Monday, November 21, 2011

Masked Mom's Media Monday: "Dear Sugar" on The Rumpus

I am wary of professional advice givers, especially the celebrity sort. So many of them seem to make their living spouting cleverly worded, overly simplified answers that people struggling with complicated, real-life problems crave, answers which nevertheless seem unlikely to provide any lasting resolution or comfort. These advisors have never met a problem that cannot be "solved" by throwing a few stale slogans at it: Be yourself. You teach people how to treat you. The best indicator of future behavior is past behavior.

Of course, there is a simple sort of truth to statements like these. The problem being that life is so rarely simple. I am more than willing to acknowledge that some of us (ME! ME! ME!) make things more complicated than is absolutely necessary with our constant worrying and picking apart and analyzing--why merely think about things, when you can overthink everything? But the Advice Givers generally seem to go too far in the opposite direction--parroting things their mothers probably told them when they were eight, which were, perhaps, invaluable on the playground but don't hold up long in the rough-and-tumble world of grown-ups.

All this is to say that when I came across a collection of "Dear Sugar" columns in The Sun magazine (recommended, by the way), I didn't initially have high hopes. The only way I thought the reading experience could be salvaged was if the column turned out to be satirical (similar to Jeffrey Goldberg's "What's Your Problem?" column in The Atlantic). That actually seemed like a possibility considering the name of the column--to my jaundiced Northern ear, "Sugar" is one of those Southern pet names that is just as likely to be used sarcastically as sincerely.

Instead of satire, I discovered that "Dear Sugar" was the Lay's Potato Chips of advice columns--I couldn't read just one. But rather than the crispy, greasy, empty calories perfect for mindless consumption of some other advice venues, "Dear Sugar" turned out to be a complex blend of more sophisticated tastes and textures, nutritionally substantial and satisfying to the palate.

The first tip-off that "Dear Sugar" wasn't your average advice column was the questions she chooses to answer. She does not shy away from any topic--no matter how gritty or petty, large or small. In the time that I've been reading, there have been questions about professional jealousy, sexual abuse, infidelity, the existence of God, body image, "sick" sexual proclivities, and so much more. All of these she handles with grace and generosity.

It helps (of course it does) that her writing is a tiny miracle in itself: lyrical and down-to-earth at the very same time. For example, these bits from her answer to "Seeking Wisdom," a 22-year old loyal reader, who asked Sugar what advice her 40-something self would have for her 20-something self:

Most things will be okay eventually, but not everything will be. Sometimes you’ll put up a good fight and lose. Sometimes you’ll hold on really hard and realize there is no choice but to let go. Acceptance is a small, quiet room.


The useless days will add up to something. The shitty waitressing jobs. The hours writing in your journal. The long meandering walks. The hours reading poetry and story collections and novels and dead people’s diaries and wondering about sex and God and whether you should shave under your arms or not. These things are your becoming.


You cannot convince people to love you. This is an absolute rule. No one will ever give you love because you want him or her to give it. Real love moves freely in both directions. Don’t waste your time on anything else.

She handles the hardest truths with exquisite care. She can be blunt, when necessary, but it is a bluntness tempered with compassion and an almost supernatural understanding of human nature. She pulls no punches, but when they land, they land like the reassuring shoulder squeeze of a good friend.

I know this is a post replete with over-the-top metaphors, but I feel she's earned them all. Let me leave you with one last one:

Sugar takes the most tangled knots of problems--spiritual, professional, interpersonal--and picks them apart, gently loosening the individual threads from one another and then she takes those threads and embroiders them into little pieces of art her readers can carry with them.

Masked Mom's One-Word Review: Mesmerizing.


  1. Her response about making someone love you is advice I could've used in my 20's. I'll have to check her out.

  2. Sugar is one smart cookie! I love her columns. And I'm excited to read your blog--it looks great.

  3. Love that magazine! Love this post.