Monday, September 17, 2012

Dear whoever for the X and Y generations

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, columns, collections, advice

This was my wild card selection for the month, and wild it is indeed. I grew up reading "Dear Abby" and "Ann Landers" (advice columns written by twin sisters who competed fiercely most of their lives), and now that both are dead, Abby's daughter Jeanne Phillips carries on her mother's column. When I saw Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, by Cheryl Strayed, I wondered how it might compare. It doesn't, and we'll discuss why in a moment.

"Dear Sugar" is the advice column for The Rumpus, a literary e-mag with 11 columns and quite a list of other features and sections. I note that the most recent "Dear Sugar" column is #98, published May 17, 2012. I suspect Ms Strayed is no longer writing the column, and has not been replaced.

There is little likelihood that the daily newspaper would carry an advice column like "Dear Sugar," nor any chance that they would publish any of the questions or their answers. For one thing, most of the questions, and nearly all of the answers, are longer than the entire section devoted to "Dear Abby" in our daily paper. Secondly, the subject matter is quite a bit further afield than anything Abby or her sister ever printed. I wouldn't call most of the articles offensive, per se, but it is easy to see that a lot of newspaper readers would take offense to them. And thirdly, Sugar is a bit of a potty-mouth, a trait she shares with most of those who wrote to her. There is still a lot of implicit censorship in the Fourth Estate. I can tolerate an occasional F-word or S-word, and a few stronger expressions; in this case, "occasional" has come to mean "only" 3 or 4 times in any particular question or answer. There's no sense faulting these folks for language I've been known to utter when sufficiently provoked, but it is sad that they need so little provocation, or none at all.

I judge from internal evidence that Sugar is about 45 years old, solidly in the X generation herself. Although my generation pretty much invented the "sexual revolution", most of us have a few qualms about it. Generations X and later appear to have no such qualms. In one of the questions, after describing a painful love triangle, the writer begins her actual question by saying, "I know I didn't do anything morally wrong, but…". I can just hear the original Abby, had this letter come to her, writing "Of course you were morally wrong! You made a promise, and broke it, and tried to justify it with a lie. How do you expect your 'friend' to be anything but hurt or even devastated?" And that is just winding up for a fastball straight to the conscience.

All that aside, I found myself marveling at Sugar's wisdom. There are places where she says, "Yes, you were wrong." But it is not in a judgmental way. "Being judgmental" implies punishing someone, or at least trying to. Stating a fact is not judgmental, it is often a highly respectful act that can lead to healing. Sugar is all about healing. She makes it clear that the first target of forgiveness is usually yourself. Get that hard work done, and forgiving someone else gets a whole lot easier. And when you are the one needing another's forgiveness, go about it honestly: do what you can to right the wrong, or at least acknowledge it when "righting" it isn't possible, and then ask to be forgiven. If a scumbag who won't even admit wrong is in your life, break the connection. Who has time and energy for all the drama?

The items are full of self-revelation by Sugar herself. She frequently establishes her right to an opinion by having been there, having messed up (not her word…), having done the right thing only after exhausting all alternatives, or simply having been broken by her own choices. Yet she came out the other end alive, and her example is often enough to encourage someone else that they, too, will come out alive, and can do better.

The book consists of 56 Q-n-A items, well over half the total "Dear Sugar" collection. The questions answered online were culled from the thousands that have been sent in. Reading between the lines, it seems a large additional number were answered privately and not published. I hope someone comes along to continue the column. There are a lot of confused, hurting, lonely and otherwise messed-up folks out there, full of questions that need to be asked, and who will be helped by simply asking them, and helped even more if they can get an answer. Today's e-culture produces more than its share of lonely people. How helpful if a portion of it offers some easing of that loneliness.

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