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Letter from America


By Cara Sheridan O’Donnell.

O'Donnell Irish EyesO'Donnell Irish EyesWhat woman would not happily, bordering on wagging-her-tail-and-peein’-her-pants ecstatically, jump at the chance to be the agony aunt or sob sister for a major print or on-line publication?  I, for one, would never say no to such an offer.  In fact, I like to imagine that some editor in chief, somewhere out there, is considering me for this dream job even as I write these words. Any minute now, I might receive the phone call or e-mail in which I will be asked to start writing my first advice column right away.

To spare myself any potential embarrassment, just in case the job offer is made to me in person, I wear a Depends disposable undergarment whenever I think I might meet face-to-face with someone who is even remotely connected to the world of publishing. That would include the woman who delivers my daily copy of the New York Times to my doorstep.

I know in the very depths of my soul that my any-second-now job as an advice columnist will be accompanied by the promise of lots o’ lettuce.  Beaucoup bucks. Okay, seriously:  I will be offered a salary commensurate with my experience, which I will graciously accept.  However, even as I stake my claim to what I view as a plum of a position, the icing on the cake of journalism—my destiny—I will chortle to myself: Experience? I have a boatload of experience! What woman over the age of 25 has no experience in the advice-giving department? None!  Most women are good (even great) at giving advice.  This is not to say that all the advice women dish out is great (or even good), but it is what it is:  Advice.  Most women are tickled pink to provide advice, and plenty of it. Moreover, whether their advice is requested outright or even desired at all, some women dispense their words of wisdom without a moment’s thought of monetary reward.  These ladies, the corps of volunteer agony aunts known to their detractors as “nosy Nellies” or “Bertha Buttinskis,” are a dime a dozen.  In contrast to them, I, as a professional sob sister, need never again poke my nose into another individual’s business or butt into the personal lives of those around me.  I am here to tell you right now that my new gig is Everywoman’s Dream Job!

Readers of my new sob sister column will flood my mailbox with their problems.  So numerous will these be that I will undoubtedly have to employ a full-time staff of readers whose sole job will be to sort through the mountains of mail I will receive daily.  My assistants will wade through that pile, reducing it to a manageable assortment of the concerns most likely to be shared by a number of similarly tormented readers, as well as unusual problems and off-the-wall dilemmas.  Then, faced with a tidy stack of mail, I, as “Aunt Ethel” or “Dear Margaret”—oh, do all columnists of this type have to have sensible names?—will further narrow the numbers down to the two or three questions I will tackle in the 1000-word space allotted to me for the day.

As a responsible advice columnist, I will, of course, take care to have at my beck and call a roster of experts to consult when I myself need advice in order to lord it over my advisees.  My “pro’s pros list” will no doubt include the names of psychiatrists and other physicians, theologians, attorneys and law-enforcement officials, diet gurus, educators, and, naturally, an out-of-work tuba player or two.

As a savvy advice columnist, I will always recognize a troll when confronted by one.  It is a sad truth that some go-to columnists are inadequately equipped for this.  It is my considered opinion that troll-spotters are born, not made. This particular insight was a gift given by God at my birth; experienced or not, an advice columnist either has it or doesn’t.  The host of a wildly popular late-night call-in radio show back in the early 1990s actually affirmed that long-held belief of mine one morning in 1993, when I dropped off my two oldest children at school.  An 11th-grade boy, flanked by several high-school girls, approached the car and greeted me as usual.  He then added (as if he had been dared to do so), “I didn’t recognize you with your clothes on.”  At that point, the giggling gaggle of girls surrounded my son, Drew, as he emerged from the car.  Their squeals, the type normally reserved for a celebrity sighting, echoed in my ears as I put my car into gear.  Before I drove away, my own children gave me sheepish grins and Keelan, the older of the two, whispered to me, “I’ll explain later.” In the span of 10 seconds, I had gone from a state of mild shock to intense curiosity.

altaltLater arrived and my explanation along with it.  Apparently, as my daughter Keelan told me, her younger brother Drew was a regular caller to the radio show mentioned above. Indeed, he had acquired quite a substantial (albeit local) following of his own, so frequent and wacky were his calls to the show in question.  On the evening before, Drew had called with his latest trumped-up concern; he informed the host and his guest “experts” that his parents were avowed nudists.  “I get a bit nervous about having my friends over to the house,” Drew began, with just the right degree of sincerity in his voice.  “My parents aren’t, like, skeevy ‘pervs’ or anything like that, but I, like, never know if my mom is going to waltz through the room my friends and I are in, and, like, well, she might be pushing a vacuum cleaner and wearing nothing but a dust cloth tied like a bandanna around her neck,” he whined to the panel.  The host and guests had swallowed Drew’s tale of woe—hook, line, and sinker—and proceeded to give him appropriate advice while the high-school kids in Manhasset, New York, were soaking their pillows with tears of laughter.

But that is mere radio advice, my friends.  My kind of agony aunt can be found only in print.  I will have time to separate the wheat from the chaff, the serious correspondents from the jokesters.  My son and his ilk, including a Manhasset High School alumna, Kate Reilly (who is raising the not-so-ancient art of "trollery" to the level of a laugh-a-minute science) would never get away with his brand of drollery on my watch!  As a sob sister extraordinaire, I will have the luxury of time to consult with my team of experts (promising them mention by name in my column—the kind of publicity no amount of money can buy). I will send members of my ever-growing staff on research expeditions to the most lavishly stocked medical and legal libraries the worldwide web has to offer.  I will review their mediocre preliminary drafts of responses to the questions of my readers and then beef up those responses with my own trademarked witticisms.  I might resurrect stale old expressions of yesteryear.  Forget Dear Abby (or was it Ann Landers?) and her “wet noodle” remarks; they will pale in comparison with those you will see in my column! I’ll be the bee’s knees—the cat’s pajamas—cookin’ with gas.  I will be heralded as the Pez dispenser of cheap advice and will be paid handsomely to do what I like to do best!

Does anybody here have a problem with that?  If so, just let me know and I’ll put my team straight to work.

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