The Agony Antagonist

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Advice news from all over

Ask Ellie, over there at the Chicago Sun-Times, had a “Play Advice Columnist for a Day” contest in her March 18 column. The lucky letter-writer, whose problems became fodder for a nation of frustrated and lonely people with their own agendas, wrote in to say that she is married to a man who was her “first,” who doesn’t fulfill her sexually, and who she doesn’t even consider manly anymore, though she does see him as a friend. Consequently, she’s taken up with a married man, and boy is the sex hot. Should she stay with her boring husband, or move on to lustier fields? Ellie gives her advice first, which sounds a lot like this:

Blah blah blah sanctity of marriage blah blah hard work blah blah blah commitment blah blah counseling.

And then a bunch of readers say basically the same thing. But here’s the thing I love: Among all the clucking hens repeating, “Save your marriage—brawk!” there’s one bright young, bitter shining star who tells it like it is:

If he had such a low libido all along, why marry him? Since she has so little respect for him (and this other man's wife), marriage counseling or any attempts on her part to reconcile their sexual appetites will be a waste of time, because this repulsive woman will cheat again. She needs to spare this man further cruelty (I'm sure he already knows what's happening) and get a divorce, stop seeing that married scumbag, then get the serious help she needs, so she will realize relationships are just that -- relating to others and not always putting your selfish needs first. (My wife had several affairs last year and I am still angry and humiliated).

Oh, how I love it. And he’s right, too. The letter-writer is repulsive, she did make a mistake in marrying the first guy who came along, and if she were at all concerned with the so-called sanctity of marriage, she wouldn’t have cheated in the first place. Brawk!

Ask Amy gives us this little gem, in her April 18 column, from a lady, Carol, who wants to share a neologism coined by her late friend. Apparently, after her friend was diagnosed with ALS, her ex-husband moved back in with her to serve as a caretaker. She felt that calling him her “ex” was a bit cold, so she called him her “wasband” or her “hasbend.” Get it??? Because he was her husband, and now he’s a has-been husband? Am I wrong in thinking that this either comes from a very bitter place in a dying woman’s heart, or else she had an extraordinarily bad sense of humor? I mean, he took care of her when she took ill, giving up his freedom and any chance at a social life in order to do so. Why be mean about it, lady? Dead lady? Waslady?

In other news, Prudie is taking people to task with a little more venom than usual, I see. To the 47-year-old man who wants to ask out his attractive 20-ish friend, she has these words:

You are what every girl is dreaming of: a middle-aged guy with a miserable track record, a daughter her own age, and apparently no self-insight. Sure, dating women more than two decades younger after multiple marital disasters is standard behavior for billionaires and movie stars, but at least those guys are billionaires or movie stars. It's good that you're hesitating; maybe your gut is telling you this young woman would be appalled by your putting the moves on her.

Ow. Though really, tough love and all. One gets the feeling that the guy was not going to come to that totally reasonable conclusion on his own. Re. the sister-in-law who told the letter-writer’s husband that her son was upset that his Easter card didn’t come with a $50 bill:

I don't even know the woman, and I already have a really bad attitude toward her. You have a right to be furious, but the larger issue here is that your beloved little nephew is being raised by a money-grubbing manipulator.

Bingo. On the money again. (No pun intended.) And to the restaurant manager who wants to know how he can dissuade his regular customer from leaving used Kleenex on the table:

Let's see—you have a lovely customer who has been coming in multiple times a week for 15 years, often bringing many guests, and you would like to inform her that a personal habit of hers is repulsive to you and she's no longer welcome unless she straightens out. That sounds like a business strategy! Do you berate your male customers if they leave wee-wee on the rim of the urinal?

Oh yes. This is how it’s done, if Ask Amy and Dear Abby and the weirdly unsatisfying Ask Ellie would like to take notes. Well done, Prudie. You’ve made the Agony Antagonist a very happy woman. For today.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Wincing her life away

I really love Salon’s advice columnist, Cary Tennis. He’s smart, he’s witty, he writes long, detailed responses to people’s questions, and he typically answers letters that are unusual and interesting, and interestingly written. Take this one, from April 12, in which a girl calling herself Tragically Unhip writes in to say that she loves hipster culture but is unhappy because she does not embody teh hip (as the kids say, I think).

It’s a weird letter, for sure. Just to make sure we’ve got all pertinent information before we start making fun of people, let’s look at what TU says about herself.

Reasons TU loves hipster culture/might be considered a hipster
1. She hangs out with indie rockers and punks
2. She dated an indie rocker in college
3. She lived in Williamsburg, Brooklyn
4. She appreciates grit, dives, PBRs, and irony
5. She judges her new friends for their pedestrian taste in music and fashion
6. She wants to drink whiskey until she dies, read Kerouac, and smoke cigarettes until her lungs are filthy

Reasons TU appears not to be a hipster
A. She calls herself a nerd several times
B. She wears dorky clothes and has a dorky gait and a dorky smile
C. She laughs too loud at corny jokes
D. She no longer lives in Williamsburg and now lives in a neighborhood where she doesn’t feel judged for her inherent dorkiness
E. She works in an accounting firm
F. She feels uncomfortable when judging other people and feeling superior to them for her taste in/knowledge about music and other things hipster

Now, Cary’s answer is pretty wonderful. It reads like a prose poem about how to be a person, and—more to the point—it intentionally plays with hipster-speak. It’s pretty cool, I guess, but does it answer TU’s question? And does she even have a question? Well, let’s look at that first: What does TU want to know? In the last line of the letter, she writes, “Why do I yearn for this thing [being hip] that can’t and won’t bring me satisfaction?” But two paragraphs earlier, she writes, “I am so dissatisfied with my unhip life.” So which is it? Furthermore, throughout the letter, there are tones of “Why can’t I be hip? I really want to be hip! Please tell me I’m hip,” so maybe that’s why she’s writing. She wants Cary to tell her how to unleash her hipness potential, or perhaps simply validate her pretensions by telling her that it certainly sounds like she’d fit right in with all the hip crowds he knows.

Cary’s answer to any or all of these concerns, underneath all the talk about electric wind and dream sequences and copper blood and milkmen, appears to be this: Hip is where you find it. You do not have to live in Williamsburg to be hip, you only have to love, genuinely love, the hip culture and the indie bands and the Pitchfork and the PBRs, and hip will find you, where you are.

Whether or not this is true doesn’t really concern me. My concern primarily is that Cary failed to address TU’s concerns, except in a very roundabout way. Actually, she really doesn’t seem to love the hipster lifestyle after all. She kind of does. She likes the music and the people (kind of—not their judgments of her, though), and she likes feeling like she “gets it,” I think—she says she doesn’t like feeling superior to those who don’t get it, but she definitely knows that there’s a distinction between Coldplay and Grizzly Bear, and which one she prefers. And then there’s #6 on the list of why she likes the hipster life, up there, to which I say: Oh please, child, who doesn’t? (Though I’ve never been a huge Kerouac fan; replace his name with Vollmann and I’m in.) But she doesn’t like being judged, and she’s smart enough to realize that that comes with the territory of hanging with the hip, especially for someone who doesn’t dress or act the part.

At its heart, this is a letter about someone wanting to be something she’s not; there’s a basic dissatisfaction expressed, both regarding the hipster life and regarding the non-hip life. She wants to be hip, and yet she hasn’t yet gone out and bought the hipster outfit that would allow her to walk the streets in her beloved Williamsburg without being sneered at. She wants to be a part of this group, and yet she also wants to be accepted for who she is—although not even she is comfortable with who she is. Additionally, most of the time one has to play along to be accepted. Why hasn’t she played along? Is it possible that she doesn’t love hipster culture as much as she says she does? Frankly, this situation seems to have as its direct parallel the high school student who doesn’t have any friends, so she sits at home every weekend studying up on whatever things she’s gleaned that the popular kids like, in the hope that someday she’ll be in a situation where she can throw out some insightful comment about Veronica Mars (or whatever the kids these days are all hot about—obviously, the Agony Antagonist hasn’t been young in a great many years), and all of a sudden Unpopular Girl will be embraced by the previously unfeeling in-crowd. Which only happens in movies, really. I mean, just so you know.

So, what should TU do? She’s trapped between two worlds—one that she desires but doesn’t feel at home in, and one that has embraced her (she has “sweet-natured” friends, a “caring and considerate” boyfriend) but that she doesn’t love. It’s fun to be in the in-crowd, I suppose (only having seen it from the outside, I really have no idea, but let’s just roll with that premise), but if it’s the hipster music you love, you don’t need an invitation—just the cover charge. And no one’s ever kicked me out of a smoke-filled dive bar for not wearing the right ironic t-shirt. So there’s that. It seems to me that to strive to join the amorphous, ill-defined group of cool kids—sorry, hipsters—when to do so basically means that you’d have to change who you are is nothing more than a fool’s mission. It’s stupid, really. What are you, TU? Twelve? Fifteen? Grow up. Drink your PBR in the nearest dive bar while wearing your Nikes or Reeboks or whatever. Take up painting if you love it, not because you want the artistic cred. Go see Menomena play, and sneer at the other cattle there, with their ironic mustaches and skintight jeans, if that’s what it takes to stop caring about what they think.

Not that you’re better than them, TU. But it seems you have plenty to be happy about, only one of which is that you should feel free, at any time, to give up the dream that being something other than who you are will make you happier.


Tuesday, April 10, 2007

She's just not that into you

Part of the frustration with reading advice columns is that sometimes one gets the impression that the columnists don’t read their letters very carefully. Amy Dickinson in her April 9 column, for example, addresses the concerns of a 17-year-old girl who has long-standing plans to go to prom with her good friend, who has recently revealed that he is in love with the writer of the letter. Platonic Prom Date asks if Amy thinks they can still go as friends. Or, you know, what she actually says is:

I told him the truth -- that he is a great friend but that I am leaving for college in the fall and don't want to complicate a great and lasting friendship.

Now I don't know whether in good conscience I should go with Joe to the prom.

He seemed to understand and accept my "rejection." However, I don't want to cause any hurt feelings or lead on my friend, especially at our senior prom.

Is it possible for us to still go as just friends?

A close reading of the above query shows that PPD has more than a few concerns. (1) PPD doesn’t want to lead on her friend, Joe. (2) PPD doesn’t want to hurt Joe’s feelings. (3) PPD is concerned—for reasons she does not address—about her “conscience.” Perhaps she feels guilty about possibly preventing him from attending prom with a love interest; perhaps it’s something else entirely. (4) PPD doesn’t want to complicate her friendship with Joe. (5) PPD wants to know if it’s possible to go to prom with Joe, as planned, as just friends.

Amy addresses, umm, basically … none of these issues, instead deciding that Joe may have hurt feelings and as such may not want to attend prom with PPD. Take that, girlie! Then, she wanders onto a weird tangent, telling PPD to “lighten the atmosphere by e-mailing him your latest favorite video clip from or by making a reference to a long-standing joke that you two share.”—that’s what all you kids are always going on about, right? It’s like Amy gets to redress two painful memories from her childhood in three short paragraphs: Instead of feigning any sort of interest in any of the concerns PPD has raised, she’s focused on the bruised heart and fragile ego of the rejected friend, and she also takes the opportunity to show off how hip she still is, even at her advanced age.

The advice Amy ultimately gives—to ask Joe whether he still feels comfortable going to prom with PPD—isn’t bad. It just wasn’t asked for. And frankly, I have a few unresolved issues in that area from my teen years. Teenagers generally aren’t listened to—usually for good reason. All I’m saying is that if Amy wanted to do a service to PPD, she could have started with a little common courtesy and actually tried to understand what PPD’s problem was, rather than forcing her own, sad agenda.


Tuesday, April 3, 2007

"Savage Disenchantment," more like

I generally love Dan Savage, author of “Savage Love.” Generally. I mean, he gives great advice, isn’t afraid to ask an expert when a question touches on a subject that’s outside his comfort level, and is usually sympathetic to the people who deserve it and horrified by the ones who are clearly horrifying. But something’s happened these last few weeks, and by “something,” I think I mean that Dan’s losing it. And by “it,” I mean whatever used to make his column good.

So, on March 15 some guy writes in and wants to talk about differing libidos, as discussed in a new book that posits that women naturally have lower sex drives. Dan’s response is to quote a review of the book (he admits that he hasn’t read the book itself) and make a bunch of erroneous claims while keeping his own ass out of the fire by attributing said claims to said reviewer. Thus we have such gems as “I'm saddened to report that, according to Sewell [author] and Loh [reviewer], there's no such thing as a woman who wants sex constantly,” and “So if straight women don't want sex—or as much sex—what do they want? Chocolate, says Sewell, or a good book. Massive amounts of carbs, says Loh.” In the following week’s column, responding to letters from angry, sex-crazed women, Savage explains that he knew that Sewell and Loh were wrong but he only accepted their hypotheses in order to rankle his female readers into sending in letters saying how horny they were, which he would then print, having the dual effect of proving this females-hate-sex theory wrong and saving Savage a buncha work. Phew! Writing a column every week must be pretty hard, eh, Dan?

None of this would have been terrible—everyone deserves a week or two off every now and then, or an off-week, whatever—if the writer of the original March 15 query had only been writing in to tell Savage about the book and see what he had to say about it. Actually, Not Giving Up says that he wants sex daily but only gets some 5-20 times per year. To be fair, Savage does address this issue (briefly): After eight paragraphs devoted to the cockamamie idea that all women prefer deep-fried pizza tacos to sex, he writes three paragraphs suggesting that women who don’t like sex but wish to remain in monogamous relationships should offer up regular blowjobs and handjobs, and that their men would be wise to accept these *jobs graciously. Well put, Savage, but how about this? Women’s libidos typically fire up in response to sex, meaning that the more we have it the more we want it; or, to put it the other way, if a woman hasn’t had sex for, oh say, three months, as is the likely case for Not Giving Up’s wife, she is going to have a harder time wanting to set aside the laundry in order to even give that handjob. And when you’re out of shape and body conscious—as someone who’s given up sex for chocolate might be—it makes it even harder to think about having sex. And there are, of course, many many more underlying factors. It’s a huge topic, and one that’s clearly not going to be solved in the few hundred words “Savage Love” occupies. On the other hand: I dunno, man. Can’t you at least try?

In last week’s column (March 29), Savage answers that question with a definitive no; he will not try, and you can’t make him. Deep Dickin’ Dude returns Savage to form—at least nominally—with a problem that seems to be what “Savage Love” should be all about. DDD is married with a baby on the way, but is hesitant to give up his weekly blowjob sessions with a man who, he says, is the best blowjob-giver ever. Is he endangering his marriage and new family, he wonders? Savage says yes, which, mind you, is probably the right answer, at least in the long run, but check out his reasoning: DDD could catch an STD from his gay (possibly promiscuous) blowjob-giver.

Could DDD catch an STD? Oh sure he could. But he could also wear a condom, if syphilis were the only concern. No, I’m thinking that this is just another lazy answer on Savage’s part. It’s kind of a morally gray area, actually. Marriage is supposed to be monogamous, of course, but it so often is not that that particular argument seems a bit stupid to drag out at this late date. The way that DDD has described the situation, it doesn’t seem as though anyone is in danger of being hurt in any way other than the wife. Why might she be hurt? Well, she’s been lied to, for one. And if the relationship is cut off, DDD will be “hurt” by the not-getting-of-blowjobs, so that’s also something to consider. One thing I’m wondering is, would the wife be willing to learn how to give a better blowjob, if DDD suggested it in the right way? If not, why not? Other considerations are: How likely is it that these secret blowjob-meetings will be discovered by the wife? What lengths is DDD willing to go to to prevent her from finding out his secret? And how much stress is DDD willing to put up with in trying to keep his secret a secret? The point is too simple to make, really, but I’ll make it, since Savage didn’t: Secrets are hard to keep. Chances are, either DDD wife will find out that her husband’s been getting BJs from a gay man (and she’ll either be cool with it or dump him—and the fact that DDD hasn’t told her already kind of makes me suspect it’s the latter) or DDD will live a life of mini meltdowns, trying to keep his stories straight and his dual lives separate (and he’ll either thrive off the excitement or it’ll drive him crazy). So, either DDD should stop seeing BJ man and address the BJ issues his wife seems to have, or he should tell his wife about BJ man and accept the consequences. Or, of course, there’s always trying to keep the secret a secret—and using condoms—but then, I suppose Savage knew all this and thought that DDD would rather listen to an angry crowd of letter-writing blowjob kings than the columnist whose advice he sought.

The good news is that Savage appears to be more or less back to his normal, helpful-advice-giving self this week —the “less” part of that statement being the first letter, which centers on Constantly Being Evaluated’s relationship with his girlfriend, which involves a smattering of dirty talk and light bondage in the bedroom, and accusations of infidelity everywhere else (along with some talk of disrespect that, frankly, to me, sounds like a deflection). To be clear, CBE does link these three items in his letter: (1) my girlfriend and I engage in dirty talk, (2) and she accuses me of being disrespectful to her, even though outside of the dirty talk and bondage—which I do totally for her benefit!—I am nothing but respectful, (3) and she “constantly” accuses me of being unfaithful. So when Savage responds by saying that the girlfriend sounds like the typical immature girl who feels guilty about indulging her few kinks, it’s not completely out of left field. But seriously. She’s accusing CBE of being unfaithful because she’s insecure, not because she’s feeling guilty about her kinks. And she’s bringing up the “disrespect” issue because she’s searching for validation in her firmly held belief that CBE doesn’t love her, could never love her, she’s not worthy, whatever. And the kinks—I dunno. Maybe they also stem from some deeper psychological issue such as low self-esteem, but maybe not. After all, if I’ve learned anything from reading “Savage Love,” it’s that a lot of people have kinks and a lot of people are fucked up, but the two are best seen as entirely separate issues.

A lot of things, after all, have been learned through the reading of “Savage Love” over the years. Just not lately.