see. You're looking for a woman to fall in love with who will be attracted to a man who could make such choices. A woman who is troubled by your virginity or your sobriety is not that woman. But of course you don't want to be so defensive about your choices that you must condemn those who don't follow them -- self-righteousness is not so attractive. Unless, of course, one is seeking a self-righteous mate.
Dear Mr. Blue,
How do you deal with a burned-out co-worker who loves to whine and wants you to join in? I've only been at this job for eight months and am nowhere near burned out. I sympathize with this person, but she is draining me. Any advice?
Still Bright Eyed
Evasion is your best defense. The burnouts are seldom convinced by enthusiasm. They are looking for co-believers, sympathizers. They can be black holes that suck you into their vast emptiness. Find someone else to eat lunch with. Avoid casual conversation with her. Practice the art of poisoned courtesy. Listen to her when cornered and then excuse yourself, curtly, as soon as you can. Hie yourself in the other direction when she looms near. Unless she's crazy or clueless, she'll get the drift.
Dear Mr. Blue,
I'm a 40-year-old single woman living in the sticks and even though I love this country life with my dogs and cats, I'm human and tend to get lonely now and then. I've exhausted the dating pool here and have turned to the weird world of cyberspace for comfort and, amazingly, have met two different fellows who are very nice to chat with and flirt with and who give me some sort of hope. One is 90 minutes away, the other, five hours; and although they're both champing at the bit to meet me, I'd rather not. Not yet anyway. I'm afraid that the illusion of romance at this point is so nice and, truth be told, I'm feeling a bit fat and old and depressed and think that should I ever meet either of these friendly men they'd be disappointed, never to write again. And nope, I haven't and won't send them pictures of me because I look bad on film. Am I playing by the rules? Is it wrong to want to keep my distance for a while?
Lonely in Space
The aim of these cyber-flirtations is amusement, I believe, and if you hint at wanting to meet and can't bring yourself to meet, then you are something of a tease, but it doesn't seem wrong to me. Flirtation is its own pleasure; it isn't a step toward something else necessarily. The champers will only stay around so long as they too are amused, and they are free to fast-forward at any point. Send for my book "Becoming Slender and Young and Ebullient," with the retouched photo of the author, and in 30 days, you'll be ready to go to the dance.
Dear Mr. Blue,
After a couple of ravaging relationships in my 20s with beautiful, charming, crazy men, I am now engaged to and share a mortgage with a good man whom I love. We are great friends and have lots in common. What I most love about him, though, is that I can really count on him. He's flexible and kind and truly tries to understand me. I am not really attracted to him the way I am to other men, though, and I seem often attracted to other men. He has incredible passion physically and emotionally, though, and that is what drew me to him when the looks didn't do so much. Falling in love with him has been very gradual and is still humming along slowly and I am usually happy unless I hear someone else sharing how desperately in love they are. Then I feel terrible jealousy for that familiar sublime feeling and am equally repelled by it as I remember how bogus that great love seemed when it ended. I am not sure if this is about growing up and letting go of the myths of love, or if I just gave up completely and decided to settle for love with the one I'm with. I'd just love to get this right. Any insight?
Walking the Line
I gather that Mr. Reliable is somewhat homely, and as a homely man myself I'm a little hurt that you're not attracted to him more strongly, he being such a great fellow and all, but I'll get over it. You need to weigh these feelings you have about other men. You say, "I seem often attracted to other men" -- what does this mean exactly, my dear? Are we talking about a passing palpitation at the whiff of a certain after-shave? A slight flirtatiousness? An admiration of the thighs of runners? Or is your young heart trying to wriggle out of a tight place? "Settle" for him? This is a forlorn way of expressing love. Admiration is not a good enough reason to get hitched, I'm afraid. People need to get a big charge out of each other and launch the marriage in a joyful and passionate spirit. Of course it needn't happen in 10 minutes or less -- love can grow over weeks and months, even years -- but when you say, "I am not really attracted to him," it gives me trepidations. Proceed with caution. Look before you leap. Put the plans on hold if you're unsure.
Dear Mr. Blue,
I am very sad. I'm almost eight-and-a-half months pregnant with my first child. On Mother's Day, my husband did absolutely nothing, and I was crushed. I wasn't expecting brunch or a fancy gift, but he didn't even give me a card. He could have cleaned our messy house or done dishes and told me he wanted me to take a nap, because it was Mother's Day, and I would have let him off the hook, but not even this. After I sobbed about it for the second time, he told me that he doesn't buy into stupid national holidays like Mother's Day. (But he sent his own mother flowers.) It just hurt. I have had a hard pregnancy (months of heinous morning sickness, difficult relatives and work situation), and I have felt before that he doesn't realize or appreciate what I'm doing. Generally, he's a very kind, gentle person, and I love him a great deal. He'll be a good father. But he can be very selfish, and he's not very generous. Was I right to be so upset? How do we heal this?
Your hard pregnancy has taken a toll on you and I hope your gentle husband knows this and extends himself in your hour of need. But please let's not quarrel over Mother's Day. Some people do the day, other folks don't. It's a nice idea but not obligatory. I did nothing for my wife on Mother's Day (nor anything for my mother). It isn't that it's stupid; I simply exercise my right not to fall into line. So make a note of the fact that you will have to buy your own Mother's Day gift for a while and march away to the labor camp and take a deep cleansing breath and push, push, push, and enjoy that handsome baby and being its mother.
Dear Mr. Blue,
My beleaguered mother is near the end of her rope. My 50-year-old brother is in a self-destructive spiral that is about to end badly. He has lived for the past 20 years on a property mother owns -- she has managed the man-boy's pocket money for years -- which is about to be seized by the state because it was found to contain a methamphetamine kitchen run by Bill's "friends." Despite an extended stay in a certified rehab clinic, a couple of interventions, self-help programs, several arrests, years of probation and periodic urinalysis, brother Bill's 30-year spiral downward is now nearing the point where he could either die from the abuse he's inflicted on his body or go to prison, and the state could seize the property from my mother as it has promised they will do. Mother is 83. She would like one of us to help her manage what remains of Bill's life and future. The other children in the family, myself included, are reluctant to become entangled in the crisis. We believe brother Bill is inclined to continue what he has already done for 30 years. We think Mom should evict Bill from the property and withhold all financial support. That is my recommendation. The state will do as much in due time, but this may be Mom's last hope at direct intervention as Bill continues to binge toward oblivion. Mother wonders aloud how we could abandon our own brother in his time of need. Mom loves her son unconditionally and is determined to keep him out of harm's way according to her terms.
Is there anything we can do to save our brother from self-destruction and our mother from gut-wrenching sorrow while losing all faith in her remaining brood?
The state holds the reins here, and you should make sure your mother has capable legal counsel to defend her interests. If the case has not gone too far down the pike, the state may be interested in negotiating an arrangement whereby Bill is declared incompetent and committed to a long-term program, which the sale of the property could help pay for. A lawyer would know what might be worked out. Somehow Bill needs to be boxed in and this must be part of any deal you make with your mother. It's his Last Roundup, seeing as his patron saint is 83; it's time to get real, and so you should make a concerted family attempt, for Mother's sake, to herd the lost lamb into the barn and bar the door. She must feel utterly desperate and at wits' end these days, but a false solution is no good. You can't help him unless he or she consents to have him put out of harm's way.
One more thing: Don't let Bill's predicament become the main show in the family. This is a pernicious thing about the self-destructive: They glom onto our attention and forbid us to be lighthearted. Try to create a Bill-free zone with Mother in which you can simply enjoy her company and tell jokes, sing songs, play Parcheesi, whatever you like.
Dear Mr. Blue,
I am 23, just out of college, just landed an exciting job and have wonderful friends. Life is perfect except one small thing. Three years ago, I broke up with the only man I ever truly loved. I was young and did not want a serious relationship. My method of ending things was to have a one-night stand with an ex-boyfriend and then confess. Although we broke up, the Only Man is still my best friend in the world, and I his. In the three years since, I have had a number of short-term relationships. He has not gone on a single date. I still have strong romantic feelings for him, and I feel we were meant to be together. I believe I want to marry him.
But he refuses to entertain the notion of us dating again. He hates talking about it and won't tell me why he doesn't want to get back together. It is so painful to be in love with him and not have the kind of intimacy I crave with him. Should I get over him? Should I walk away from him forever? How can I stop loving him?
There is no one "right" person for you, the one you were "meant" to be together with. This is a myth that is beautiful and powerful in opera and romance novels and not applicable in real life. You have a great capacity to love and you want to find someone you can love passionately and wholeheartedly and who will return that love, and there are many, many possible partners. Three years is long enough for you to hang onto this one-sided romance. Throw yourself into your job, embrace the friends and separate yourself from this painful person who is, in his own silent way, controlling you. The friendship, at least on your side, is based upon the old romance, which apparently cannot be repaired. Don't live in the past; it's too cold there, sweetie. Maybe you can come back to this friendship in a few years, but for now, it's doing you no good, no good at all.
Dear Mr. Blue,
My wife of 20 years and I have a pretty good relationship, but I can't stand her constant back-seat driving. I find it annoying beyond words. She simply can't stop telling me that 1) the light ahead is red, 2) the speed limit is 35, 3) I did not make a complete stop and 4) I should use my turn signal. And it is getting worse. Last night, after I removed something from the microwave, she told me to shut the microwave door. I have tried asking politely, I have tried swearing, I have tried screaming but, alas, nothing works. Thoughts or suggestions?
There is a fine line between useful comment and harassment, and this sounds like the latter. One cure is to make the back-seat driver do the driving. It's very simple: Because she is not comfortable with your driving, she must take on the job. As for petty nagging in the home, it's to be ignored, a verbal tic, until it can't be ignored anymore, and then you have to say, "Cut me some slack. Don't instruct me on every little detail." Or words to that effect. Don't swear, don't scream. Her governess attitude is due to her own anxieties and anger, and adding your anger to hers is simply pointless. You might try fighting back with kindness instead. Sit down and write her a letter about how much you love her and value her and admire her. Elaborate on all of her good qualities. (Check the letter carefully for spelling and syntax: You don't want to get it back, corrected.) See if that helps. And please do remember to close the microwave door. You leave it open, your brains could turn to pudding.
Dear Mr. Blue,
An old friend and I occasionally get together between relationships to watch movies, drink wine, talk and make love. I treasure him and these evenings. There's no potential for a relationship beyond friendship, but we're both OK with that. The problem: He's got a bit of a potency issue and I never know quite what to say when faced with it. Eventually he's able to "close the deal" but getting there can be difficult, frustrating and embarrassing for him. I know what not to say ("It happens to other guys"), but I don't know what, if anything, I should say. What is proper impotency etiquette?
At a Loss for Words
What makes you think I'm familiar with this problem? Did you read my peroration on crab apple blossoms last week and think, Well, there's a guy who must know a thing or two about flaccidity. You were wrong. I have no experience with impotence; I can't even imagine what it's like. Well, let me try to imagine. I suggest you ignore the problem. Pay it no mind. (He's not drinking too much wine, is he? Or watching Woody Allen movies?) But do check around your lovemaking area and eliminate limp things such as lampshade tassels or droopy plants or accent pillows and place some hard vertical objects around, such as posts, pipes and pedestals. Turn the bed so the foot faces the North Pole. Sprinkle sand around it, sand from a peninsula. Offer him penicillin.
Dear Mr. Blue,
Sixteen years ago I walked away from a powerful, intense romance because neither one of us seemed at all capable of turning it into an enduring relationship. I later married and had kids -- he hadn't wanted any of that -- and I was actually rather proud of myself for choosing to live that part of my life anyway, and live it well. I believed I had walked away from destruction the way a drunk walks away from booze when she decides to stop drinking. Lately, however, I've lost my inspiration. I get out of bed every day, earn my living and live life with my kids only because it's the right thing to do, and I'm big on that. My husband has had a lot of ups and downs during our marriage, and we're not doing so well, between his issues and mine. And now I've become aware that all those feelings for the first man, which I thought had vanished long ago, are back as if they never left. I wonder why on earth I walked away from him. If I knew then what I know now, I would have done better. Please spare me the sermon about the humble glory to be found in living everyday life well. So what do you think: Was I deluded then, or am I deluded now?
Confused Wife and Mom
OK, I won't sermonize about humble glory, but I still believe in it, and I think you're probably doing quite well, on the whole. Inspiration is lost more often than glasses or car keys, but we keep getting out of bed and going to work and trying to do the right thing. Keep on trying. Inspiration will return. The thoughts of the Great Lover of Yore are like the thoughts we Minnesotans think in February about Antigua, prompted by our suffering: We think that if we bought a beach house there and a laptop computer, we'd write the next big blockbuster (The Latest Generation: Three-Year-Olds Reveal Their Hopes, Their Fears) AND we'd lose 40 pounds AND our wife would be truly happy at last AND lots more. And then we get out of bed and go to work. Respect the choice you made 16 years ago. Respect your decision to marry and have kids. Don't reopen the case. Be humble, be glorious. Amen.