Bad behavior

My roommate spits on the floor and farts regularly, no matter who's present. Is there any delicate way to address this sensitive topic?

Published May 30, 2001 7:49PM (EDT)

Mr. Blue took a drive the other day to visit old friends whose son, an only child, a cum laude graduate of a year ago, has been diagnosed with a degenerative disease with a brick-wall prognosis. We sat in the backyard and visited and remarked on the lovely weather and argued politics and joked about friends and our mutual past and we did not discuss the unspeakable, since the young man was there, quiet, friendly, taking a keen interest in my 3-year-old daughter who was playing up to him, as she often does to young men. Thinking about his horrific situation, one feels the definition of comedy enlarged, the boundaries moving outward a few miles. Things that once outraged me may now become light comedy, of short duration, thanks to a brush with genuine misfortune. The 3-year-old flirted with the young man, went through her repertoire of tricks, lolled against his chair, reveled in his attention. He studied her hard, in a gingerly way. He will never have a child or even, perhaps, a real romantic relationship. He is on a short and steep slide, he and his parents. It is unthinkable, but God grant him every mercy and God convince us of our phenomenal good luck in having ordinary lives.

After my diatribe against August in Texas, a reader in Dallas waxes poetic about summer: "To me, summer heat offers a bodily experience that's very visceral, an enlarging of every pore on your skin, the feeling of your metabolic processes at work, of producing all this sweat. I actually love to sweat. Your body becomes all the more corporeal and wondrous as you sweat. Still, I write to you from an air-conditioned room, saying all of this. But trust me, there's a physical loveliness to the heat."

OK, I'm trusting you. I am glad not to be there sweltering myself but I trust that you are a lovely and wondrous person and even more so at high temperatures.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I have recently begun sharing an efficiency apartment with a male roommate. He seems to be lacking most of the social graces. For example, he nonchalantly farts on a regular basis, with no regard for who may be present and without excusing himself. He also spits on the carpeted floor when smoking his pipe. I feel uncomfortable about mentioning my disdain for his behavior, as I generally do not discuss such topics and I am the one invading his space, being the new roommate. How may one delicately, yet clearly, address such a sensitive topic?

Civilized but Timid

Dear Civilized,

The delicate question is, Who was here first? Evidently, he was, and so your discomfort at his behavior is really your cue to look for another place. I don't think this is anything you need to discuss. The nonchalance of the farting to me is the crowning touch. A person who breaks wind freely, with no attempt to explain or apologize or conceal, is someone God meant to live alone. Give notice and look for a new abode. It was his parents' responsibility to bring him up and they failed and a roommate doesn't have the time or leverage to do the job.

Dear Mr. Blue,

A month ago I married a wonderful man, my high school sweetheart, in a small small, lovely ceremony (there were only 12 people there, including our parents and best friends). It was perfect, and exactly what we wanted and what we could afford. The only problem is my 81-year-old grandfather, who lives in another state and is in very poor health. He and my grandmother sent me a beautiful card and a check as a wedding present, and I wrote them a fairly long thank-you note. Last week I received a very hateful, hurtful and irrational letter from my grandfather in reply. He is very angry that I didn't invite him or the rest of the family to the wedding and he basically insulted me and my husband. He had a couple of strokes in the past few years, and is descending into angry senility. My husband wants me to confront him with his insults. But I love him, and I don't want him to think of me with this kind of anger and hostility. How should I reply to his letter?

Hurt Bride

Dear Hurt,

Irascibility is a fate that we old folks dread, along with being shuffled off into a warehouse and lying semisensible in a cinderblock cubicle and having to listen to treacly string arrangements of '60s pop. So forgive the sour old man. Don't confront him any more than you'd confront an old china vase. Wrap him in cotton batting. Send him a sweet apology and a note lauding the kindness of your new husband. You excluded your grandpa from your wedding and he was mightily irked and he fired his blunderbuss across the fields and let that be the end of it. His angry letter isn't the summation of how he feels about you, it's only an angry letter. Admire it as an example of the art and as his attempt to marshal his waning forces, and put it aside in the family archive, and don't worry about it.

Dear Mr. Blue,

My fiancé and I moved in together about six months ago. I love him more than anything in the world, and he feels the same about me. The problem is our families. He comes from a family of careful breeding. His dad is a banker, and his mother is a doctor. They have traveled all over the world. My family is mostly white trash and irresponsible druggies and party-loving people. My mom abandoned us to go party and do drugs, and my father is not much better. I have aunts and uncles up the wazoo that are about the same also. So my fiancé does not like my family for obvious reasons, and I do not like his because they are stuck-up snobs. It hurts him when I tell him I would rather jump off a cliff than accept an invitation for brunch at the club, and it hurts me when he pretends not to know my mother when he runs into her at the grocery store. Now we have decided to move to another town. Do you think that is a good idea? I can't decide if it will really help matters, or if we just need to stay where we are and put all the differences aside as best as we can?

Hate My Future In-laws

Dear Hate,

What's important is what's going on between the two of you, and moving to another town won't change that, of course, but if it makes you feel better, good, do it. Our great country was settled by migrants, many of whom were anxious to see the New World because they had to get away from their families. So find your New World. Your fiancé probably ignores your mother out of loyalty to you, as a way of paying her back for abandoning you. You're put off by his family because they're put off by you. To them, you are the horror they have feared since he was a toddler, the bad girl from the trailer park who seduces young Reginald III with casual sex and leeches off him and his upstanding family. But that's all done now. You've seduced him. So now you need to make a life together, which is the hard part, and if your families aren't helping, then put them in the rear-view mirror and make them get small.

Dear Mr. Blue,

My boyfriend is a wonderful person -- fun, generous, compassionate, devoted -- but I've never felt passion toward him, and don't know that I ever will. And more and more, I've begun to think about other men who do arouse my romantic interest, which leaves me feeling both guilty and increasingly curious. I would leave him before I acted on that curiosity, but I'm torn between my need for a passionate relationship and my reluctance to hurt him in any way -- this lovely man who adores me and has shown me nothing but kindness. Coupled with the fact that we live in a major city and I can't very well send him onto the streets on his limited salary; I've no idea what to do. And the thought of breaking his heart breaks mine.


Dear Asunder,

The sexual revolution gave ordinary folks like you and me the idea that sexual passion was basic to life, a sort of fundamental right, which is true in the sense that it's part of our common animal nature, and everyone should be able to enjoy his or her own body. But the passions of other species are of brief duration and are completely satisfied in the act, whereas we humans have separated the passion from its biological purpose -- I realize I am starting to sound like an elderly cardinal now, but bear with me -- and the longing for passion is a sort of low-grade virus circulating among us. Look at the windfall profits of the dreadful novels and movies that play on this virus and you see how pervasive it is.

You could write a lucrative novel based on your own story: You have the first chapter now, and the second is your tearful parting with this devoted man, and then you find the passionate man -- actually, a series of them, because passion is a gas, not a solid, and one must go back to the original chain reaction of seduction/conquest to create it -- and so you go, and maybe this is what you want, maybe not. I don't know. Maybe there is some real passion between the two of you, and you've covered it up with layers of habit and a sort of gentility that doesn't venture into these waters, and maybe you need to tear gentility aside and try to have a passionate experience with him. Apply all of your powers, set the stage and then pounce, and do thrilling unspeakable things and see if you can't excite him to the point where he does thrilling things back. Your curiosity about other men can be turned toward the man you're with -- he's made of the same stuff -- and in the dark you can even pretend he's one of them. If he gets really excited, he might surprise you.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I have just completed another year of teaching freshman composition at a small private college, and I fear it is making me old before my time. I am utterly dismayed at the ignorance and laziness of my students. Not only do they skip class, miss appointments with me and hand in papers late, but they have somehow managed to graduate high school with almost no real knowledge. They have no concept of grammar and look at me as though I'm speaking a foreign language when I use technical terms like "subject" and "verb." Many of these students report getting A's and B's on papers they've handed in for other college courses.

I feel I have two choices. I can simply give up, go along with the crowd, accept any minimal coherence as competence, reward basic competence as excellence and send these barely literate students on their happy way toward a college degree. Or, I can become the hard-ass bitch teacher from hell and drag as many of them as possible, kicking and screaming, into the world of literacy. This is not exactly what I signed on for when I decided to teach college students. I had hoped to be engaging young minds in discussions of literature, politics and culture. But here I am. What do you suggest?


Dear Dismayed,

You're right, teaching is not a job for the fainthearted, and your task right now, it seems to me, is to go back to the drawing boards and rethink your course. Skipping class is their prerogative and always has been -- we can't herd them into their stalls and clamp on the stanchions -- and the challenge is to make a class they won't want to skip. Every teacher has to have a little vaudeville in her. What are your students writing their papers about? Maybe they need stimulation -- writing is best done in a state of excitation -- and it isn't easy for amateur writers to find their way to what excites them. Writing is all about making oneself known, and part of the composition teacher's task is to want to know these young people; contempt is poisonous to the enterprise. Consider having the students work in teams, correcting each other's papers, helping each other with rewriting. And consider making fewer assignments. One 1,000-word essay, edited and rewritten several times until it comes to a state of some finish and poise and coherence, is worth 10 failed attempts. In teaching composition, you face a crowd of students, some of whom are flying high and only need a little prompting and encouragement, some of whom seem hopeless, and then there's that whole bunch of silence in the middle. You talk and talk and talk into the chasm and are never sure what they hear. But you're the performer, you hold the microphone, you have the power and the impetus, and you have to accept your audience as they come to you. If they're barely literate, then you have to work with that. For some young folks, English is their second language and they don't have a first one. Yikes. But there they are and you have to do what you can.

Dear Mr. Blue,

My sister and I were raised by an insane and extremely abusive father and an alcoholic, depressive, oft-negligent mother. We were, to most appearances, a normal and functional household. Our parents generally know how to get their acts together before outsiders and in public, despite which they both have police records for disturbing the peace during their periodic explosive arguments. I just graduated from college, magna cum laude, and have the skills to strike out on my own. My sister is an honors graduate of high school. We've both had it with them, and I plan to cut off contact this summer, and my sister is hoping to get a full scholarship for college, which would enable her to follow my lead and become independent. They've treated us abominably, but I know they've invested emotional energy in us and care about us in a fundamental, though perhaps abstract way. But they make both of us deeply unhappy. My sister looks up to me and is waiting to see whether I'll be maintaining minimal contact with them or not. I can't decide whether to keep in touch with them. Disowning them might make things harder on my sister, who may need tuition money from them for four more years; yet having them in my life is very stressful, especially since they tend to harass me over the telephone when the mood takes them and have stalked and threatened both of us in the past. All in all, I don't know what to do.

Done Being a Daughter

Dear Done,

Disowning your parents seems unnecessarily dramatic. Of course I don't know exactly what "stalking" means in this context -- does it mean your dad came looking for you? And what exactly is harassment? Family members harass each other all the time, in some sense. If Mom and Dad are out of hand and behaving badly, then you don't need to be in touch with them, but I don't see why you should go to great ends to keep them from contacting you. (Changing your name, moving to Tahiti, gaining 50 pounds and dyeing your hair orange.) It sounds as if you've escaped from a lousy situation in pretty good shape, so thank your lucky stars and strike out on your own and do what you can for your sister and let your miserable parents be. See how they behave in the next year or two, now that you're independent. No need to sentimentalize them and wrap them in ribbons, but heck, they're your parents.

Dear Mr. Blue,

A handful of years ago, I met a quirky, sweet, intelligent man and we had an affair. And then his girlfriend moved back to town and we broke up. At the time I was heartbroken. We kept in sporadic, friendly touch after that, and I have moved on and am dating a sweet man who loves me, but I've always remembered the old boyfriend fondly, and in a fit of nostalgia the other night, I typed his name into a search engine. I found a post to a newsgroup he made about four years ago, two months after we broke up. It was clearly about me, giving my initials and physical description (though not my name) and in the crudest and most violent possible language it talked about how much he hated me, calling me a bitch, a slut and worse. He describes in disgusting detail his fantasy about kidnapping me, then systematically torturing, raping and killing me. It was scary stuff and I can't get it out of my head. I'm a bit worried about him. I want to send him an e-mail telling him I found the message, asking him if that's how he truly remembers me, and if he's OK. But part of me thinks I should just let it go. I can't, though -- I feel as if a part of my heart has been going along believing a lie.

Heartbroken Again

Dear Heartbroken,

I would not poke this particular wasps' nest if I were you; I would either walk away from it or blast it with bug bomb. I don't see any happy outcome from e-mailing the gentleman and asking him what he means when he talks about rape and murder. He's not "OK," is the short answer to your question. Print out the postings and take them to the police or the district attorney and try to get a clear reading from a professional. You should feel threatened by this writing and there are professionals who can assess the threat carefully and advise you on your options. And of course talk to your sweet man about it.

Dear Mr. Blue,

For three years I've been in a relationship with a guy who's fun, smart and whom I love like I never loved before. Since the beginning he's been telling me about his doubts about our relationship. He was unsure "what to do next," though sometimes he would talk about a family together. He just seemed divided in two.

Some weeks ago, I found out that he cheated on me several times in the last year. I confronted him and he admitted everything. He said he was in terrible conflict and did all that he did. Now he says he wants to be a different person. He loves me and wants me back. He won't lie anymore. He wants things to work out.

I feel I am unable to trust him again, but I cannot stop seeing him or contacting him. Life seems just not interesting without him in it. On one hand, I feel like I should just turn the page, let go. On the other, I find myself absolutely incapable to do that.

I am working in the States but I could have another life waiting for me. I am from Norway and came here to study and work. I could just quit my job (which I want to quit anyway), cross the ocean and start a new life of which he is not a part. On the other hand, I don't want to run away.

Please give me some advice "from the outside." I am so involved in all this that I cannot think straight.

Divided in Two

Dear Divided,

The matter of trust is difficult to address in the abstract, at a distance. You look in his eyes, you hear his voice, you hold his hand and you take your reading of his intentions, and you weigh your own experience and doubts, and you make your choice. Repairing the damage may take time, though, and you shouldn't be the repairperson. I think you could go ahead and quit the job you want to quit and do what's good for you yourself -- go back to Norway, if only for the summer, and stay in touch with him, if you like, and hear what he has to say. Let the gentleman write you e-mail. This may be a great experience for him and a stimulus to his literary powers. Why deprive him of the opportunity? You're not running away, you're giving him a chance to think.

Dear Mr Blue,

I have a partner of eight years who is truly one in a million. His biggest gift to me has been his unconditional love. In almost all respects, we are extremely well suited. Except for sex. It's been a problem from the beginning, and I have done everything I could to improve this area of our relationship, from lingerie to counseling. I have told him what I like, and he is always willing to please. But passion and chemistry can't be forced, and that's what is ultimately lacking. After years of trying, and rarely succeeding, I have come to the conclusion that we are very different sexually -- what I find exciting he just doesn't, and vice versa. I love this man deeply, and have always considered him my life's partner. But I am still a young woman and I can't imagine spending the rest of my life with a man I am not sexually compatible with. The trouble is, I can't imagine walking away from someone who nourishes me and makes me happy in so many other ways. This man is special, and what we have together is rare indeed. Am I expecting too much?


Dear Frustrated,

No, you aren't. But why did it take you eight years to come to this juncture? That seems to me much too long to spend with a man who doesn't interest you sexually. How many different styles of lingerie does one need to model, how many counselors must you visit before you accept the conclusion? He bores you. Of course, if your tastes are somewhat rarefied and you're only excited by a man naked except for toe shoes, standing en pointe on the bedpost, juggling six tennis balls, three green and three yellow, and whistling "Nessun dorma," then you've got your work cut out for you. Myself, speaking as a guy, I feel there's a lot to be said for hand-holding, nuzzling, the arm around the shoulder, etc. Occasionally, I'm willing to get out the harnesses, the tiki torches, the Saran Wrap, the Mazola, the wheelbarrow full of mud and the Mary Poppins video, and thrill my partner, but more and more, as time goes by, I'm satisfied with companionship. But we are simple country people, so what do we know?

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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