The other side of advice columns

I read a lot of advice columns. I love them. I’m not sure why, but I regularly read five or so advice columns a day, and have a few weekly ones I look forward to. One of the universal tropes of the advice column (and, I suspect, hard-to-solve problems humans generally experience) is what to do in a relationship that isn’t working. For example, perhaps there’s a friend who never pays their share of dinner, or is a complete downer, or says racist things. Often there is a two step solution: give them a chance to know what is wrong and change, and then if they are unwilling or unable, end the relationship. If the relationship in question is a family relationship, there’s usually a three part solution: warning, cutting down on exposure and cutting off. If there’s any abuse, the advice is pretty much always “leave now”.

I always wonder about the other side of that advice. I don’t know many people who know they are bad people. (Actually, in fairness, I don’t know many bad people at all.) But I suspect that these other people — the mooch, the depressing, the racist, the abusive… that’s not how they see themselves. Instead, from their point of view, they might be the clueless, the one the world treats unfairly, the funny joker, the person who others have always wronged who has to be careful not to get hurt again.

For example, recently Annie had a couple write in asking why no one ever came to their parties. “What is wrong with other people that they don’t come?” the message implies. For the next 2 weeks, nearly every column has run a list of reasons: out of control pets, out of control children, messy homes, unlikeable personalities, racist jokes… this person is on the other side of countless advice givings that ask “Why do you spend time with people you don’t enjoy?”

This raises two conundrums for me. First, what do I not know about myself? How often have you told someone why you REALLY don’t see them anymore? “I’m sorry, but you’re too negative and you get me down every time I’m around you” isn’t something we say. Or “Every time I’m with you we end up gossiping and I feel ashamed of myself later”. Or “With everything you say about everyone else, I wonder what you say about me”. Or “Your conversation is equal parts awkward pause and awkward discussion.” Instead, we’re busy, or take too long to get back to someone. But I happen to know for a fact that I am not perfect (I know! Please, moderate your surprise.) What do my friends put up with anyway? What encourages people to keep ME at arms’ length that I do not know about and might not be able to control if I did?

The second issue is what happens even if you are self aware. Imagine that you’re 30 or so, intelligent and perceptive, and just not fun to be around. You look deep inside, and discover that yes. You are not a fun person. People don’t enjoy spending time with you. You get in fights with people a lot and end up hurting feelings. So you have tried to change… but it’s almost impossible to act contrary to your nature all the time. You get tired, under pressure, tempers run high and you can’t be who you are not. And things blow up. What then?

The essay I wrote, lo these 15 years ago, to get into college was a discussion of my finite right to be proud of who and what I am. I am as much a product of my genetics and environment as every other human: the jailed drug addict, the self-centered jerk, the runaway prostitute. To the degree their responsibility for their current lot is mitigated by their circumstances so, in fairness, is mine. I got lucky. I didn’t screw it up, granted, but I got really lucky in order to be who and what I am. It is through no merit of my own that I don’t seem disposed towards depression, or get along well with people, or can follow directions. I think I’ve done a decent job in those circumstances where my free will stood me in front of two paths, but there’s always been a good path I was capable of following.

I’ve never come up with a satisfactory “then what”. I try to remember this, when I deal with the congenitally unpleasant — especially when it seems like they are trying their best to make the most of the hand they’ve been given.

What do you think? How do you deal with people who just aren’t fun to be around? Do you suspect you’ve ever been on the other side of this dynamic?

For your reading pleasure, here are the regular advice columns I read

Dear Abby the archetypal advice column, in its second generation. Expect to see lots of PSAs, advice to go to counselling, and horrors about modernity.
Annie’s Mailbox is almost identical to Dear Abby. One of my favorite moments was when they simultaneously answered two different sides of the same dispute.
Carolyn Hax is a more modern, informal style. She tends to ask more questions, and has a slightly longer format, which is nice.
Since You Asked the writer is currently on medical leave for cancer treatment. I usually only read the problems (which are largely unedited and novella length) since I find his answers wishy washy and annoying.
Dear Prudie is probably the best of the lot. She has enough space (unlike the news paper columnists) to really address issues, rarely goes down the “talk to a qualified professional” route, and usually has an interesting perspective which I may or may not agree with. There’s a fun chat on Mondays, a weekly advice video, and a column on Thursdays.
Advice Smackdown. How could I forget it? I love everything Amalah writes. This one goes between serious, important, and makeup-related. She would totally be my choice for moisturizer conundrums, but is the sort of writer who can make moisturizer hilariously funny.

Am I missing any good ones?

Things I like

The internet can be full of negativity. Twitter feeds and Facebook updates are often either a) inscrutable b) what’s happening at ComicCon or Blogher (what happens if you want to attend both?!) or c) complaining. I confess, I’m just as guilty of this as the next girl. Well, that and coffee-related posts. I had a few whiny posts playing around in my head. They involve having to schedule time to shower and the utter insanity of my next 7 days.

Instead, though, I thought I’d give a list of some things that please me, and continue to please me.

Mt. Rainier and Adam, two of my top favorites
Mt. Rainier and Adam, two of my top favorites

1) The great outdoors. Ok, this is no surprise given that half my posts this summer are OMG CAMPING! But I had forgotten or underestimated just how restorative and joyful it is to look at a horizon of mountains and trees and breathe an unhurried breath.

2) Lois McMaster Bujold What can this woman not write? And it all translates beautifully to audiobook (not universally true). This is how I’ve gotten through, uh, 6 months of pumping in the server room.

3) Sateen sheets. I already have trouble getting out of bed in the morning, but when my sheets are sooooooo soft and comfy it seems completely unfair. Then I get two boys bouncing on top of me, and I narrowly avoid a foot to the face and I get up. But man, those sheets are awesome.

4) My house/town. Every time I walk up the steps I’m happy. Every time I take a two block stroll to post some letters and make a deposit at the ATM, walking home past the crowds coming out of the local theater well… it’s an awesome home in a great location filled with the things I love best.

5) Northwest Art. I just love looking at it. It seems mysterious and ancient and reminds me of my long-childhood daydreams. Did you know that the NW was once called New Albion? If I’d known that when I was, say, 12, I might possibly have died from overexcitement. Two great tastes that taste great together.

6) Advice columns. I can’t get enough of them. My favorite was when two letter writers sent the same problem (from their opposite perspectives) to Anne Landers and Dear Abby on the same day.

7) The internet. It’s great time-sink, but it helps me feel connected and informed. Plus, I don’t think I ever would’ve written, despite wanting to, without the maybe-audience of teh intarwebs.

8 ) America’s Test Kitchen. Their recipe books are fantastic. I love how they not only contain really good recipes, but they define their criteria for good and explain the different things they tried to combat the different problems that arose. So now I have not only a great recipe but an understanding of what I can do if I ever want to branch out on my own.

9) The concept of tea. I still have this fantasy about the perfect pot of tea, the quiet moments, the stillness and listening, the poetry. Even when so many of my other daydreams have abandoned me, this one somehow remains.

10) Christmas. It never gets old. I never get past it. It is always a hallowed, golden time to me — full of light, possibility and the sensation of being set apart. I start wishing it was Christmas in about June.

What about you? What’s something in your life that continues to bring you pleasure?