Nouveau annoying

My longtime friend married an older wealthy man and seems to have forgotten that not everyone makes six figures. Sometimes she's so insensitive I want to strangle her!

By Garrison Keillor

Published June 19, 2001 7:29PM (EDT)

Some big thunderstorms rolled across St. Paul last week, with lots of nearby lightning strikes to shake the windows and a downpour of rain, and Mr. Blue got to stand on the front porch with Baby Blue and enjoy the rock 'n' roll. It's a modest life here in River City, no struggle for fame and power, just the occasional spell of weather, and a good June thunderstorm is a great boon in every way. It rinses the air and greens up the lawn and garden and gives us a demonstration of power far beyond human control. And the thunderclaps make a little girl laugh out loud. And afterward everything is somehow changed, the ions rearranged. You go for a walk after a good rollicking thunderstorm and feel your own life slightly altered. We live in a mixed bag of a neighborhood, the sort of neighborhood you find a lot of in St. Paul, which doesn't have lawn police, and as you stroll around, you pass old manses lovingly restored and Home & Garden yards and you also pass old manses with trees growing out of the eaves and ancient rags for curtains and yards that look as if the owners are seriously on heroin. But after a deluge, we're all refreshed, obsessive and neglectful alike, and a sort of democracy of meteorology prevails. And as I write this, the sky is darkening and the light turning purplish and there is a great stillness in the yard. Two hundred miles east of here, a westbound plane from Boston is slowing down as the FAA computers tracking the storm rearrange the landing slots at Minneapolis-St. Paul and the sleeping forms in Row 23 stir slightly at the change of engine pitch and the pilot comes on the P.A. and warns of possible turbulence and the lady in 2A asks for another bloody mary and west of here the farmers whose fields are already soggy go to the refrigerator and get out a beer and here in our house a little girl looks out the window at the dark sky and turns to me and says, "Boom!"

Dear Mr. Blue,

I have been friends with Patricia since we were 15. We're in our late 20s now and have led vastly different lives. She went to boarding school and college abroad; I went to public high school and a great state university. I never felt uncomfortable with the disparity, until she married a man 12 years her senior who is rather wealthy, and now the issue of money has become very awkward. She's gotten truly snobby. Giving little thought to what others make, she flaunts her expensive purchases, openly raves about how much they spend on travel and assumes that everyone lives this way. My husband and I are comfortable and want for little, but she and I have mutual friends who are graduate students barely scraping by. Every time she comments that everyone should have a cleaning woman twice a week, I want to strangle her. Aside from the fact that it's insensitive, it makes me sad that she's become so unaware of the world of those making under six figures. She can't talk politics, art, literature or psychology -- it's all shopping and investing. I'm starting to dislike her. We've been friends for more than 12 years and I was matron of honor at her wedding, but I really don't like spending even the little time together that we do. If I met her today, we would never become friends. So the question is: Do I try to repair this rift in the name of years of friendship, or do I gently phase her out of my life?

There Are Poets Starving and She's Wearing Gucci Shoelaces

Dear There,

The rich are different from you and me -- they have all that money and it's hard for them to conceal the fact and so we find it irritating to be around them. Your friend's remark about a twice-a-week cleaning woman strikes me as innocent -- all she really meant is that it's wonderful to have one, just as it's wonderful to live at the Ritz or cruise the Aegean on a luxury liner or drive a BMW or collect paintings, which of course it is. I suppose it's insensitive to talk about expensive habits in front of struggling graduate students, and maybe one of these days somebody will strangle her, but I'm in favor of more candor, and aren't you curious about your friend's highflying life? I am. I buy my underwear from a low-glitz Wisconsin catalog company, but if someone else gets silk undies tailored in Milan for $300 apiece, I'd be interested to hear about it. Shallow materialism is deeply interesting. But it's hardly the basis of a friendship, so if your friend is really and truly only interested in shopping and investing, let her go and God bless her.

Dear Mr. Blue,

Do you believe in the proverbial midlife crisis? For the past eight years I've been with a man, 48 (I'm 31), and we've had a very nice life together. Or so I thought. Then, over the past year he started talking more about death. Then he was passed over for promotion and things went downhill. He said he needed space and started going for long solitary runs and smoking a lot of pot. I tried not to put any pressure on him while he worked things out. Then he told me he needed to be "free." I moved out and have been miserable ever since. I just don't understand it and that is what makes it so hard. I still talk to him. Our conversations are pleasant and comfortable (except when I cry). He calls me "hon" and "sweetie" and always comments on how pretty and smart I am. He even wants to have sex with me. But then he tells me how much he wants to date other people. Someone told me it's just about him wanting to have sex with other women, but since we have a relationship in which we play sexually with other couples, this can't be the reason. Can you enlighten me? I am having a really hard time with this. I love him very much and do not want to lose him.


Dear Distraught,

I don't understand it and I doubt that he does either. Maybe it's a midlife crisis, triggered by the setback at work, or maybe it's simply a seizure of bachelor farmerhood. There is something in a man that rebels against too-great constraint and the rebellion is fitful: Suddenly, one day, the traces are too tight and every hour of the day is programmed and one is inextricably entwined in the expectations of others, so you panic, like a trapped animal, and you extricate yourself, maybe tearing off a limb in the process, for the simple pleasure of freedom. The freedom to get on any train and see where it goes. The freedom of silence. The freedom to re-create yourself. A basic human right, I suppose. Keep the tone of the conversations friendly, but it's up to you to decide what the standards for readmission are, should he desire to return, and you should make that clear, if it's clear to you.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am leaving L.A. to take some time off from graduate school and from the rat race. I am moving back to my hometown so I can walk barefoot through my lawn, sit in my rocking chair on the front porch sipping lemonade and unwind from a hectic year.

My problem is that I am falling for a fellow grad student. Should I tell him I am falling in love with him, or do I just take the memories with me as I take the last wagon train out of here? Part of me wants to tell him, in hopes that the violins will start playing, roses will fall from the sky, the planets will align and we'll ride off into the sunset on a white horse, to live happily ever after. The other part of me thinks it would be pointless to say anything, since he isn't going to leave the city, and we are just going our separate ways. Any advice, Mr. Blue?

Hopeless Romantic

Dear Hopeless,

You addressed this to the wrong guy. You should ask the grad student whether you should tell him you're falling in love with him or take the wagon train out of town. He has the definitive answer to this question, not me. Of course I think you should tell him -- but that's because I write comedy, and a story in which the lady didn't declare her love and left town would be all wrong (there aren't many great comedies on the subject of relaxation and lemonade) -- but he may feel differently. He may have no sense of humor at all and regard a declaration of love as an unpleasant invasion of his well-planned life. Ask him.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I've been with my boyfriend for three years and my problem is his mother, who treats me like I'm his roommate and not a part of the family. He gets shipped back home to California for holidays, and I'm not invited. This month they are going to Mexico for a week and again I am not invited. No one even thought of me. And when I complain about not being invited, he acts like I'm the most selfish person in the world. He doesn't see anything wrong with this picture. He doesn't stick up for me at all when it comes to his family, not even to ask, "What about her?" Is this a fair way to treat me? What can I do to make them take me seriously?


Dear Roommate,

Your boyfriend's mother doesn't like you very much. She doesn't think it'd be fun to have you with them. Who knows why? Maybe she considers you an interloper. And there's your problem and there's not much to be done about it. Fairness isn't the issue. It's Mama's money and she can give plane tickets to whomever she likes. I suppose they would take you seriously if you managed to marry him, or get pregnant, or get pregnant with twins, but this isn't recommended, not with this boyfriend. He is his mother's son more than he is your man.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm 27, with no immediate romantic prospects, and I wonder whether it would be possible to be a single mother. I can accept being single forever, but I don't want to accept being childless. I live in New York and I don't have tons of money, but I'm frugal and have saved quite a bit and think I'd be able to support my child (or children -- I'd rather have two) -- but I worry whether it would be emotionally irresponsible to have them in the first place. And I don't kid myself that it'd be easy, especially in this city. What do you think?

Wanting More

Dear Wanting,

Parenthood is a road on which there's no U-turn, no sick leave or vacations, and I'm not sanguine about a single woman doing it in New York, for all the reasons you're well aware of, I'm sure. At the very least, you need to do a bunch of research. The baby market is constantly changing and you need up-to-date info. And you should find out about other single women who've done this. The urge toward motherhood is powerful, but you need to be wise. And of course you know that having two little babies will tend to diminish your romantic prospects. Courage and ingenuity and a loving heart can triumph over difficult circumstances, to be sure. But then there are those days: The sitter doesn't come and the office is calling every 15 minutes and the kiddies are croupy and the pediatrician's nurse says to bring them in later and you wish there were a man on-board whom you could share the misery with.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am 30 and miserable in my marriage. At one time, I loved my husband dearly, but after years and years of arguing about children (me: Let's have some; he: We can't afford to), money, even the dog, I've grown tired of it all. He has no friends to speak of, so I'm the only one to listen to his endless anecdotes. I never seem to have a moment to myself. If I leave a room, he follows me. I can count on one hand the number of times we've been intimate in the past year. Despite several attempts at marriage counseling, Rick seems content to go on this way. I am not. I'm feeling more sexual than ever in my life and I don't think I can go on in this state of near-celibacy. It is a comfortable life. We both work in well-paying professional jobs. The bills get paid, we're planning vacations and we do have affection for each other. Rick is a genuinely nice guy -- just one with a curiously flat, passionless life. What to do, Mr. Blue? I don't want to hurt Rick. He was abandoned as a child, and never trusted anyone -- until I came along. How can I leave and hurt him this way? Yet how can I stay and hurt me this way? Do I leave to seek some better life, or do I just learn how to "settle" down, stop worrying and find what pleasure I can in my life as is?


Dear Caught,

Maybe you need to take Rick to see the friendly neighborhood internist for a chat about s-e-x and you sit behind Rick and give the internist the V-sign, for Viagra. Maybe you need to put your Love Arias CD on the player and feed Rick oysters and champagne and wear black lingerie. Maybe you need to take a lover. Some attractive gentleman of good breeding who would find it thrilling to reconnoiter with you once in a while and be tender and funny and sexy and get the job done and kiss you goodbye. A gentleman who is available when needed and glad to see you but won't call you up at bad times or make the mistake of falling in love with you, which could be a great inconvenience. Preferably a single guy with a pleasant apartment and no interesting diseases. Thirty is too young an age to be accepting a flat, passionless life. "Find what pleasure I can" -- this sounds so sad coming from a young woman of spunk and imagination. You can try to go the counseling route again -- and use it to fire a warning shot across Rick's bow. Somewhere in the process, sitting in the counselor's office, you can look Rick in the eye and say, "I'm miserable and tired of the way things are and I am seriously thinking about leaving you." Say it so he hears it.

Dear Mr. Blue,

My smart, funny 6-year-old daughter is lately having trouble doing things she has done for months now, like washing her hair and going to sleep on her own. She pouts, she whines, it is all too much for her, she is scared.

I imagine a connection between these behaviors and the death last year of her 3-and-a-half-year-old brother. My son was one of those kids you occasionally see in high-tech wheelchairs at the mall. He was brave, lovely and doomed. Over the course of his short life, we became frighteningly competent parents: The doctors used to ask us if we wanted him admitted, and for how long. The last night, I held his hand as the monitors went flat in the ICU. Then my daughter, arriving from a birthday party, tied a green balloon around her brother's soft wrist. For some months after, she wrote him heartbreaking letters in kindergarten script. She hasn't written one in a while.

We are not that competent anymore, I guess; nowadays we stay up late, we spend too much money and I almost had a wreck on the freeway, and I'm afraid none of us is ever going to be as good or as brave as we were when our boy was alive. I feel we are careening, spinning out, we are wasted and wasteful and regressing. How do I stop this? How can I teach her to go to sleep on her own again when all I want to say is, Come on, you can do this, this is not hard, you've done a lot harder things than this before. We all have.

Back From the Wars

Dear Back,

The death of a child is a catastrophic event that isn't over when it's supposed to be over. It goes on and on. I only know this secondhand from a couple of friends and from reading, but everyone seems to agree on this point. That, long after your friends and family have moved on and grown slightly weary of your grief, your grief continues unabated. And grief can take many forms. For your daughter, I urge you to consider therapy, with a child psychiatrist. Perhaps it's not needed, but a competent child psychiatrist should be the judge of that. Find someone whose company your daughter enjoys and trust the professional. For you, I recommend that you find other parents who've been through this. It's one of those immense experiences that simply can't be comprehended by outsiders and you could draw immeasurable comfort from meeting other bereaved parents. There are groups of such folk who hold meetings and you can find out about them via the Web. One good one is the Compassionate Friends and there are others. Some strike me as being somewhat gooey, but what do I know? Through such an organization, you have a chance to talk to familiars, and then a chance to put your competence to work in helping the newly bereaved, which I imagine could be awfully good for you.

Dear Mr. Blue,

After 20 years of marriage, my husband and I divorced, for reasons as common as dirt -- we had grown apart, we fought about sex, money and children, and my husband just happened to gamble away $1 million of our savings. Oops!

So Chapter 2 begins, for 41-year-old me and my two young children. Now I've fallen in love with a man who is wonderful on many levels -- he is kind, loving, funny, sexy, a great lover, thoughtful and handsome and he's great with his kids and mine. He wants to marry me. But I find his lack of education irritating sometimes. I'm an aspiring artist and a bookworm and his terrible grammar drives me insane! I fear that it's one of those insurmountable differences. Tell me -- is it possible for me to find happiness with a sweet guy who can barely string together a grammatical phrase? Or am I being hopelessly picky?

Word Nerd

Dear Word,

The gentleman is teachable. So teach him. Give him a writing course. Tell him you want to know about his life, which is a reasonable thing, and you'd like him to write you letters, which you will assemble into a memoir. He's the writer, you're the editor. He'll need plenty of encouragement to get him started, so be patient, and don't be heavy-handed with the corrections -- just fix things and let him see the results. An uneducated man suffers from a terrible self-consciousness and sense of inferiority, all the more so in the company of a fine lady like yourself, and if you love him, you need to help him over that. But if you're one of those unfortunate people whose teeth are set on edge by an ungrammatical phrase -- a disability like perfect pitch, which renders so much wonderful music unenjoyable -- then maybe you should find yourself an abusive jerk who talks good. There are plenty.

Dear Mr. Blue,

Last fall, I entered a graduate writing program in the Midwest so I could take a writing workshop with a writer whose work I've long admired. After I turned in my first paper for the class he began calling me. I was flattered and I flirted with him. Eventually he asked me out and we started seeing each other. We did this secretly because I was still his student. I found I had really fallen for him -- in the classroom he was smart, funny and charismatic.

After another month of dating (the class ended), we got into a fight and he told me he did not want to be involved with me anymore. Unfortunately, my heart was already too far into this affair. Now I feel incredibly foolish, as if I walked into a stupid mistake, and I feel angry that he took advantage of an inherently seductive position -- that of a successful writer toward a student. The thought of seeing him in the hallways throughout the next semester is unbearable. I am supposed to be in the writing program another year, but he is the only teacher who seemed interested in working with me. I am thinking of leaving the program altogether. Any words of wisdom?

Broken Hearted

Dear Broken,

Sit right down and write a short story about this affair and don't try too hard to disguise the principals. Use all the dialogue from real life that you can remember. And show how he flattered you and exploited you. Be subtle with your anger; don't hit him with a two-by-four, poke him with a needle. And then show the story around. Send him a copy and ask him for his opinion. Don't walk away from the program if you feel there's something good to be gained from staying -- but absolutely don't walk away and leave him standing tall and proud and shaking his antlers. Write the story. It will give him the willies. And who knows? Maybe it'll be a terrific story. It's got sex, arrogance, foolishness, betrayal, and you can add a little comedy by giving him a tiny penis.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I spent two glorious months falling in love with a Spanish man living in the States before he suddenly had to return to his homeland. We continued a passionate long-distance relationship for a year, seeing each other every two months (both here and there), speaking or chatting online for hours almost daily. Two months ago he became extremely busy at his job, and our contact decreased. I became frustrated and pressured him for more of his time, and a week later he suddenly, inexplicably, ended our relationship because the distance made it impossible. I offered to live in Spain, study the language and see where things go. We are both 30; I am ready to commit. He said he loved me, and I do not doubt his affection. Why, why would he do this? I am despondent. I can't sleep, eat or stay home alone. What should I do?

In Agony

Dear In Agony,

Those two glorious months were surely wonderful, and it's not hard to imagine what a gorgeous big cinematic experience it was. Love can be huge. The more improbable and problematic, the bigger it gets, sometimes -- a romance between a young man and a much older woman, or a Montague and a Capulet, or an American and a Spaniard -- but despite the operatic feelings and the lavish cinematography, it's still a long shot, and this romance simply failed of its own weight. He returned to his everyday life and saw something illusory in the whole thing and he did the honorable thing. To have pursued this romance in Spain would, in the end, have made you even more despondent. What should you do? Find your friends and tell them how wretched you feel. Go stay with one of them, preferably one with a spare bedroom. Let them feed you and comfort you until you feel well enough to get up and walk. That's what friends are for. In a year, the señor will not loom so large, and in five years he'll be a funny after-dinner story.

Dear Mr. Blue,

On March 21, the first day of spring, I was dumped by my boyfriend of six months and was devastated nevertheless. He is 23 and I'm 35. He's smart, sexy, funny and very sweet. We spent the fall and winter laughing, wrestling and, I thought, falling in love. Then he ended it. I cried for a month and wanted to crawl into a cave and just disappear.

Now I'm ready to get on with the business of life and find love again. But we work for the same organization and sometimes have to work together, and we share a small circle of friends. I still catch my breath when I see him around the building. And the other night at a party I felt sad and angry seeing him sitting on the floor talking to a couple of 19-year-old interns. One night, in May, I went to his place and we had a long, awful talk (me doing all the talking) where I ended up crying and making a pathetic fool of myself -- and went home with not a shred of dignity and a hideous red, puffy face.

Now whenever he sees me, he gets a smirk on his face and I know he thinks I'm a silly, sad idiot. I still feel rejected and unattractive, especially when he's around. I still cry too much. How can I make things better? I love my work and will not leave. I don't think he's going anywhere anytime soon either. I want to put this behind me and be done with it and be able to laugh about it. But it's nearly impossible when I have to see him around all the time! What should I do?


Dear Tormented,

Three months is not long enough to resolve this, but promise yourself that six months will be, and that you'll take stringent measures to recover your dignity. First of all, consider the possibility of finding work elsewhere. Only do it if it's advantageous professionally, but consider it: Your love of your job is a good indicator that you're hot stuff and highly employable, and jumping to a new rock is often the best route to advancement, higher pay, better work. And it has the fringe benefit of expunging Mr. Dumpster from your life. Pull the lever, he's gone. No. 2: You're not a silly, sad idiot, you're a woman with a lot of heart, but do what you need to do to feel attractive. Everybody needs to do this from time to time. The surest way to do this is to take up the Spartan life, get on your bicycle, ditch the bagels and cream cheese, learn to love vegetables and mineral water and get slim and trim. It's hard but doable and it's your very best form of revenge. No. 3: Ignore him and his stupid smirk and stay out of his social life. Don't go to parties where he's present. Don't hang out in groups that include him. Of that small circle of mutual friends, pick the one or two you like best and tell them how you feel. Just stay out of his path. When you must do business with him, treat him with a chill courtesy. No. 4: If anyone asks what happened, lie and say that he was very sweet but rather boring in bed and you called it quits.

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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