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Friday, August 3, 2012

The Sweet Spot: Channeling Advice Columnist Dear Sugar

Posted By on Fri, Aug 3, 2012 at 9:30 AM

Cheryl Strayed and Rumpus managing editor Isaac Fitzgerald - CHRIS HARDY
  • Chris Hardy
  • Cheryl Strayed and Rumpus managing editor Isaac Fitzgerald

In last week's column I offered to give dating advice to my readers. "How do I avoid seeming desperate when deep down, I really am desperate?" asked a 24-year-old man. His issue, he confessed, is confidence and the feeling that he is being left behind in the realm of romance. I penned off some suggestions only to discover, much to my dismay when he wrote me back, that they were entirely unhelpful. I was reminded that it is a treacherous road traveled by those who dare the conceit of telling someone how to solve their problems. I hung my head in shame and then I went to go see Dear Sugar. Or more specifically, I attended the Rumpus release party of Cheryl Strayed's book Tiny, Beautiful Things at the Verdi club.

Cheryl Strayed and Rumpus managing editor Isaac Fitzgerald - CHRIS HARDY
  • Chris Hardy
  • Cheryl Strayed and Rumpus managing editor Isaac Fitzgerald

There are many -- including Oprah -- who know the wondrous and tear-provoking writing talents of Strayed. For those who don't know of her, she is the best thing that has ever happened to the strange world of advice giving. Author and former Dear Sugar columnist Steve Almond describes what she offers as "Radical Empathy." In his introduction to her book he says, "There is nothing you can tell Sugar that doesn't strike her as beautiful and human. Which is why men and women write to her about intimacies they can't share with anyone else, unspeakable urges, insoluble grief. She understands that attention is the first and final act of love, and that the ultimate dwindling resource in the human arrangement isn't cheap oil or potable water or even common sense, but mercy." 

The mercy evident in the first column I read of hers had me weeping copiously, in public, and I am not normally a public crier. I may have to revise that idea of myself since at the release party I found myself, repeatedly, in need of a handkerchief. The Rumpus, a literary website  founded by Stephen Elliott, always puts on a great show. But this one, like a well-wrought symphony, had the touch of greatness. There is a particular aesthetic to the literary scene in San Francisco; many people will be wearing glasses, quoting David Foster Wallace and reveling in irony. This event was no different, but with Strayed's gorgeous humanity added to the composition, the resulting denouement was good, gosh darn, palpable love.

Am I a fan, unashamedly gushing like a tween swooning over Edward Cullen? Yes. Yes, I am. I was profoundly humbled by the event. I was so moved that though usually I try to get myself invited to the after-party, I wanted to go home to think, ponder, and read. I read that damn book cover to cover and am now a better person for it.  So in honor of Cheryl Strayed, her fans and the man who wrote to me, I feel compelled to try again with hope that I can actually help.

Dear Desperate,

How do you avoid seeming desperate when you actually are? You can't. Desperation is like bad breath, a missing button on your coat, a shriek in the night that everyone can hear. It is precisely the desperation that needs healing. Unfortunately, that is not easy. But you can start with the realization that youth is a bitch -- wearing a red dress, promising you a glimpse of a thigh, only to then throw a drink in your face. We all have expectations of where our life is supposed to be at a certain age. Oddly, the time when we most feel the pain of that is at the time we have barely begun to live.

I remember my first terrible strands of grey hair. I was all of 25 but suddenly I knew that I was going to die someday. I knew that whatever beauty I had was only going to fade, wrinkle, sag, disappear. I knew with absolute certainty that if someone didn't love me now, I was doomed to be alone forever. None of that turned out to be true (well except for the dying someday part). What is true is that when I look back on that moment from the vantage point of age and graying pubic hair, all I can do is laugh. I laugh, because it is hard these days to actually remember most of that aching, desperate, calamitous decade of my 20s. Not because I was lost in a haze of prescription drugs or buried in obsessive career building but because I was consumed with becoming. I was like puzzle pieces suspended in green jello, dimly seen, slowly moving, unclear. But as the years passed, those pieces eventually melded together. Soggy and slightly wilted, but solid.

I cannot promise you that love will come your way. But I can promise that the nature of what you are feeling now will evolve and that desperation can be tackled. Beating it begins with taking a big deep breath and saying out loud, "This too will pass." Then going out and getting a dog or a parakeet, becoming a Big Brother, learning to play the tuba, volunteering to help hospice patients, and taking risks. Risk being awkward, obnoxious, boring, too loud, geeky. Tell bad jokes to strangers, dance by yourself, try to make the old woman on the bus smile, and to  give yourself the gift of forgiveness.

In April, my mother will be getting married. This is the first time that she will have a proper ceremony and a ring on her finger. The first marriage was to an alcoholic who made her a ring while he was in prison. It did not have diamonds in it. This will also be the first time she is with a man who genuinely, deeply, whole-heartedly loves her. She is 60 years old. My grandmother recently celebrated her 80th birthday by having hot sex with her new boyfriend. Despite three previous marriages, this is the first time my grandmother is having one of those weak in the knees, "I want you," "you make me crazy" kind of relationships. 

We do not know what will happen to us. There is no timeline for expectations. Love is an impossible and wondrous force that is entirely out of our control and it will often only show up, as many wise persons have said before, right when we least expect it. You wanted me to help you "be more confident." I can't do that. Because confidence is not a behavior. The word, broken down, means "with faith." So my greatest wish for you is that you explore trusting in time. Give yourself over to the adventure and you may be infinitely surprised. At this moment you feel alone, (but in the words of Dear Sugar) b. and yet.... c. and yet... d. you are loved.

After the show last Friday, Strayed offered to sign everyone's book. When, at last, it was my turn, I asked her what she thought about the night. She said, "It was incredible. Was it good for you?" Yes indeed, Dear Sugar. You are the best advice I've ever had. 

Buy the book on Strayed's website, and read her Dear Sugar columns at The Rumpus.

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The Sweet Spot is a blog column by Ginger Murray who is also the editor of Whore! magazine. Check back next week for more.

For more events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook.

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Ginger Murray

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