January 17, 2013

If you want the truth about something, ask a stranger.

In this Feb. 14, 2001 file photo, "Dear Abby" advice columnist Pauline Friedman Phillips signs autographs for some of dozens of fans after the dedication of a "Dear Abby" star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. (Reed Saxon/Associated Press)
In this 2001 photo, Pauline Friedman Phillips signs autographs for some of dozens of fans after the dedication of a “Dear Abby” star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. (Reed Saxon/Associated Press)

Pauline Friedman Phillips, a.k.a. Abigail Van Buren, who penned “Dear Abby” for decades before passing the column on to her daughter, Jeanne Phillips, passed away Thursday.

She was one of the best strangers to ask.

She came from a time when a small number of advice-givers loomed massively on the landscape. Dear Abby. Ann Landers. Miss Manners.

“Make sure your paper has an advice column — everybody claims to hate ‘em, but everybody seems to read ‘em,” the advice columnist Dan Savage told the founder of Seattle’s “The Stranger.” This was how Savage got his start, in fact. And he was right.

We read them. Avidly.

I’ve always read newspapers from the comics pages backward — first comics, then horoscope, then advice column, then the Actual News Stories of the Day. I’m an advice column junkie. I even read “Hints from Heloise,” although I know that I would never in my life wrap anything in cheesecloth or store up old CD cases to use in flower arranging.

Advice is an art. I have always been in awe of people who could give good advice — or at least what sounded like good advice. Dear Abby was a master of the genre. Coming from a family where we think the right way to dispose of a dead mouse is to place it in the garbage disposal — it turns out, for anyone curious, that if you would like to diffuse the aroma of something through your entire house very quickly, placing it in your garbage disposal is a wonderfully effective mode of doing so — and that the way to deal with Sudden Overwhelming Nervous Crises is to ask if the person wants a sandwich, I admire advice-givers with much the same stunned reverence that I give to Olympic athletes and people who manage to coordinate their coats with their outfits.

The great joy of advice columns is twofold. You would see that other people had the same problems that you did. And you would see that some people had problems that were far, far more bizarre than yours. It was all the delight of gossip with none of the guilt. It was sympathy and schadenfreude in equal measures. And they were self-contained. There was no conversation, only the question and the answer. You were left to wonder how it all worked out.

Now the Internet exists for such things. Google is almost an advice columnist in its own right. Type in “should I” and you are flooded with strangers’ problems: “get a flu shot? go to law school? get bangs? get a divorce?” We fling our longer questions on the dubious mercy of Yahoo! Answers, where for every thoughtful reply there are dozens of misspelled platitudes and trolls suggesting, “Try throwing bacon at her??? womenn respond well to bacon”

These are the problems too intimate to ask your intimates about.

Besides, you do not want advice from the people you see every day. They will be able to tell if you have followed it.

“One should always pass on good advice,” Oscar Wilde said. “That is the only thing to do with it. It is never any use to oneself.”

There are times when you crowdsource and there are times when you want to hear what a particular voice has to say about your problem. Abigail Van Buren was one of the voices you wanted to hear. She was sharp and snappy. Each letter was a story, and the advice was the punchline.

Among the examples that Dear Abby’s mourners cite today are some gems:

“Dear Abby: I’ve been going with this girl for a year. How can I get her to say yes? — Don

Dear Don: What’s the question?”

The column continues in her daughter’s capable hands. But she’ll be missed.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.