Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Best Advice Columnist

Who writes to advice columnists? Even with e-mail, who can wait 1 or 2 or 13 weeks to get an answer to a problem that was so urgent they needed to write to someone to get help to settle it? Or, if it was not urgent, why write for advice?

Do you know what I'd like to see? A letter in an advice column that goes like this:

Dear Prudence,

Help! Which is the best way out of this burning building?


In Need Of Exit.

Prudence would no doubt advise the writer to go for counseling. Going for counseling is the Advice Columnists' "Nestle-R." So it wouldn't...

... what? You don't know what the "Nestle-R" is? How can you not know "Nestle-R?" You must not watch "Wheel Of Fortune." Although if you don't watch Wheel of Fortune, that puts you squarely in line with 98% of humanity. I think the only people who watch Wheel are the people who write to advice columnists, and my 12-year-old self.

My 12-year-old self used to watch Wheel along with my younger brother's 10-year-old self. We watched it 'back in the day' when you still had to take your money and go shopping, a novelty that never got old or boring except for every single time they did it. What a great idea: let's slow down the game show part that requires thinking and watch a contestant buy a rug and three coat racks. My 12-year-old self and my brother's 10-year-old self noticed, back then, that everyone who got to the final puzzle and had to pick five vowels and a consonant picked the same letters, every time: RSTNL and E. We rearranged those into "Nestle-R," and that became a code word for something everyone does in a situation.

(Wheel now accounts for that habit by picking puzzles that don't include those letters, making it harder for their contestants... no, wait, I forgot. They account for that by giving their contestants Nestle-R and additional vowels.)

(I only know that because Wheel happened to be on one day while I was at the health club working up a sweat on the Stairmaster. I swear that's true. The people at my health club pick the absolute dumbest things to have on the TV. Of the 8 TVs that face the Stairmasters, 3 are tuned to MSNBC-Financial, or something relating to people talking about stocks, and two are tuned to the Country Music Channel, and one always has Wheel on. My feelings on that are, in reverse order: Wheel sucks; we live in Wisconsin so why are you watching the Country Music Channel; and, what are you going to do, stop jogging in place and call your broker, frantically gasping sell, sell into your iPhone? Quit being pretentious.)

(My feelings on that are also: obviously the people who are actually watching "Wheel" don't want me to know so they tune to the financial channel so I won't look down on them. But I do.)

AS I was saying, "go for counseling" is the Nestle-R of advice columnists. (Get it now?) Advice columnists say "go for counseling" so often that writers have started telling them not to do it:

Don't tell me to go for counseling because my husband won't do it/there's no counselors in our area/I am a counselor/I don't have time, I'm watching Wheel of Fortune and the financial networks simultaneously.

Advice columnists get around that by simply saying "And do try to go for counseling." So there's a bit of a Mexican standoff there. Can I say "Mexican standoff?" I'm going to anyway.

My real point is, I guess, that advice columnists don't make any sense to me and the things that people write in to them don't make much sense to me, either. They write to Prudence about whether they should respect their daughter's religious choices, to Abby about loud people in restaurants, and to Carolyn about, well, whatever it is lame people who want to seem hip care about. American Idol, I think. And the universal answer they get back is a mixture of (a) common sense (ignore the loud people and tell the manager) and (b) seek counseling.

And yet, I still read them. I don't know why. I still read "Hagar The Horrible," too. Habit, I guess. Or a kind of fascination, like the morbid fascination that makes us look at accidents. Moribund fascination.

One person stands out from this pack of columnists, though: Dan Savage. Dan Savage writes "Savage Love" and as such is responsible for more good advice and funny columns than every single advice columnist who has come before him, or after him, all rolled together. Put another way: If you take all the 'good' that has been done by every other advice columnist in history, and all the 'good' that will be done by every other advice columnist in the future, and add it all up, Dan Savage has already done more good than that.

I'm not exaggerating. Dan Savage writes about relationships and sex and love and all the weird or sad or funny or stupid things that happen to relationships and with sex and love, and he writes about them bluntly and yet somewhat nicely -- the way it was 'nice' when you would fall and skin your knee and your dad would say "You can handle that, you're tough." You secretly wanted him to pat you on the head, or have your Mom kiss it, or you wish you hadn't fallen at all, but also you were a little proud and excited that Dad thought you were a tough guy.

That's the kind of advice Dan Savage gives, albeit in a way that won't appear soon in your morning paper unless your morning paper and the people who read it are both unusually liberal and deal with the kinds of issues Dan Savage deals with. Recent topics include a husband who was turned off by his wife after her breast cancer surgery, what to do when your boyfriend secretly looks at porn, and a 72-year-old father who might send away for a Russian mail order bride.

Those are the more family-friendly topics. I like to keep things family-friendly here, and I know that kids read this, so I won't reprint Dan's answers -- although it probably wouldn't hurt the kids to see them, really.

I say that because it's not so much the specific kinds of topics that "Savage Love" handles that makes Dan Savage The Best Advice Columnist so much as the fact that he handles them at all, and, on top of that, handles them in such a straightforward way. There are numerous benefits to his column.

First, when you read Dan Savage's column, you have one of two reactions: either (a) wow, I can't believe someone else thought of that, too, so I'm not weird, or (b) wow, that guy is really weird, I'm not so bad. Reading something that lets you know you're not so weird is never a bad thing -- because we all worry that somehow we fall outside the norm, don't we? "Savage Love" lets you know that, no, you don't. You're normal, or nobody's normal.

Secondly, Dan's advice doesn't mess around. He tells people to dump other people. He tells them when they're being jerks or selfish. He tells people when they're lying. He doesn't sugarcoat it and he does lay on the common sense. In years of reading Dan Savage's column, I've repeatedly had my sensibilities challenged. I'm a middle-class 39-year-old white guy from the Midwest. There's almost nothing that appears in "Savage Love" that wouldn't challenge my sensibilities. And for years, I've read his advice and his stance on things and, frankly, it makes sense. So Dan Savage has, I think, made me a better person: more openminded, more accepting of people's beliefs.

But don't get me wrong, either: He's not without morals or standards. I've never gotten that "Savage Love" is an "anything goes" kind of kingdom. Instead, there are rules that Dan Savage insists his readers follow, and those rules are a kind of morality. He doesn't suggest that whatever you want to do is okay; he does suggest that almost anything you want to do is okay if you do it in a decent, human way that doesn't hurt others. (He didn't say that; I'm paraphrasing.)
Thirdly, his column is interesting and funny and smart. And that's important. Like I said, reading other advice columnists is boring. Nobody really cares what fork you use; if you're going to write about it, at least be interesting about it. But they don't.

It would seem easy, I suppose, to be interesting and funny and smart about relationships and sex and love, but nobody else manages to do it, and "Savage Love" does. He can dispense frank and controversial advice to, say, the daughter of the Russian-bride-orderer, and make you laugh a bit while he does it, and if you read him long enough, you'll be a lot more open-minded and a lot better person, frankly, and more able to handle your relationships and love and sex, even if those relationships and love and sex don't involve, for example, people dressing up in costumes.

You might not agree with him, and you'll almost certainly be shocked more often than not when you read him, but you can't do any better than to get your advice from Dan Savage, The Best Advice Columnist.

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