“Never marry a man who uses a tea bag twice” is a great piece of advice. Except for those with a deep fondness for weak tea, cheap dates or promiscuous recycling, it’s both indisputable and timeless.
Simultaneously simple and profound, the best advice is also almost universally applicable. Golda Meir‘s “Don’t be so humble; you’re not that great” comes under that rubric. So does a line from one of my mentors from grad school: “The people who don’t like you now, darling, will simply like you less as time passes. Stop trying to please them.”
I listened to grandmothers: Feed a cold, starve a fever, finish what’s on your plate and don’t go near the water until an hour after lunch. I listened to grandfathers: Don’t believe everything you hear, don’t admit to anything unless asked, and remember only fools brag about luck with the ponies or money in the bank.
My actual moral compass, such as it is, was wholly formed by the devotional daily reading of advice columnist Ann Landers (written by Eppie Lederer during my formative years). Even as a child, while others were reading “Pat The Bunny,” I was reading “Will Heavy Petting Ruin My Reputation?” Ann Landers answered urgent questions I didn’t even know I had. She addressed extravagantly personal topics I didn’t even know existed. In terms of predicting the future, she was way better than horoscopes.
I liked her straightforward replies and her lack of coyness. I liked that she admitted when she got something wrong, saying she deserved “40 lashes with a wet noodle.” I liked her humor.
But I also like the letters Ann Landers chose.
One had a lasting effect. Printed on Jan. 4, 1979, a letter discussing the vulnerability of young women to seduction insisted that, “Empty promises and sweet talk are the most effective tools of destruction.” A friend mailed me the clipping; I was living in London. I carried it as a talisman, keeping it as a reminder to tell and seek only the truth. I had it in my wallet for four years, but by then I knew it for real and by heart.
Landers’ replacement, the fabulous Amy Dickinson, keeps up her predecessor’s tradition of brevity and wit in her daily column. I’m such an “Ask Amy” fan that I turn to her page after glancing at the headlines (just to make sure we’ll be around long enough for advice to be useful). One of my recent favorites was Amy’s answer to a woman who, after a calamitous divorce, wanted to know what she might expect when meeting the “happily married” old boyfriend who got back in touch as soon as he heard she was single.
Writes Amy, “I love a good script. So let me take a pass at yours: He: ‘I’m miserable. My wife doesn’t understand me. I think about you all the time.’ You: ‘Check, please.’ And … scene.”
The other advice giver I see as a sort of modern I-Ching is E. Jean Carroll, the diamond-sharp pen behind the “Ask E. Jean” column for Elle magazine. No wet noodles for E. Jean; since 1993, she’s been using her words as whips and crops. While insightful and generous, E. Jean takes no prisoners. When asked by a woman still having an affair with a colleague a few weeks before his wedding whether she was the “right” woman or the “other” woman, E. Jean cuts deliberation short by explaining “Alas, you’re neither the ‘right woman’ nor the ‘other woman.’ You’re the sucker.”
And while the rest of us might be amateurs, we nevertheless have our signature pieces. “Never back up an inch more than you have to” Jack Sheedy was advised during a driving lesson, but he’s applied those words to everything else. Lori Aldape swears that “if someone has to have an answer right now, then the answer is no.” I tell young couples, if I’m asked whether they should wear rings, what I was told by a lecturer at Cambridge: “Wedding rings are like bicycle clips: they’re there to keep your pants in place.”
My older brother once reminded me: “You can always stop what you’re doing.” I’m taking his advice right now.
Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut and a feminist scholar who has written eight books. She can be reached through her website at www.ginabarreca.com.