So I’ve been an advice columnist for more than 10 years now.
Which is an odd thing to be. But I’ve been so honoured and touched by the questions, problems and dilemmas people have laid at my feet over the years.
Some have been terribly sad – such as the man who told me he had a terminal illness and was trying to get in touch with his son for some closure, but his son, upset about past conflicts, wouldn’t return his calls or e-mails. (My advice in a nutshell: Keep trying.)
Some have been terrifically funny, such as the men who would hot-tub nude with their wives but when joined by the sexy sister of one of the wives, wondered how to escape the doghouse after they, shall we say … saluted her under the bubbling waters.
In this case, I decided it all hinged on whether it was an involuntary response or something a man could control. So I consulted two experts. Female expert: “Of course you can control it, Dave.” Male expert: “Of course you can’t control it, Dave.” And added some very expert-y sounding technical mumbo-jumbo about the heated waters being a “vasodilator.”
I had to call it. I decided if you pictured your grandmother crawling up your leg with a knife between her teeth you could control it, so they should apologize. (I also offered to be their towel boy.)
People ask what gives me the right to give advice. I just use my noodle, but I have a loose aggregate of experts I call the Panel, who I consult whenever a question is outside the comfort zone of my skill set. On the Panel are family lawyers, doctors, therapists – there’s even a “naturist” on the panel, Stephane Deschene of the Canadian Federation of Naturists.
He’s outstanding nude in his field.
Over the years, I have naturally seen certain themes emerge, and since this is the time of year when many of us like to step back and take an overview of our lives, I’ve boiled them down to Five Golden Rules.
Of course, the original do-unto-others-as-you-would-have-them-do-unto-you Golden Rule (or, as some wags crack, “He who has the gold makes the rules”) supersedes all others, but it’s a little vague and general and I’m hoping these will also be helpful:
1. It’s not all about you. You can’t believe how many questions I get to the effect of: “This person in my life has no interest in me or any of my stuff and keeps wrenching the conversation back to him/herself.” As we lean more and more into selfie culture – people walking into fountains, phone poles and off cliffs as they take pictures of themselves – I expect I will see more of the same behaviour. All I can say is: Try not to forget there are people around you with thoughts and feelings and inner lives. I hate to quote Miss Manners because she and I are so different and do very different things, but she’s right when she says: “Good manners is the ability to imagine the feelings of others.” In other words, exercise empathy. I just hope we’re not losing the ability to do that.
2. Do your work. I also get quite a few questions from people about co-workers lollygagging, goldbricking, kibitzing and talking on the phone too much. Leading me to wonder: “Is any work getting done out there?” I get a lot of work done here at home because I don’t have all these distractions – or meetings, wherein you feel your life force being sucked up the air vents as someone who loves the sound of their own voice drones on and on. Of course, if you work in an office, you have to go to the meetings but otherwise the goal is to be good and ideally great – and even more ideally, the best at what you do. So stop screwing around. Socialize after work, but at work put your head down, roll up your sleeves and do what you do. And if you don’t like what you do, find something you do like and get good at that.
3. Look into your own backyard. This is my version of Jesus’s “before you criticize the splinter in someone else’s eye, check out the beam in your own” (I’m paraphrasing). So many questions I get stem from someone judging someone else or sticking their proboscis in another person’s business. Don’t do it! Concentrate on improving your own self. The philosopher Epictetus (my favourite: slave turned philosopher) said self-improvement is the highest goal, and I most heartily concur. Let other people worry about their problems: You worry about your own.
4. In relationships, what you need in the early going is momentum, and exclusivity. I also get a lot of questions to the effect of “we’ve been seeing each other awhile but I’m not sure about him” or “he’s not sure about me” and “I’m sort of interested in this other person, too” and there just seems to be a lot of wishy-washyness and namby-pambyism out there. Millennials, I’m sorry, but I’m casting a gimlet eye partly at you. Don’t be content to hang out in the grey area between “hanging out” and “hooking up.” You see something – or rather, someone – you like, wear your heart on your sleeve and full steam ahead. It’s the only way to wind up in a relationship that lasts. The goal here, in my not-so-humble-I-suppose opinion, is to have what I have: someone who knows you inside and out, backward and forward (“I know you better than you know yourself, Dave,” my wife is always boasting) but loves you anyway.
5. Be nice. Might be a horrendous cliché and seem really simple and reductive to some, but speaking of long-term relationships, this has been a running theme not only in my column but, lately, my life. I’m at an age now when marriages are breaking up and when all is said and done – all the couples counsellors and therapists consulted, friends vented to, lawyers engaged – it almost always seem to boil down to: “He/she was mean to me.” Making me wonder: Why do people allow themselves to be nasty to the people closest to them? Why are they polite and friendly to the barista at the corner coffee shop and insulting and unpleasant to the people with whom they cohabit, whom they once loved and maybe gave children to and so forth? Not all relationships work out, but if you take away one thing from this article, let it be this: Be as nice to those closest to you as you are to the barista at the closest coffee shop and everything will go better for everyone.
Are you in a sticky situation? Send your dilemmas to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please keep your submissions to 150 words and include a daytime contact number so we can follow up with any queries.
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