Monday, October 24, 2011

"Advice to the Lovelorn"

No, I'm not going to offer any advice here, to the lovelorn or anyone else. This is about those ubiquitous columns that seem to appear in every newspaper in the world (well, all the ones I've read anyway).

My earliest recollection of newspapers goes back to the mid-'50s, when the Bangor Daily News was delivered to our house every day except Sunday - there was no Sunday paper. I'm pretty sure that the first thing to attract my attention to the paper was the comics page - comics in those days were pretty much geared to younger readers. But the second feature to capture my interest was the advice columns. As I recall the BDN carried two columns, "Dear Abby" and "Ann Landers", side by side on the page next to the comics. Who doesn't love to read about other folks' problems?

In those early days the emphasis seemed to be on generic "relationship" issues, hence the "lovelorn" appellation. In those simpler, more innocent (on the surface, anyway) times, the "problems" were pretty blase and the advice was predictable but still it seemed a little scandalous that anyone would "air their dirty laundry" in public (anonymously, of course). Abby and Ann, who were twin sisters by the way, were very popular back in the day.

An example from my teenage experience will illustrate the type of advice the "lovelorn" might expect to receive: My first girl friend (you know what I mean) and I went steady (that's what young couples did then - "hooking up" hadn't been invented) for a year or more when I, heartless cad that I was, lost interest in the "relationship" and went in search of "greener pastures". And she did what any distraught young woman who had lost her boyfriend might do - she sought advice from Dear Abby (or maybe Ann Landers, I don't remember). And she received a reply which said something to the effect of, "Forget him and find somebody more interested - and more interesting (ouch)". Now that's the kind of advice she could have gotten from her big sister (that's another story) or her best friend or even her mother. Forget him and move on - how hard is that to figure out? But coming from Abby (or Ann) it had extra authority, and she seemed to enjoy showing it to me and "rubbing my face in it" (that's not the worst thing she did, but that's a story for my shrink).

The women who wrote as "Dear Abby" and "Ann Landers" both had long successful runs with their columns but they have both passed away. "Dear Abby" continues to appear in the daily paper, written by Jeanne Phillips, daughter of the original "Abby", and the advice is still what you would expect. I continue to read but without any expectation of there being anything but "the same old same old"; the times have changed over the last 50 years but apparently the problems - and advice - in "Dear Abby" have not.

A more recent arrival on the columnist scene has a different approach to advising the lovelorn and anybody else who submits their problems to her. Carolyn Hax column "Tell Me About It" offers the type of specific, no-nonsense guidance you might expect to get from a session with a $100/session therapist. The Washington Post, for whom she writes, describes her this way:

"Carolyn Hax's advice column is the standard of measurement for the genre. Since her explosion into syndication in 1998, Hax has revolutionized the advice column by giving in-depth, ruthlessly practical, sometimes controversial, often coffee-up-your-nose funny advice that also happens to be really good.

Hax has an uncanny ability to see through what people are saying to the real issue: who they are, what they're doing and why. Then, instead of telling readers what to do, she offers them new ways to think, so they can find for themselves the solutions that best meet their individual needs."

When I read Hax I frequently find myself thinking, "that's great advice, I can use that", or (more often), "I wish somebody had told me back when...". Honestly, there are things I would have done differently if there had been a Carolyn Hax to kick me in the ass when I needed it. Or maybe I wouldn't have listened (I'm not much on taking advice from anybody) but still the advice she offers makes much more sense in a practical way then any you will get from the other columns.

An example from today's column: a question from "Single parent, confused, and lonely" sought advice on reconciling with his ex-fiancee, and the reply started with this: "The Confused and lonely are doing all the talking, when the single parent in you is the one who needs to be heard." Now I have been "Single parent, confused, and lonely" and I'm telling you that reply, and the rest of the advice that follows, is spot on! She ends with this: "Treat this sequence for her return as nonnegotiable: Come back, get well, prove beneficial to kids, come home." That may seem obvious, but I'm telling you "confused and lonely" can make it hard to see. (As you may have guessed, this might have been helpful to me several years ago.)

These columns still appear on the page opposite the comics and I still read them; and I would miss them if they weren't there.

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