If these walls could talk

I made a joke about my transgendered co-worker's looks, and I'm afraid she overheard me. I should probably fess up and apologize, but what if she didn't hear me?

By Garrison Keillor

Published June 12, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

Mr. Blue traveled to Princeton and Harvard last week to witness the graduations of the children of friends, two gorgeous public events. Processions of young men and woman in black gowns, some of them wearing suits and dresses underneath, others in shorts and tank tops, but no matter, and faculty with their gorgeous hoods hanging down their backs, and then, crowding the procession routes, all those happy parents and grandparents and brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles with so much naked emotion in their faces. Pride and hope and relief and pride. At Princeton, I thought, of course, of my fellow St. Paulite F. Scott Fitzgerald who attended the school with grandiose dreams of being a campus hero and then flunked out and wound up back in St. Paul where he wrote his big novel. After graduation, I ran into a graceful Princeton man named Tom Wright who looked pretty spiffy in a cream-colored linen suit and who showed me Old Nassau Hall where the Continental Congress met during the Revolution, and introduced me to Scott Berg, the biographer of Fitzgerald and Charles A. Lindbergh, now working on Woodrow Wilson, he said. He confirmed the details of my favorite FSF story, about the summer of 1919 that F. spent living with his parents in their cramped townhouse in St. Paul, revising his twice-rejected novel, the manuscript pages pinned to the curtains in the 3rd floor bedroom, and spending his evenings on the veranda of Mrs. Porterfield's boardinghouse on Summit Avenue with his friends John Briggs and Donald Ogden Stewart, talking about his girlfriend down in Alabama and about this wonderful novel and how it would bring him fame and money and win the girl's hand. And he was right. And when his novel was accepted by Scribner's, Fitzgerald walked up Summit Avenue stopping cars, telling everybody he knew. The veranda of Mrs. Porterfield's is just around the corner from my house in St. Paul, and I was glad to have a scholar like Mr. Berg verify the essential details of a story I've been telling people for years.

At Harvard, I had to stifle my old Midwestern biases against the joint -- it is filthy rich, the seat of an unwarranted elitism, and despite the distinguished trademark, the quality of undergraduate education can be pretty shabby -- and enjoy the gracefulness of the big day, the pride of my friends, the loveliness of the graduates, the grandeur of the Yard.

Boston is a charming city that I associate with a sort of fusty and pointless eccentricity that drives me nuts. A city of crazy aunts. You go to dinner in Boston and you wind up sitting next to somebody who talks your ear off about sackbuts or who knows the words to every song Tom Lehrer wrote and needs to recite them to you. But then one day you wind up sitting next to John Updike, and your view of the city changes. Updike is my hero and the author of a piece about Ted Williams' last game in Boston, "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu," that I admired so much 40 years ago that it set back my own writing career for a long time. No sportswriter ever wrote anything better. And of course, for the Rabbit Angstrom novels, he is the literary giant of my generation. So one is a little overwhelmed to meet him, and then one compensates by being a little overeager and chatty and schoolgirlish, but he takes it all in stride. A good Lutheran man and a handsome one with a head of white hair and a big grin. And what a pleasure to find out that one's hero is all you wanted him to be and a little more.

Dear Mr. Blue,

A woman recently started work in our office who is transgendered, a man in the process of becoming a woman, but unfortunately, she is pretty obviously a man. Yesterday, while talking to a co-worker, I made an insensitive remark about her (his) looks and suddenly she stood up from a nearby cubicle and walked back to her desk. I'm unsure about whether I should approach her and apologize. If she did hear me, I feel I owe it to her. If she didn't hear me, I'd be opening an embarrassing can of worms for both of us. I suppose I should let it go and live with the consequence that she may think me a moron. Besides confirming that opinion, can you advise?

Big Mouth

Dear Big Mouth,

If she speaks up and tells you what an insensitive jerk you are and how you've wounded her, then apologize profusely and sincerely, and if she doesn't, then assume that she didn't hear you and don't say a word. What you did was perfectly ordinary. I have overheard people say unpleasant things about me, I have even read unpleasant and untrue things in print, but what does it matter? It's just life as we know it. We all stand around and gas about each other and so what? Your transgendered colleague might be hurt by humorous remarks, but in the end, the people who make those remarks could turn out to be truer friends than those who tried hard to seem sensitive and supportive. Humor is just human, whether it's insensitive or not. Laughter you can deal with -- I don't know how you deal with pity.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I dearly love my fiancé. He is an intelligent, kind-hearted soul. He has told me he loves me and I have no doubt he will be a fine husband and father of my children. Problem: His favorite leisure-time activity is watching sports and comedies on TV. He hasn't a romantic bone in his body. Birthdays pass, anniversaries pass, sunsets pass -- and he is not stirred to do anything spontaneous. Should I resign myself to this or should I try to teach him about the value of romantic actions? Or should I look for another man who does, even though this will mean giving up one of the best and most reliable things I have ever had?


Dear Longing,

Where is the intelligence here? People in nursing homes sit and chuckle over TV comedies, and the rest of us need to find real lives, which include bold romantic gestures. We need to celebrate birthdays and declare our romantic feelings and admire sunsets. Put your foot down. Make a scene. Embarrass him into turning off the TV and waking up and getting a life. Don't let this pass. Now is your last chance to get his attention.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a young painter wondering if, in order to become a successful Artist, you must whittle your oeuvre down to a single subject/theme? The most successful artist I know does flowers. That's all she does. And I'm torn because I look at her and think she's so successful and so boring. So will I have to give up all the other things I do (music, writing, crafts, etc.) and become a one-trick pony to become a success?


Dear Loser,

To find an artistic center is not the same as being a one-trick pony. It is common for mature artists to find some focus that eluded them in youth. They find out how short life really is and how hard it is to do one thing well. And they find one thing they can pour themselves into. And so John Updike doesn't sing in nightclubs and Woody Allen doesn't make movies about folks in Nebraska. The motivation is not necessarily cynical, though it's true that focus is also a good marketing strategy. An artist's public will tend to identify him with one subject or theme, and so it behooves him to decide what he wants that to be. Some of us have a relentless urge to attempt what we can never be good at and neglect our true calling. Photographers want to write, writers want to direct, directors want to paint, painters want to -- I don't know what they want to do, but they shouldn't do it.

Dear Mr. Blue,

Jane and I got to be really good friends over the last six months. We dine together most evenings and our weekends are spent lazing about or driving around the city in a series of pointless tasks invented just for something to do. We go to the movies, plays, the bookstore and breakfast. Both of us are in our mid-20s. Her laughter caused that pitter-patter for which all romantics long. I want to kiss her on the mouth with an orchestra playing. I'd love to tell her I love her, but laying the future of this relationship on the line makes me tremble. I confess nothing. Can men and women our age be friends without this happening? Or do you think she might like me?


Dear Stoic,

You describe it very poetically, sir, the delicious tremors of a man in love with a lovely woman. If she keeps finding reasons to see you, take it as a good sign, and at some propitious moment -- a lull in the conversation, a break in the music or when the movie is over and you walk to your car and come to where the street lamp casts a pool of soft yellow light on the peony bushes -- you turn to her and say, "I hope you know I love you." And then maybe a flatbed truck rolls up carrying 40 fat saxophonists in white tuxes playing "Deep Purple" or maybe it doesn't. But the thought is out there. Don't write her a 30-page letter, you'll wind up saying more than you mean to, and you'll scare the cookies out of her. But the simple "I love you" is a sweet sentiment and will give her something to ponder.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm a young man with a "brick wall" disease that has become a sort of low background hum to me, but somehow I haven't been able to give my "news" to my mother. It's strange to hold this power, but I do want to wield that information with tact and compassion. I'm still withholding it from my mother, who lost my older brother to cancer less than a year ago. How can I tell her what I have been living with for several years? I'll find a way, because I love her and I know that she needs to know. I'll do the work. It's strange, though, to feel that my life is over; and yet, I experience life with a great intensity. My soul marshals the energy to create a whole life in an afternoon. And another whole life in an evening.


Dear Dominic,

Your life is your own and so is your death and this intensity you experience is such a priceless good that you should savor it fully and postpone having to deal with the pity of other people. That's hard work and only you know how hard it will be and how your mother and family and friends will deal with this news. Can you imagine postponing the news release until people begin to suspect something -- because your head keeps falling off or you start hallucinating and speaking Swedish -- and they ask for an explanation? Surely, you will know when the time has come to speak, and you will not postpone it simply for fear of the pain and tears and disbelief. But meanwhile, you're entitled to experience these lives of the soul and the privacy of your thoughts.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am 30 and I color my hair. I've always liked red hair -- so that's what I've got. I love it. But complete strangers ask me: "Is that your real color?" Checkout clerks, salespeople, people I'm meeting for the first time. Some women ask me where I get my hair done. But I'm tired of this. Particularly when it's from a stranger, I think it's rude. Is there a more tactful way to let them know that where my hair color comes from is none of their business?

Seeing Red

Dear Seeing,

It's a rude question, though perhaps innocently so. To strangers, people you meet for the first time, you simply say yes. Or you say no. Depending on your mood. The abruptness tells the questioner enough about her rudeness; there's no need to phrase some elaborate tactful response for someone you don't care about in the first place.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I have been dating a man for almost two years. When we first met he was attentive and wanted to move in with me after six months. I told him to wait another six months and see what happens. After that time, he decided he didn't want to and has become increasingly distant. I ask him for dinner and he says he will let me know if he is going to be in town and then I don't hear back from him. I am very much in love with him. Do you think I made a mistake by not letting him move in and should I keep pursuing this guy? I feel like I am on a roller coaster and think about him constantly. We are both in our 60s.

Lonely in Houston

Dear Lonely,

You sense his distance and that's a sense you can bank on, I'll bet. Pursuing him is likely to only push him farther away. A man resents being roped into having dinner and this man is dropping large clues in the form of sheer rudeness, not responding to an invitation. Your urgency is giving him a case of the yips. Don't think about whether deflecting his advance was a mistake (it wasn't), just try to get some resolution as soon as possible. You do that by stopping calling him. If he has an interest, he'll call you. That's how that works.

Dear Mr. Blue,

My boyfriend, whom I've lived with for four years, is a bookseller who enjoys the simple life. I'm not a shallow person, or at least I didn't used to be. But lately I've become one. While my brain wants him to continue being happy working away at the bookstore, deep down I'm pissed that all of our finances will always depend on me -- that we may never see Tokyo, that my coffee tables will always come from Goodwill and good wine's on me. How can I make my heart understand what my brain does? Or is that impossible and should I dump him and hope to find someone who has a savings account and hopefully, as good a sense of humor?

Lady Breadwinner

Dear Lady,

Did you intend to say "who I deeply love and who makes me laugh and is a gentle and exciting lover" and just forget to say it? Or is the bad feeling about money symptomatic of some coolness in your heart? I would never recommend that you dump a bookseller: I'm an author with a book coming out and do not want to piss off booksellers and find that my tome has been shelved in the back room under Religion. But I do think that arguments over money are mean and grim and should be avoided if possible. And to search for romance on the basis of net worth is a grim enterprise, funny as it may be in musical comedies.

Dear Mr. Blue,

My boyfriend recently dropped me for a younger woman. Just before and during the process, he had surgery and he called me on occasion for groceries with promises to pay. Recently I sent a note reminding him of the amount. If I had any money at all, I would never have mentioned it, but I'm short on funds and the ratio between his income and mine is about 8 to 1. This is the note I just received from him: "You are relentless and you are turning me off fast. Do remember that I have been quite generous with you."

The pain of the drop is one thing: The shock of this moves things into a whole other dimension. How do I respond?

One Who Has Loved Not Wisely but Too Well

Dear One,

It's tempting, I'm sure, to sit down and write him a real torpedo of a letter and fire it out the aft tubes, but don't. Don't respond. Don't hit that old Tar Baby. Just tell yourself, "Thank goodness I will never have to deal with this jerk again, a man who asks favors of a woman he's in the process of dumping and then doesn't pay his debts." And then you don't ever deal with him again. Don't get into a pissing contest; you wind up ruining your good shoes. You write him that torpedo and two weeks later the guy jumps off a 40th story balcony and splatters on the pavement and how do you feel then? Don't add to the anger and meanness that's already in the world. Hold your fire.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I have been with my boyfriend for three years -- he is 36, I am 29. I am optimistic and intensely curious about the world, and want to go out and experience it. He is very pessimistic about the world, people in particular, and he is content to stay at home and retreat into his mind, usually by playing those epic computer games. He seldom seeks out activities to share together aside from movies or restaurants, content with a quiet domestic existence. We are, however, very good friends, having intellectual things in common, we love each other very much and the sex is really good. I want to have a full life, with marriage, a child, a house, some dogs and enjoy with a mate everything this world has to offer. He is torn between this picture and the solitary life of his imagination, but the latter prospect leaves him feeling a bit sad and alone. Is there room for compromise between us? Or should I give up and move on?

Wanting Someone to Dance With

Dear Wanting,

Of course there's room for compromise, though I can't tell you what the terms are. But an introspective guy and an aggressive outgoing woman can be a very good combination. Plenty of couples fit that description. You love each other and you're good friends and you've been together three years, and there's the main thing. But something in your description of him worries me and if by "pessimistic" you really mean "paranoid and obsessive," then that's something else. There is a certain basic social hunger that I associate with maturity, a love of society and conversation, whether it's dark or light. Your guy sounds slightly adolescent to me. I mean, we all went through it, but now it's over. Our task as adults is to find congenial company -- the world is full of boring dinner parties and dreadful obligatory social events, all of which are to be avoided or briefly endured and then escaped -- but a healthy person craves society, I believe. The couples I'm thinking of consist of a bright and witty and gregarious woman and a reserved and somewhat darker man but a man whose darkness makes a nice duet with her and who enjoys seeing his wife shine. Is your guy someone you can take out in public -- is he capable of the normal byplay -- or is he heading down that long dirt road toward life in the lonely mobile home full of cats and computers and Dinty Moore cans? You be the judge.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I don't know if I'm experiencing a run-of-the-mill midlife crisis or if there is something useful going on. I am 46, a lawyer, and I keep thinking about wanting to teach. I feel I've reached a point in my life where I have something worth saying to students, and I've had it with thinking like a lawyer and endlessly filing papers. Law seems stultifying and dehumanizing to me at this point, and I am convinced that you are what you do. Do you think it would be silly to investigate a career change at this point in my life?

Sick of Law

Dear Sick,

Wanting to teach is a mighty healthy impulse and you shouldn't ignore it. One of my favorite courses ever was Paul Murphy's course in constitutional law at the University of Minnesota, a seminar for liberal arts students, in which we read up on crucial Supreme Court cases like Plessy vs. Ferguson and Brown vs. Board of Education and delved into the law library. A great course. For one thing, it taught a bunch of lazy '60s radicals something about the majesty of the court system and the art of argument. Law would be a great course for high school kids, a course that combines political science and composition, and who better than you to teach it? Whatever you decide to do, "silly" is the last word I'd use to describe the urge to teach.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I need some advice about an engagement ring. Jewelers recommend spending two months of salary on a ring, which is silly. Besides, my girlfriend is very casual and down-to-earth, and tends to stick to subtle adornments. She also likes my taste, so I think I should find something nice for about $2,500 to $3,000. On the other hand, I worry that spending too much on a ring will make her terrified of losing it, and if I spend too little, maybe her friends and family will talk behind her back about the fiancée with the nice car who got her a crummy ring. Help!

Marrying Man

Dear Marrying,

First of all, the jeweler's yardstick is pure b.s. Pay it no heed, same as if I said you should donate two months' of salary to your local public radio station. There are beautiful things, jewelry and clothes and vacations and properties, and you can surprise your lovely lady with any of them at any time in your long and happy life together, but they don't have to come at the beginning. You can find a beautiful ring for $100 or less. What makes it beautiful is your love. It's not a dowry, it's a symbol. My wife and I (before she was my wife) were traveling together through Arizona and we walked into a craft shop at a Hopi pueblo and found these beautiful rings that we still wear, for about $75 apiece. You can leave the diamonds for later and also the emeralds, and rubies. First comes love, and for that, you only need a simple emblem.

Dear Mr. Blue,

Life couldn't be better. I've been married to a fabulous man for almost a year now. We have two lovable dogs and a nice little house in a great town. I just got a new job that I'm excited about and my husband is in graduate school. However, due to our age (early 30s) and financial stability, there is talk flitting around about babies. Almost all our married friends have them. I love being an aunt, but I just have no desire to have kids myself. Is it so terrible to be selfish? To not want your life to revolve around a child for 10-20 years? My friends who have kids say it's the best thing ever. But just because an experience is out there, and almost everyone else does it, does that give it any intrinsic value?

Reluctant Mother

Dear Reluctant,

Of course you don't have to bear children. Why bother asking me? It's like asking, Do I have to care about baseball? No, you don't. Am I supposed to attend Mass on Sunday? No, not if you don't want to. It's a free country. You don't have to bear children. I know couples who haven't borne children and who love each other and who also love children. At least they love my child. They adore my child. And afterward they go home. It's not selfish to decide not to have children. Whatever your friends say is fine for them but it doesn't apply to you. Of course there is the case of my wife, an independent woman who went through her early 30s with no interest in having children and then met me and after a few years she developed an interest and said so and we begat a little girl, the apple of our eye. This is no lesson for you, but motherhood is mysterious, and it's interesting how the ball bounces. Good luck.

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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