As a little kid, I took a very specific approach whenever I encountered a newspaper. Obviously, the only section worth anything was the Life or Lifestyle section, where I could read about celebrities whose names I had heard somewhere, read the newspaper comics (which was the vast majority of my media diet as a kid), and read the advice columns. Everything else held no interest for me. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution of my youth syndicated two columns—the ever-present Dear Abby and Carolyn Hax’s Tell Me About It, which seemed to be the hipper of the two. As time went on, my parents stopped subscribing to The Atlanta Journal-Consitution, so my advice column reading became limited to occasionally reading The Ethicist in The New York Times. But over the last few months, I’ve started reading some online advice columns that blow the syndicated stuff I’ve seen utterly out of the water, and I’d like to share them with y’all today.
Normally, talking about something so specific makes me want to research the history of the thing, but that’s covered nicely in this article about Cheryl Strayed, the woman behind Dear Sugar. (What an utterly amazing surname. I want to steal it.) I don’t read Dear Sugar myself—not because I don’t like the column, but because several columns are collected in her Tiny Beautiful Things, which I want to read completely fresh.
Instead, the Holy Grail of online advice columns for me is Captain Awkward, whose URL I’ve been handing out like free candy. An anonymous film professor in Los Angeles by day, Captain Awkward (and her similarly appellated crew) takes questions from concerned souls and answers them like the best nerdy big sister you could ever hope for. She breaks things down with sympathy but not without a critical eye—if the problem might be you, she’ll tell you. Check out this recent column from a teenage boy who wants the Captain to give him a way to make his crush stay away from a friend of his. The answer manages to strike the right tone between “you are an adult” and “you are being an idiot”. She’s also known for what’s one of her biggest tags: Captain Awkward’s Dating Guide for Geeks. (Like many advice columnists, the Captain gets many questions about the strange territory that is the human heart.) Essentially, Captain Awkward’s advice can be boiled down to this phrase: use your words. I’ve been reading Captain Awkward for several months, and it’s been immensely useful to me—the way I tend to translate this into my life is “we can’t work with data we don’t have”. I can’t worry over whether or not that girl might hate me, because I can’t work with data I don’t have. Someone can’t know how I feel about them if I don’t tell them. It’s been very freeing.
My other favorite advice column, Ask Polly, is a little different. Its slug on the Awl is Turning the Screw, and Polly Esther (the pseudonym for memoirist and blogger Heather Havrilesky) can certainly do that. Captain Awkward offers love, grounded in her own experience. Havrilesky offers tough love, grounded in her own experience. Her answers are often longer, more involved, and more personal, turning into essays, but they’re always worth it. I think the best example is the column “Ask Polly: Why Are People Such Assholes?”, in which a woman wonders why everyone who is not her sucks. The question particularly stuck with me, because that’s how I thought for much of my childhood and adolescence: in not being me, everybody else was failing horribly at being a human being. (You see why I like to disassociate from her?) Participating in high school debate with an awful group of people is what beat that out of me; this woman never had something snap her out of it. This is the part that got into my commonplace book:
You must stop trying to teaching people lessons—about themselves, about their sloppy work, about anything. You were not placed on earth to enlighten the masses. I know that sounds a little funny coming from me, the lady who won’t give up the Mr. Microphone for all the cured ham in Spain. But it took me a particularly long time to figure this one out (not surprisingly). When you’re a mature adult, you don’t yell at your friends and tell them what’s wrong with them. You don’t even characterize their behavior. You say something (gently) if they do something that affects you directly, and otherwise you shut the fuck up and accept the kaleidoscope of different perspectives and behaviors that exist in the world. You listen to your friends talk (often in circles), and you gently coax them in the right direction. That is all.
This is exactly what I want out of an advice column—truths to not only answer the letter writer, but also to punch me in the gut and open my eyes a little further. I heartily look forward to Tiny Beautiful Things, as well as Heather Havrilesky’s own memoir, Disaster Preparedness.
I’m home for spring break, and I am determined to be as lazy as humanly possible, which, so far, hasn’t gone well—I woke up yesterday early, cleaned out my parents’ pantry (including a mysterious French spice manufactured in 1992 which had clearly gone rogue), listed my American Vampire collection up on eBay (want to buy some comics?), and made bread. I’m not good at being lazy ever since I trained myself out of the habit, and it’s biting me right now. In any case, I’ll be using the break to sleep, read, write, and make all the food. I have tasked myself with using up all the whole wheat flour in my parents’ house, since nobody likes whole wheat pastries in this house.
This week’s links:
- Hello, Tailor is a great blog focusing on the intersection between high fashion and geek culture. Her introduction to costume design for fans is wonderful, as is her criticism of the costume design in The Hunger Games.
- I discovered the radical left magazine Jacobin this past week through this article on Lincoln that brutally and brilliantly deconstructs the idea of “giving” slaves their freedom.
- “That’s Not a Droid, That’s My Girlfriend” starts off like a lot of sensationalist articles about Japanese men in love in with fictional characters, but goes on to explore the difference between American and Japanese attitudes towards robots and how that plays out in technological industry.
- Two artists, Marina Abramovic and Ulay, have a love affair in the 1970s, decide to end the relationship, and never see each other again. Until Ulay walks in Marina’s performance of “The Artist is Present”, where she spends a minute with any onlooker who chooses to sit with her, although she does not speak. Get ready to cry your heart out.
- Melissa Harris-Perry explains why the Harlem Shakes meme has been making me uneasy.
- At Past Horizons, the reconstruction of Victorian actress Ellen Terry’s madly gorgeous Lady Macbeth gown, which includes real beetle wings sewn into the dress. Holy crow.
- Mary Robinette Kowal is a class act. In her recent post “Revising ‘Weaving Dreams’“, she takes herself to task for her blind spots in her short story Weaving Dreams and walks the reader through her revision process to correct its problematic elements.
- W. Ralph Eubanks at The American Scholar writes about how getting his DNA tested expanded his view of race (and did not expand the view of his son).
- Also in The American Scholar: Amitai Etzioni ponders if the rising Hispanic population in the United States presents an opportunity to define ourselves by ethnicity rather than race. (Given my commitment to my identity as a Celtic Norman, I like this idea.)
- At Grantland, Alex Pappademas spends three days with Community creator Dan Harmon and asks: “Is there a point where simply copping to your own bullshit is not enough, where — especially if you’re smart enough to understand and anatomize it brilliantly — you’re irresponsible if you don’t do something to change it?“
- Elizabeth Rappe, at Film.com, lays out exactly why you should not go see Oz the Great and Powerful. Pro-tip: don’t adapt a feminist’s determinedly female-led works by making it all about a dude.
Do you read any advice columns, be they in a newspaper or online?