I USED to be a faithful "Dear Abby" reader when I was younger. I stopped reading when there was a big scandal over her practice of re-running columns during her vacations. Abby's advice was usually lousy the first time around.
I didn't read another advice column until I started to follow "Ask Beth" every Friday in the Boston Globe. I was really desperate for mail, so I figured that reading letters addressed to somebody with my name was close enough to the real thing. But after several weeks, I realized I was much better off getting no mail at all.
I have enough problems of my own that I don't need to deal with a girl like "Venus", who writes in: "Dear Beth, I'm 14 and I like this kid."
What advice does this girl need? Go for it? Give it up? Wait until you are 30 and see if you still like him? Offer to buy him cupcakes in the cafeteria?
My approach would have been different. I would have called this girl and made her listen to my entire social history. By the time I was done, she would be so sick of me that she would give up whining. This technique, which I'll call reverse-advice attrition, is the only way to solve other people's problems.
"Ask Beth" certainly isn't helping anyone by giving Venus inane advice like "At 14, teens change boyfriends and girlfriends often, so the odds are he'll break up sometime soon."
Does this sound like the advice of someone who gets around a little too much? Or maybe somebody who has been dumped one too many times?
I'm sure that "Ask Beth's" little talk reassured Venus. In a couple of weeks, she'll get this boy to notice her during homeroom. By fifth period, he'll have dropped her for some blonde in his gym class.
THIS obviously not the way to counsel overly hormonal teenagers. The only way to be effective is to scare them.
Let's compare "Ask Beth's" revolving-door relationship theory to my reverse-advice attrition for a letter from "Insecure." It begins, "This guy I loved left for the army and treated me like dirt."
"Ask Beth's" response: "Maybe this the right guy for you. But if you really love him and think he can change, give him another chance."
My response: "Having a problem with trust? Try dealing with people in a college laundry room who find it funny to tell an inexperienced clothes-washer that it's all right to use bleach on bright colors. Now I look like a throwback to the 1960s because everything I own is tie-dyed.
"Don't bother with those soldiers. They don't even do their own laundry, and they always wear the same colors. I've known they were scum ever since my brother's G.I. Joe used to kill my Barbies..."
Which advice is going to help Insecure get her life back on track? You decide.
I thought my reverse-advice attrition might be a great way to get Harvard students to stop complaining about their social lives. There is a lot I could do with the letters I would receive.
"Dear Beth, I'm really hot for this Biochem concentrator, but he hardly notices me because he's in the lab all night. I go there to see him, but I'm tired of socializing with beakers and flasks until 3 a.m. Is there any other way I can attract his attention?"
"Dear Beth, my girlfriend is a militant feminist. Every time I try to do something romantic she accuses me of being a chauvinistic pig who indulges in archaic ritualized affection that dominates and demeans women. Is there a non-symbolic way for me to give her flowers?"
"Dear Beth, I keep changing my concentration and I have no direction in my life. All I know is that I want to earn a lot of money or be very powerful when I graduate. Oh wait, I'm supposed to ask questions about my love life. I guess I just want to know how to get one."
The possibilities are endless, and I could definitely top them with horror stories of my own. Although nobody would confuse me with Ms. Omniscient of the Globe, reverse-advice attrition might just be the wave of the future. If people were willing to listen to Morton Downey, Jr. scream at them, they are open for anything.
If people want to whine to me about their problems, they'll find them solved faster than they would like.