The Columnist Is In: 'Ask Amy'

Amy Dickinson talks about her daily syndicated column "Ask Amy" for The Chicago Tribune. She talks about the life of an advice columnist and the responses she doles out.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Time now for the TALK OF THE NATION Opinion Page. If you've been following along, this is usually when we talk with the writer of an opinion piece from one of the weekend newspapers. Today we have someone who gives her opinion every day in the paper, usually two or three times a day on issues like nosey neighbors, teen access to pornography and most recently why women do or do not wear bras.

If you made a habit of reading the Ask Amy column, this probably all sounds familiar. Amy Dickinson offers her advice to letter-writers and e-mailers in her syndicated column for the Chicago Tribune. Right now she's with us from our bureau in Chicago. Amy, good to speak with you.

Ms. AMY DICKINSON (Columnist, Chicago Tribune): Neal, I brought something for you, my friend.

CONAN: And what is that?

(Soundbite of newspaper crinkling)

Ms. DICKINSON: Hear that?

CONAN: Yeah, it's a newspaper.

Ms. DICKINSON: It's a newspaper. Remember those?

CONAN: I do. I have stains on my fingers.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DICKINSON: It's like, you know, a chat room on paper. That's how I think of it.

CONAN: Really?

Ms. DICKINSON: Yeah.

CONAN: It's interactive, how people can write to somebody and get an answer?

Ms. DICKINSON: Isn't that awesome? I know, imagine.

CONAN: Listen, you take letters, we take callers. So if any of our listeners have questions for Amy about the life of an advice columnist or the responses she doles out, 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK, or you can also zap us an e-mail, talk@npr.org.

Today we also want to welcome listeners to Chicago Public Radio. Glad to have you as part of the TALK OF THE NATION audience. And Amy, your column today is a pretty classic bunch of questions. The issue of neighbors not being necessarily neighborly; that's kind of a perennial, isn't it?

Ms. DICKINSON: Well, it is, and actually this whole conversation started a while back when I got a letter from somebody saying we have the poorest house on the block. We live on a very nice block in a nice neighborhood and we can't quite keep up with the Jones's.

And I maintain that this is probably a growing phenomenon, you know, in this -in our culture of kind of McMansions and everybody's expanding. And people are so house-proud lately, what about the people who can't keep up?

So this started this whole conversation leading to today's letter from somebody who said not only are they not quite keeping up with the Jones's in terms of their landscaping but they are receiving anonymous notes on the doorstep from a neighbor, you know, accusing them of all sorts of things. Basically, this is all about not landscaping up to what the neighbor feels is the neighborhood standard, if you can imagine.

They say they're not violating any, you know, association rules or anything. There are no rusted-out cars in the yard, it's just not quite up to snuff.

CONAN: This is a constant problem. I used to live in suburbia, and I wasn't -it was a lack of interest on my part, but I made the meadow-gardening argument for a while. But that didn't fly, either.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DICKINSON: No, no. People - you know, lately, it just seems that with - you can see it on television with all of these home makeover shows, people are so interested in their homes, and it seems to be more and more competitive.

And this person who wrote to me said, you know, I don't want to spend the money on a landscaping company. I prefer to spend time with, you know, my children, and we mow the lawn, but we don't have any fancy landscaping and this is causing a problem.

Now, the person asked me - the question to me was: Should I take this issue to my neighborhood list serve? Should I go onto the Web and basically tell this anonymous neighbor to buzz off on the list serve? And this is where I get to say hold the phone, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DICKINSON: Let's like get out the fire extinguisher and try and not inflame this, but maybe it will go away. But taking it to the list serve is not a good idea, I don't think.

CONAN: Our guest is Amy Dickinson, author of the syndicated column Ask Amy, which she writes for the Chicago Tribune. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And where does that question rank on the list of most frequently asked questions to you?

Ms. DICKINSON: Well, you know, I would say it's in the genre of what to do about other people. Now I could write a book about what to do about other people. Other people seem to be the problem, you know? Most of the people that write in to me are having problems with other people, and of course I think we both know this - we all know this on paper, that you cannot change other people's behavior, right? We know that.

But we don't really, really know it in our heads. We are always trying and seeking to change someone else's behavior. So a lot of the letters I get are about what other people do.

CONAN: Including in a lot of personal relationships. There's been a thread, though, in the past few months, and I must say I read your column almost every day, and that has been the whole issue of bra or no bra.

Ms. DICKINSON: Bra or no bra. Who would have thought that bra or no bra would pop up in this column in this way? You know, I just ran a very short, very innocuous little letter several months ago from a woman who said, basically, I hate wearing my bra. And I thought wow, a bra-hater. Who knew?

So I ran the letter. The outpouring of mail in response to this, frankly all -virtually all of it from women, I would say 80 percent of these women - and I'm talking about hundreds of e-mails, so many women hating their bras. And many, many, many women said they consider bras business attire. They only wear bras, you know, basically at the office. It's considered business attire. Otherwise, they don't or would rather not.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some callers in on this conversation. Our next caller is Linda(ph), and Linda is with us from Seguin. Where is that?

LINDA (Caller): That's in Texas between San Antonio and Austin.

CONAN: Go ahead, Linda, you're on the air. Go ahead.

LINDA: I'm just wondering if you have had any stumpers completely in terms of you didn't have an opinion about it or you just didn't know which way to go in terms of how to answer.

Ms. DICKINSON: Well fortunately, Linda, I have a mom, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DICKINSON: So when I'm stumped, I know where to go. No, I mean I'm often -I get questions that I actually - as short as the questions are, I think they're very complicated. They're really complex. And for instance, one of the trickier issues I deal with has to do with addiction.

People will write in saying, you know, my relative is an alcoholic or an addict. I want to have, quote, “have an intervention and force them to stop.” Well, interventions are very tricky. You can't just have an intervention the way you would have, you know, a cocktail party, forgive the joke. But you can't just have one.

It's a very thoughtful process, and I've learned about this sort of thing from research, reading, reporting. You know, I came to this job as a reporter, and so that comes naturally. I'm frequently stumped.

LINDA: Interesting. Thank you.

Ms. DICKINSON: Sure. I wonder if Linda hates her bra. We forgot to ask her.

LINDA: I do, actually.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LINDA: And actually, I'm very lucky. I work at home. I happen to be driving to some errands right now, so I happen to be wearing one. But I refuse to wear it unless I go out. I just absolutely hate it.

Ms. DICKINSON: Linda, you are one of the legion of women, and it surprised me. I had no idea that women hated their bras. And then of course after reading all of this mail, guess what? I started hating my own bra.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Linda, drive safely.

LINDA: Thank you, bye-bye.

CONAN: I have to ask you, Amy, Ann Landers was a Chicagoite - what is it about Chicago that makes these franchises prosper? I mean is it easy to mail letters to the Midwest? What?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DICKINSON: You know, I think actually the Midwest might have something to do with it. You know, Ann Landers grew up in I believe Sioux City, Iowa, and she and her sister, Dear Abby, you know, they gained a reputation as being very no-nonsense, very practical and having a lot of common sense. And though I might not describe myself that way and I didn't grow up in the Midwest, I think there's this real deep cultural appreciation for what people could call plain, old-fashioned common sense here.

And so I think that, you know, the Chicago Tribune was really eager to try and freshen up the genre a little bit but keep the common sense.

CONAN: But you moved from Washington, D.C. to Chicago.

Ms. DICKINSON: I did, yeah. That was a shock.

CONAN: Can you take your own advice?

Ms. DICKINSON: You know, I've done this, and I probably shouldn't admit it, especially now that we have a lot of Chicago listeners now and they see me on the bus. So I - when I'm stumped, I will do something that I think everybody should do but very few of us do. I will sit down quietly and ponder and think and really, really think what's the right thing to do.

I didn't do that before I started writing this column, but I started thinking deeply, I think, on other people's behalf, and now I do that on my own. And I'm not saying I don't make mistakes, but I'm much more thoughtful.

CONAN: Amy Dickinson writes the syndicated column Ask Amy for the Chicago Tribune, which I read almost every day in The Washington Post. I have seen it in the Baltimore Sun, where there's a picture of Amy Dickinson, which is what causes problems on the bus, I suspect.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DICKINSON: Yeah.

CONAN: She joined us today from our bureau in Chicago. Amy, thanks very much.

Ms. DICKINSON: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: You can find a link at the TALK OF THE NATION Opinion Page at npr.org, which contains some of Amy's most recent advice on bras, birthday parties and babysitters. And all our recent Opinion Pages are available as downloads on podcast. Just stop by npr.org/talk for more information.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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