I have always been a sucker for advice columns. I began reading “Dear Abby” as a child. The column could be found on the same page as the comics, crossword puzzle, and horoscopes in the daily newspaper, the Herald Banner, in Greenville, Texas, where I grew up. I read “Dear Abby” while eating cold cereal with milk before my walk to school. I liked reading about other people’s problems; sometimes they connected with my own and allowed me to triangulate between the letter writer’s problem, Abby’s response, and my own experiences. Advice I gleaned from Abby’s column once saved me from a sexual predator’s advances. When I was fourteen, a man, who was in his thirties, touched my breasts and tried to kiss me by forcing his tongue in my mouth.
I pushed him away and said, “I’ve read ‘Dear Abby,’ and I know what you’re trying to do. You better stop or I’ll tell my mother.” The predator backed off and acted wounded by the strong rejection. This was not a man I wanted to touch me. Abby’s column gave me voice to stop him. She probably would have advised me at the time to report the incident, as would most of the advice columnists I’ve read since, including but not limited to E. Jean, Amy, Caroline, Prudence, Miss Manners, Dan Savage, and “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” in Ladies’ Home Journal back when it was a staple in waiting rooms across America. I’m one of a vast community of readers who are obsessed with advice columns. Some mornings, I cruise columns online for an hour or more. If I’m really down the rabbit hole, I might even read advice for pet owners though I don’t own a cat, dog, or hamster.
You can probably guess that at one point I was inspired to launch my own advice column. I called it “Dear Expertina,” and published it here on the Gloria Siren’s page in response to the despair I was feeling over the current President’s (hopefully single term) regime. I made up the question, and I made up the answer, to get the column started. I registered an email in Expertina’s name to field the flood of questions I expected my column to generate. The only email I received, other than spam, came from a man who asked, “What is genuine love?” It seemed like a come-on more than a question, and it required a philosophical answer more than advice. I mean, why couldn’t the guy ask me a mother-in-law question or about his annoying neighbors or a problem at work? If he’d asked me something more specific, I would have had something to say.
My problem is, many of the questions I have lately are like obese, animate, stuffed animals that are actually zombies with venom in their fangs. If I could nominate a contemporary writer to author an advice column to answer some of my questions, I would choose Lionel Shriver. Shriver came on my radar about five years ago when I first read her novel, We Need To Talk About Kevin (2003). Since then, I’ve read her essays in Harper’s Magazine, her collection, Properties: Stories Between Two Novellas (2018), a few columns in The Spectator, and her recent profile by Ariel Levy in The New Yorker. In the profile, Shriver took on one of my big hairy questions, “What does the future with Covid-19 look like?”
Shriver’s answer, reported by Levy, is bleak; “This is the nothing part—as long as you’re not one of the people who are gravely ill, or have lost someone who became gravely ill.” Shriver goes on to say, “Truth is, I’ve never been this shaken.” What terrifies her is the possible implosion of the global economy, which she compares to “an ongoing, borderless nightmare ended only by death.” As Levy reveals, Shriver often thinks that people worry about the wrong things, like the spread of coronavirus rather than the slow, insidious dismantling of the global economy and its supply chains, or about climate change rather than its relationship to the globe’s population explosion.
While I don’t always align with Shriver’s thinking, her pessimism and skepticism are antidotes to wishful thinking and complacency. When I encounter another report of devastating news, like the alarming temperatures this week that are scorching the Arctic circle, I wonder what Shriver would say.
The world seems to be on fire. The kids went swimming last week in Siberia. What practical things can I do help cool down the planet? Thanks in advance for any ideas.