Late starter

After years of obesity I lost 100 pounds, but women can still smell my inexperience and lack of confidence. I'm about to give up hope!

Published July 24, 2001 7:01PM (EDT)

First, let us discuss "skeevy," the word that popped up last week in a letter.

One reader says that she and her girlfriends coined the term during a junior year in Florence in the '80s, from the Italian word "schifoso," meaning "disgusting, revolting." They referred to guys who pinched their butts as "skeevy."

Another reader says "skeevy" is slang for "lecherous," from the Japanese "sukebei" (a lewd or lecherous person).

Yet another says that her Italian mother from Calabria used the word "skeeve" -- for example, "Her bathroom is so dirty I skeeve going in there" -- usually accompanied by a flick of the fingers across the chin. She says, "It's southern Italian slang. We heard it used on 'The Sopranos' when Carmela told Tony how she skeeved his Russian mistress."

There is also a mag called the Skeevy Digest and a Web site,

The College Slang Research Project records skeevy as meaning "shady, unsavory, icky." (CSRP has a terrific Web site.) And it's good to see the word "icky" again, which I haven't used in 50 years. Surely there is a place for it in everyone's vocabulary.

This just in from France: "Heartbroken and Terrified (she wants kids, he doesn't) should go off and have a big adventure NOW and not obsess about the biological clock. When I was her age I split with a man -- also older -- whom I'd been with throughout my 20s. It was wrenching and horrible and I could barely function at work. So I quit my job, gave up my apartment, put all my belongings in storage, withdrew my bit of savings and went to Europe. I didn't do anything wild, just visited relatives, friends and friends of friends. Those seven months were wonderful: I met lots of people, saw new places, learned to be alone and it opened me up. And I met my husband on a ferry from Sweden to England. And here we are, in France, with two kids."

Dear Mr. Blue,

For many years I was morbidly obese. By the age of 19, my 5-6 frame was a bloated 286 pounds. Never really a big eater, I always suspected there was a problem with my genetics somewhere, since every attempt I made at reducing failed miserably.

I grew up in a dysfunctional household, and as a consequence have very low self-esteem; I have pretty much reconciled myself to a lonely life. I've always adored women, but kept my distance. They have always ignored me, for obvious reasons. I never dated in high school or college. I would fall in love with girls, but learned to stifle and control it through the months of emotional hell that followed. I remember these times as the most painful of my life. To this day I have never told another soul that I love her. My self-rejection is on automatic. If I could turn a switch in my brain that would keep me from ever falling in love again, I'd do it in a heartbeat. Self-induced exile and self-defeat are how I spent my 20s and 30s. I stayed in my bedroom, reading classics and learning to draw, and put myself through college. I now make my living as a commercial illustrator and animator.

A couple of years ago a co-worker told me about a diet designed for people with an inability to properly metabolize simple carbohydrates. In seven months I lost 100 pounds. I've kept it off for two years now. I can never be lean -- that's not in the cards for me -- but at least I look human, and that's good enough. Unfortunately, it came about 25 years too late. I am now 40, and I've come to find that it's really too late to begin at this stage of the game. I'm so retarded socially. Believe me, no one is looking for a middle-aged adolescent virgin for a life partner, or even a date. I tried joining a gym and taking group dance lessons, but the timidity that most males outgrow by their late teens is too deeply ingrained for me to shed now. I know this sounds silly, but I think I was happier fat. At least I knew there was no hope then, so I didn't kid myself. I don't know what to do or what to say or where to begin. And women can smell a lack of confidence like a dog smells fear. After all these years, I still can't answer a simple question: What do I have to offer a girl, and why would one want to be with me?

Beaver Cleaver at Midlife

Dear Beav,

You could take this letter with some minor editing and make a comic book -- each sentence a panel -- and it would be a classic. I am quite sincere about that. It's a great Hans Christian Andersen story. I'm sorry you had to live it and couldn't just have imagined it, but it's a great story, and now what you need is some sort of an ending: What does all this come to? How does it resolve? In hopeless resignation? In some brave new action? In a romantic miracle? ("And then I met Rhonda, who also is shy and on the plump side ...") I only know that the early misery led to the 100-pound loss and that the loss will lead to something new. Your life is a work of art, and in the end, the underlying theme of great art is bravery and hope and love. Your bravery, expressed in art, makes it easier for me and the others to be brave. The shy adolescent 40-year-old plumpster is on his way to something and I have high hopes for how this tale turns out.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a rather sedate church secretary, married 27 years, in my late 40s, in a torrid affair with a married church member older than I who is a pillar of church and community. It is mainly sexual for him and a great boost to his ego. I adore him, and would run away with him in a minute, scandal or no. And the sex is fine for me too, and a great boost to my ego also.

I was reasonably content with my life before this began a year ago. Now I can hardly bear to be in the same room with my husband, much less have him touch me. He is not a very pleasant person and is getting more unpleasant as he ages. I have stayed with him mainly for the sake of our child, who is now 21. Is this what a midlife crisis looks like? Do I have a right after all these years of marriage to announce that I have changed and want to go "find myself"? Do I need therapy? Do I need to do the right thing and knock off this affair right now before I get caught? What?

Woman in Adultery

Dear Woman,

This doesn't sound like a crisis; it sounds like an adventure. A dangerous one, to be sure, but one that your life and marriage prepared you to undertake. I think you have a right, as a living, breathing sensate person, to say, "It is enough. I am moving on, in hopes of finding something better for my life." You seem to be under no illusions about having a future with the Pillar and that's good. You seem to be under no illusions at all. No need for therapy unless you find yourself feeling confused and beset with dark turbulent feelings and are in need of outside perspective. Whether to knock off the affair is up to you, but it's better not to be in such a vulnerable position that one malicious gossip could throw you into a big crisis. I admire your straightforward, undramatic style. "He is not a very pleasant person" says a great deal to me. Good luck, kid.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am 39, a dancer, poet, "roll down the hill laughing" kind of woman who about five years ago went through a devastating breakup, and depression, and then was hit by a car. It was two years of slow crawling through heavy waters, and I am now recovered and living with a 31-year-old man, also an artist. We've both come through a lot and have created a very good relationship -- he makes me laugh at myself and vice versa. We broke up for six months because I wanted children and he didn't. Then he did some soul-searching and decided he wanted children with me. He touches me in so many ways and I love him. I know he loves me. However, I don't feel much passion. In my darker moments, I remember my passion for the man I was with before and had the devastating breakup from. I had all that passion, but he and I couldn't communicate very well. He didn't want to be known or understood.

Is there something wrong with me? I've got this wonderfully eager man who worships me and I can't figure out what will get my spark going. It feels like a lost, underground river -- so faint, nearly down to a trickle. I can go through the motions and sometimes catch up but I miss feeling swept up even for a short while -- ruled by my own passion for sex and sweat. What do you think?


Dear Under,

I think life is wonderfully confusing and that we hit turbulent stretches between islands and inlets and feel strong undertows and encounter spooky moments -- it's what gives us what little wisdom we have. What you've gone through distinguishes you from folks whose emotional highlights are shopping trips to malls and episodes of "Frasier." You are a passionate person living a big swashbuckling life, and if you love your artist guy and he loves you and you're good together, having come through some rough waters, then you should feel lucky. The harder you think about getting your spark going, the more you squelch it. Lighten up. Sex is playful and in the midst of play we occasionally surprise ourselves with passion. But even as mere play, it is Good Enough.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm a 26-year old woman/girl, happily sorta making it in the biggish city but now laid off from a dot-com. A few months ago I met a wonderful man who thinks I hung the moon as much as I think he did. He's 30, with a good job that's helping him get his green card. (He's Russian.) I've had some sweet boyfriends, but he is the man I want to come home to every night, and call it home, call him home.

He has a 7-year-old daughter from his first (unhappy) marriage -- his wife abandoned them both. The daughter lives abroad with his parents while he's been in visa limbo for the past few years, but he loves her deeply and is working to bring her here with him.

It touches me deeply that he cares so much for his child ... and yet I'm a little scared, too. I never contemplated a family life for myself. I have a slight terror of being taken for granted in the traditional "female" roles in life. Not, mind you, that he has asked for a single thing from me; he hasn't. He's trying to give me space and time to think everything over, and encourages me to talk about how I'm feeling and what I want. (Smart man.) But it's important to both of us that he's a father. I couldn't love him if he abandoned his child. And I also know that once she's here (next year, probably) she'll need love from everyone, including me. But I'm also nervous about losing my own identity, my own dreams, and I'm feeling perhaps somewhat guiltily jealous that I met someone so wonderful and I'm not completely sure how to share him so immediately. My perception of children is that they change everything, forever, and there's simply no time for anything else anymore ... I know I shouldn't think about the future this much, but I do. What do you think?

Feeling Conflicted

Dear Conflicted,

I think you're a very sensitive lady living in a house of mirrors in which everything in the world somehow refers back to you and your feelings. I mean, "It touches me deeply that he cares so much for his child ... It's important to both of us that he's a father"? Good grief, woman, the man has a daughter and he loves her -- this is not remarkable and it has nothing to do with your feelings whatsoever. He is living in the real world of the INS and work and papers, and you are living in nearly total self-absorption, with your finger in your nose trying to gauge your temperature. Get a job, lady. Focus on getting out of bed and dressed in the morning. You don't like traditional female roles, fine, try some traditional male roles, like earning money and being handy around the house. Stop hanging the moon and learn to hang wallpaper.

Dear Mr. Blue,

How does one become an "advice columnist"? Friends are always coming to me for advice. They have practically begged me to write a book. They tell me I have a lot of words of wisdom to offer (thanks to my dear ol' mom). So how should I go about it? Do I volunteer? Contact local papers? Web sites?


Dear Curious,

To become an advice columnist, you must be certified by the Federated Advice Column Institute of Las Escondido, and they put you on a waiting list until something opens up. The institute test takes about 15 minutes and is fairly easy -- How do I attract people of the opposite sex? How do I get published? Should I break up with the dirtbag I'm with or give it another chance? That sort of thing. Then you wait. How about you write to the big cheeses at Salon and ask for a shot at the Mr. Blue column? I'm running out of wisdom and you have a whole big fresh supply.

Dear Mr. Blue,

My husband and I are expecting our first child and have finagled our careers and lives to move to our dream home on a small, rural island in the South with a population of about 1,000 residents. After just a few weeks, we can tell we did the right thing. The nature, people, small community, historic feel, pace -- we feel this is a perfect place for us to raise small children and get involved in a community. Our neighbors on the island seem so happy that we're devoting ourselves to this place; they have been wonderful and welcoming to us. They're particularly excited to have young people choosing to live here because many of the newcomers are retirees.

But some of them have also presented a dilemma. There are three or four churches on the island and several people have already invited us to Sunday services, Wednesday night services or Bible school. But my husband and I aren't Christian. We're not even religious, though my husband is Jewish. I'm agnostic. We don't want to raise our kids in any church. We won't be going to services or to Bible school. How do I let my lovely neighbors know this without disappointing them, or offending them, or having them think we're heathens? And is this going to screw up my ability to establish close bonds with the other young families here? I have a great deal of respect for them and I want to do the right thing.

Agnostic Mom-to-Be

Dear Agnostic,

It's perfectly natural for your neighbors to invite you to come to church, and I say it wouldn't be a terrible thing to say yes and go. Unless you've stumbled into a colony of fire-breathing fundamentalists, Sunday morning service may be a sort of community event -- broadly religious, no jagged edges, more about joy and gratitude and service to others, less about man's utter unworthiness -- and you might feel fairly comfortable there. It's up to you, but casual attendance is one option. Or you could demur and mutter something like "We're not really churchgoers" or "My husband is Jewish" or something vague and noncommittal. Don't get flustered or defensive and let it be a big issue. In the end, you will not be judged by church attendance but by your personality and your ability to merge into the community. Christians can be very judgmental and all, but they tend to make exceptions for people they know and like. If you're spunky and fun to be with and willing to serve on the recreation committee, that goes a long, long way.

Dear Mr. Blue,

How can men be so damned impossible sometimes? My boyfriend of four years has become highly uncommunicative in the past few months, and just doesn't act like his old self at all. We used to laugh like fools over nothing at all -- now I can barely get a grunt out of him. He started having stomach problems and found out he has an ulcer. It took him three weeks to tell me. He's been hiding things from me, stupid things like buying a lawn tractor and telling me that his dad gave it to him. He's looked in my e-mail and files, and found things he shouldn't have. He gets upset whenever I'm online, which isn't often at all, compared to days past. I guess he thinks I'm either planning the destruction of the world or going to run away with the first good offer I get. Neither or which is true, by the way.

When we first met, he admired my independence and wild streak. Now it seems to have become a threat. He's not too thrilled that my friends are almost exclusively male, and that there's some kind of history with many of them. So how do I get him to lighten up, relax and get off my case? This is really starting to wear on me.


Dear Rankled,

You two lovebirds are in the midst of a spat and it's not a good time for Mr. Blue to step in. You have to fight this one yourself. Fighting can bring clarity, and so can the refusal to fight. Anyone who lives with another human being can work up a long bill of complaints and accusations -- she doesn't understand me, she thinks only of herself, she doesn't share my interests, she is always correcting me and prompting me and querying me -- and then you look at the Old Dear and you rip up the indictment and you tell her you're crazy about her. Which apparently you are about him.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am loath to offend one of my closest friends, but the stench of her home is positively fetid. It is a combination of cat pee, incense and something heavy and sweet and lingering, enough to make one retch. She has few friends and almost never has anyone over and so is probably unaware of the extent of the problem. Recently I stopped by and was almost overwhelmed by the stink; even standing some feet from the front door was uncomfortable.

She is perfectly clean in her person, although sometimes the bad smell lingers in her clothes.

How do I broach such a delicate issue?

Fastidious Friend

Dear Fastidious,

Friends provide reality checks to their friends. They do not stand by and watch quietly as someone they like and respect walks off the cliff. Or walks around with cat turds for earrings. Or invests their life savings in artichoke futures, or attains new heights of skeeviness. The kindest approach is to call your friend and say, "I've been thinking I should come and help you clean your apartment. How about tomorrow afternoon? I'll bring the Murphy's oil soap and the Lysol -- do you have a good vacuum cleaner? How about pails and brushes?" Make a firm and straightforward suggestion, one that gives your friend plenty of room to say, "Sure. How nice of you." Then (aarrgh) you go do it. If she's offended by the suggestion, then back off, and remember not to stop by her place anymore.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm a 50-year-old gay man living in San Francisco, the great gay Mecca. But my friends are mostly dead, and romance is pretty much nonexistent. After a decade here, I'm worn out with the place. It's turned into a hellhole of multimillion-dollar lofts inhabited by SUV-driving yuppies with cellphones jammed in their ears who are in a great hurry to go nowhere at high speed. Enough, already! And for the first time in my life I feel homesick for the Shenandoah Valley and the Blue Ridge Mountains where I grew up and where I have wonderful friends of 30 years' standing. I'm poverty-stricken here, and I'd be comfortably middle class there. But I wonder if I can survive there after living in large cities most of my adult life. Gay rights in Virginia are basically nonexistent, although I'm sure I can still "pass" as a good ol' boy. Still, it rankles.

An added concern is my elderly parents, two angry, demeaning, depressing individuals who insist on living as if the Depression were still in full swing. If I go back there I'll be stuck dealing with them, something I've pretty much avoided for the last quarter-century.

To top it all off, I've been HIV positive for 15 years. So far I've had no problems with it. My blood counts, while declining, remain within normal healthy range and I've yet to need medications. Still ...

What do you think, Mr. Blue? Would I be going from the frying pan into the fire?

Gay Ol' Boy

Dear GOB,

Listen to that homesickness and the gentle voices of those old friends and if the urge remains strong, pack up your chattels and go home. Take it as a large adventure and give it a few years and enjoy what you can find to enjoy and ignore what you can ignore. Your sexual preference may not, after all, be the flag of your soul. Maybe home in the Blue Ridge is more crucial to you, and the comforts of long history and old friends, familiar accents, a pace of life that is kinder and allows people to practice the art of friendship, a stubborn resistance to social climbing and material display, a sense of humor. Humor is a staple of life and you seem to have lost yours in Baghdad by the Bay: Maybe you can recover it in the hills. And if you can accept your cantankerous parents with an ounce of humor, maybe that'll be the sign that you've made a successful transition.

Dear Mr. Blue,

My father, who is in his 70s, is a drug-taking alcoholic who makes everyone in the family miserable with his constant attacks. It's so bad that I don't want to visit them at all, and that hurts my mother. However, he's such a vicious man that there's really no choice.

How does one deal with a father who abuses everyone? I'm tired of being called unprintable names by e-mail and on the phone. The easiest course of action would be to never talk to this psycho again. But what do you do when he's your father and you still want to talk to your mother?

Fed Up

Dear Fed Up,

The two of them are a pair and it's not easy to get the nice one without the old badger. So you practice passive resistance, a sort of Zen-like indifference. You visit your mother and you let his abuse roll off your back. You take no more note of it than if he were a dog barking or a 2-year-old having a tantrum. Delete the e-mails and let the phone calls go to voice mail. Your father doesn't need your attention.

Dear Mr. Blue,

Am I just getting older or do I not have what it takes? I'm 32 and have lived the life of the artistic bohemian ever since I quit my first post-college job. I've written stories and published a few, written screenplays and produced one of them, acted in commercials, performed comedy, completed three-fourths of my novel, etc., while scraping by on freelance writing and temp/waiter jobs. I've always had a vague thought that someday I would somehow "make it." Now, however, this thought is waning, and I think to myself: Do I have the hunger to succeed in film and television? Do I have the focus to choose one path and make that my life? Something in me shrinks when I think of battling doubt and rejection, financial stress, etc.

I'm beginning to think of myself as a failure, someone who has all the talent but not the perseverance or discipline. Plus, I've just settled down with a love, and all of a sudden the possibility of children, kindness and stability is exerting a pull. I've been thinking about going to grad school and becoming a psychotherapist. Yet part of me feels that what I lack here is courage, self-belief, etc. I'm going around and around in circles. Any thoughts?

Artist in Doubt

Dear Artist,

The bohemian life is a struggle, and retreat is always one strategy. A good one, too. One moves laterally along the skirmish line, probing for opportunities, and one never struggles beyond the point of exhaustion. One learns to pull back and rest and loll about and consult one's soul in a safe place. When you feel shaky, as you do now, you should not berate yourself with accusations of weakness. We are artists, not NFL linemen. The work of an artist is to be open to what one is given to do and do it joyfully and elegantly and move on. We're receptors of impulses in the air and snatches of music and bits of stories. We're not to punish ourselves if we don't perform with industrial efficiency to produce salable goods. Enjoy your love and your life. You have plenty of courage.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a 32-year-old blond, fit and pretty, though no Sharon Stone. I have dated many men whom I could have been happy with, but have not had an intimate relationship. I have been given every reason, from not being "feminine enough" to being "too feminine for me." Two different men told me, "Being around you has made me feel better about myself. I now have the confidence to ask out the woman I really want to date." The only ones who want to date me are so boring, onerous and inarticulate, they're worse than being alone. I spent my 20s doing the travel and adventure thing. I even speak Arabic as a second language. But I am independent because I have to be, not because I want to be. I hate it.

I have remained friends with quite a few of the men I've known. They all think I'm wonderful. I've attended their weddings.

Any suggestions?

Lonely and Bored

Dear Lonely,

Even Sharon Stone has to take a close look at herself every so often and upgrade the act. Talk to your women friends about this. The problem isn't feminine/nonfeminine, it's a simple matter of editing and getting a fresh take on yourself. You drop your old opening number, put in a slow ballad in place of the tap-dance routine, put up your hair, learn new jokes, get a new costume, simplify your shtick, find a new way to focus and generally make things new. This is good whether you're dating or whether you've been married for 47 years. As a matter of fact, I'm going to go upstairs right now and color my sideburns.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm finally forced to face something I never wanted to admit: I am friendship-impaired. I don't know how to sustain friendships or how to be a friend. I had a bizarre upbringing in a mainstream cult (the one whose members knock on your door at 7 on a Saturday morning selling pamphlets). It inculcated a sense of separateness, of "them" vs. "us," that, 25 years after I left the group, still persists in many ways. I've had the emotional support of many wonderful people through the years. But I haven't returned it as freely and fully as I should have -- except for my best friend of nearly 22 years, whom I met in college. We've always been there for each other. We both turn 40 this year, and I bought her an expensive handbag and some flowers and wrote a card expounding on our friendship and what it had meant to me through the years. I overnighted the package to her office. I didn't hear from her the day it arrived or the next day. Or the next. Finally, I e-mailed to ask if she'd received my gifts. She replied that the phone system was down at her office on the day they'd arrived and she'd just been sooo busy, but that she had received my gifts, and it was very kind of me, and thanks so much.

Well, it's four months later, and my feelings are still hurt. The whole thing has left me depressed and confused, yet I can't shake the feeling that I'm being a big fat baby about it, and that I need to just get over it. She's left a few phone messages since, and sent a few e-mails, but I've only replied halfheartedly. Ultimately, what concerns me most is that my friendship future seems very dismal, if I'm this willing to dismiss 22 years so abruptly.

Mr. Blue, tell me true, what in the holy heck should I do?

Friendless and Feckless

Dear F&F,

Friendship can be a rocky road and often it's the little things that trip us up: the unreturned phone call, the unacknowledged gift, the vague invitation that's never specified, the bread-and-butter courtesy issues. And it's frustrating. Here's someone with whom you have a long and colorful history and have familial feelings for and whom you would call on if in extreme distress and who would come over and hold your hand and give you Kleenexes -- and yet she is careless about this itsy-bitsy detail. I say, throw your feelings in a hole and cover them over with dirt as if they were so many rotten fish. Forgive and forget, in other words. Twenty-two years is not to be dismissed for the lack of an adequate thank-you.

Dear Mr. Blue,

My mother was widowed when I was 5. Since then it's been the two of us. In a lot of ways, I functioned as her confidante, spouse and friend. Well into adulthood, we spoke every day. I knew that this wasn't exactly healthy, but it was still supporting me emotionally as well as her, and I let it fall into the "Deal with it later" category.

Well, it's now later. I have been married for two years and have a 1-year-old son, and I am tiring of her long, droning phone calls nearly every day, sometimes twice a day, about people and things I neither know nor care about. She'll spend 20 minutes talking about the electrician who didn't show up. I would love to gently let her know that I need some room, and that I will call her (the shrink's suggestion), but I feel guilty for having let it go on so long and letting her stay this dependent on me. On the other hand, I am starting to find the thought of her death oddly exciting. At least she couldn't call.

She's not a bad person. She's a weak person, as we all are. But I have a husband, a son, a business, an elderly cat. I have enough things that demand from me.


Dear Exhausted,

Get a headset for the telephone. That's the simple solution. It leaves your hands free so you can chop vegetables or bundle up the recycling while Mama is telling you about her day. Think of her as an old radio serial you tune in. You can make some room for yourself by screening your calls and letting hers go into voice mail. But don't imagine there is an easy way to change her at this point.

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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