Advice for Living


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“Until you die…it’s all life.” – Kurt Vonnegut


Pauline Friedman Phillips died this week.  For over forty years she gave advice in the newspaper column, “Dear Abby”.   I didn’t read it, because our newspaper published the advice column of her rival, Ann Landers.  Ann Landers was a pen name too – for Pauline’s twin sister Esther.

People still enjoy reading advice columns, not so much for the wisdom they impart as the opportunity to get a glimpse into the personal lives of others.  Of course we also like to imagine what advice we would give to all the hapless lambs and self-deceiving jerks who wander out in the wild, wild world.

Most advice columns are online now.  “Pot Psychology” is entertaining – there’s even a book.  Although the authors themselves say you would have to be pretty dumb to accept the advice of a couple of stoners.

One of the best known online advice columns is “Dear Sugar”, which featured on The Rumpus.  I’m not sure how active Sugar is since she was revealed to be Cheryl Strayed, author of the Oprah benighted Wild.  Have you read it?  I haven’t, but I might as part of my Reading Bingo.  Readers enjoy Sugar for her combination of rambling, confessional storytelling and emotional, partisan sympathy.  Some might find that annoying.  Not I, though. Sugar’s own personal battles and demons are what, in the eyes of her readers anyway, give her advice authority.  It’s certainly what gives them their visceral sympathy, and that generosity of spirit is no small thing.

If difficult circumstances and existential struggles are prerequisites for wisdom, that would mean a lot of us remain blissfully unwise.  I would be hard pressed to offer definitive, aphoristic life advice, if asked.  Things I’ve learned in the last thirty years:

  1. Always buy the queen size bed.
  2. Salt and pepper are very important on a sandwich.
  3. When you feel lost, ridiculous, and dumb, you’re just about getting somewhere.

I suppose if I thought hard I could come up with something else, but right now that’s the best I can do.  The encouraging thing about that is, you don’t stop learning, chickens.  Life continues to surprise, to charm and alarm, to frighten and delight.

When I need comfort and wisdom beyond sandwich making and mattress purchasing, I often turn to books.   There are a few writers who are consistently inspirational and cheering for me personally.  Need a little help today?  Look no further than these gleanings from my readings of  three of my favourite writers, Amy Sedaris, Roz Chast and Lynda Barry.

On Relationships

from Amy Sedaris:

  • “Don’t answer the door in a wedding dress and veil, he might not think you’re joking.”
  • “Don’t leave a piece of jewelry at his house so you can go back and get it later; he may by with his real girlfriend.”

from Roz Chast:

  • “Maybe he’s not 100% gay.”
  • “I love him, and that’s what matters.”

from Lynda Barry:

  • “Head lice are much easier to get rid of than bad love.”

On Personal Development

from Amy Sedaris:

  • “Accentuate the positives — medicate the negatives.”
  • “Have a hairstyle that is flattering to some and offensive to few.”
  • “Buy organic lemons, if for no other reason than because the puckered tips make great nipples to stuff in your bra.”

from Roz Chast:

  • “One shampoo is just about as good as another.”
  • “Other people do not have a secret symptom that they worry about.”

On Creativity

from Amy Sedaris:

  • “It’s natural for humans to suppress urges, for when our desires are left unchecked they lead to broken relationships, prison time, and forest fires.  But there is one urge that should always be encouraged to blossom – the creative urge!  Yes, it is healthy to want to make things, but that desire without guidance can lead to foreclosure, incest, and forest fires.”

from Lynda Barry:

  • “Be able to stand not knowing long enough to let something alive take shape.”

On Living

from Amy Sedaris:

  • “If you genuinely see something you can compliment your cashier on, do it.  It’ll make their day.  Conversely, if you want to destroy their day, ask to see the manager.”

from Roz Chast:

  • “The word “cosine” never, ever comes up.”

from Lynda Barry:

  • “Stand on the porch at night in your underpants. The world’s most perfect feeling.”


I hope you have found these simple tips for living  as useful as I have.   No matter what we’ve been through,  we need all the help we can get. Advice columns will continue to thrive, writers will write, and all of us will keep looking for answers.  In the words of the wise Kurt Vonnegut, “We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.” True that.

Words and Pictures


Last time I wrote I showed you some pictures from Pollwiggle’s Progress by Wilfrid Swancourt Bronson.  Having heard the book described for years, I imagined a kind of earnest 1950‘s elementary science text for kids with a  condescending tone and “Golden Book” aesthetic.  I was not prepared to be blown away.

It got me thinking about words and pictures, and how different artists use them together. I love the way Bronson integrates words into his illustrations and pictures in the middle of his pages.  He’s fluent in two creative languages, and uses both to communicate his ideas.

The first thing about Pollwiggle that captivated me was the illustrations. At first glance they have a science book quality to them – detailed and schematic, with words added to label or explain.

But then there are unexpected touches of humour.  A water tiger is compared to a “real” tiger, perusing the menu in a vegetarian restaurant.

Characters in the book speak to the reader, with punctuation and underlinings sprinkled in like emoticons so we can really hear them.  Or the artist’s background in mural art emerges with elaborately decorated borders.

Pollwiggle’s Progress is over one hundred pages.  That seems long for a science book on frogs pitched to the 8-10 crowd.  But when you start reading you realize why. To use without irony a phrase cribbed from an old silent movie,  Bronson has “the soul of a poet”.  His wonder at the natural world won’t be contained, even if it means a few extra paragraphs to tell you in detail about the creatures around Pollwiggle, or to break out of his hero’s point of view to describe something Pollwiggle couldn’t have seen:

 “Leaves on the towering trees turned many gorgeous colors now as the frost began to nip them in the night.  All the mountain sides grew steadily more lovely as November days came ever closer…They never saw how the waterfall looked frozen, nor how the grass bending into the pond, covered with ice, looked like herds of small glass elephants drinking.  They did not see the Northern Lights that glowed over the mountains many a crisp cold night, nor hear the boys and girls skating on the ice above them many a day.”

Books for young children start off with pictures, because kids don’t usually learn to read until about five or six years old.  (I remember my son’s first note to me – missing most of the vowels – written when he was four.  It was thrilling.)  As children acquire language and the ability to process more complex ideas, the words take over and the pictures disappear from books.

Except for sometimes. Many artists have the impulse to work in more than one medium  and the list of writers who also paint or draw spans the alphabet from Margaret Atwood to Kurt Vonnegut.  Artists, too, like writing sometimes, and graphic novels allow artists to use the comic book form to express ideas both visually and verbally, allowing them to talk about adult themes in an engaging visual way.

If you draw and paint pictures, but like words too, are you a writer?  If you write, but use images in your storytelling, are you an artist?  If the origins of “Art” go back 40,000 years and written language began 9,000 years ago to facilitate trade, does that make Art the original language of the human experience?

One of my favourite artists, Lynda Barry, blurs the boundaries of instruction, fiction and memoir, art and writing, the daily skirmishes of adulthood and the world of the child.

With naive drawing and collage, and the remembered language of childhood, she writes about personal demons or the creative process. And if Bronson’s reverence is for the natural world, Barry’s wonder is the emotional resilience and imaginative inner landscape of all survivors and lonely souls – and by that, she would mean all of us.  She uses humour, expressive dialogue, lots of punctuation, thoughtful animals, layers of collaged words, brushed lines  and emotive, decorative borders and backgrounds to speak directly to the heart. Her techniques let truth float to the top of your consciousness like memories, mimicking the jumble of past and present that happens in our heads as we walk around every day.

Why do most of us stop making images as we get older? That question is central to Lynda Barry’s books on creativity, What It Is and Picture This.  The visual arts certainly aren’t highly valued by our educational system (or any of the arts, for that matter), and there’s a common misconception that drawing can’t be taught.  Pair that with a commodified culture that has a narrow view of creative excellence and unending capacity for intellectual and emotional mediocrity, and there’s not much encouragement for the independent creative spirit.

As ebooks and the internet become our primary vehicle for ideas, and images are co-opted by marketing and popular culture, as we value commodities above craft, some may want to return to a more primary form of communication.  To create something with our hands is a deeply human need.  To experience the world with our eyes feels natural and direct.  To speak with the heart is something we have to do.  To combine them feels sublime.

The Pleasures of Rereading: Your Books Then and Now


I like reading certain books over and over again.  I know some people feel they don’t have the time.  These are the same people who have to finish a book once started.  “I can’t just put it down, even if I’m not enjoying it,” they declare proudly.   “Once I’ve started, I have to finish.” This makes no sense to me.  Probably the same people, too, who know exactly how many books they read in a year, or a month or whatever.  What is reading for, if not for pleasure?  But some folks feel that it is an accomplishment, like mastering a difficult skill.  In that mind set, returning to a book you have read once is pointless, and throwing down a book you are not enjoying is defeat.

I have a small stack of books that I have never stopped rereading. Some are childhood favourites and some are more recent discoveries that speak to me in such a deeply personal way that I continue to revisit them.

Below, some books, old, newish, grownup and childish, I always have close by:

Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh

The first time I read this I was Harriet’s age, and oh, how I identified with her critical eye and lonely independence.  I still read it, and cry every time.  The  1996 film with Michelle Trachtenberg was pretty good too.  Please don’t talk  to me about the Disney version. That also makes me cry, but not in a good way.


Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson

Ok, I can’t believe you haven’t heard of this one.  Actually, I can, because so many people haven’t heard of Swedish author and artist Tove Jansson’s charmingly illustrated stories of Moomintroll and his family and friends.  It has everything!  Action! Romance! Backwards talking critters!  You will be sad when it is over, just ‘cause there’s no more.  So you will have to read all the other ones and check out her subversive comic book series. Then you will hear that there is a Moomin World and will want to go to there.


Darkness Visible by William Styron

Every once in a while I need to read Styron’s beautifully written “Memoir of Madness”. Poetic, heartfelt, thoughtful and deeply moving, it’s better than any self help book on the subject of depression.


The Wonder Spot by Melissa Bank

The only thing wrong with Melissa Bank’s writing is that there is not enough of it. I can’t wait ‘til my signed first edition of The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing arrives at my door.  Read her prose and you will see why it takes so long to write those perfect sentences.  It’s no wonder some people have compared her to John Cheever.  There’s lots of emotion in a Melissa Bank story, but it’s usually just under the surface. Curl up, pour a cocktail, and you are in New York with Sophie Applebaum,  gaining wisdom from life’s sweet moments and bitter stings.


Nothing to be Frightened of by Julian Barnes

“Smitten” was the word someone used when I started to talk, my speech replete with italics, exclamation marks, bold fonts and all caps, about Julian Barnes and this book.  Maybe.  Ok, a little.  Was it that I thought the topic needed a hard sell?  (To recommend a book about death and God at the dinner table  feels like going out on a limb.) I don’t think so though.  The enthusiasm is genuine – this book is fun, fascinating and touching.  A mix of literary history, philosophy and personal reminiscence, it’s hard to put down. And can be a comfort when sorting through loss.


One! Hundred! Demons! by Lynda Barry

Of my triumvirate of female humourists  (the other two are Roz Chast and Amy Sedaris), Lynda Barry is my favourite.  Although I’m not sure humourist is the right word.  Lynda Barry is funny, and she often uses humour in her art and writing.  But you are just as likely to be knocked out by the poignancy of her writing and emotive values and textures of her watercoloured collages. Read One! Hundred! Demons! and see if you ever look at cartoons, or head lice, or Ira Glass, the same way again.



What books do you own, coffee stained and worn with age, that continue to light your spirit on fire?  How does a book resonate differently with the presence in your memory of other books, other experiences?  Or can’t you tell because you never stopped reading it, and your relationship evolved slowly, invisible to you, like the lines on your face?