SPEAKER 1: This is a production of Cornell University.
BUD JERMY JR.: My name is Bud Jermy. I'm the Senior Associate Dean of the School of Continuing Education and Summer Sessions. We have an additional lecture this year. Joyce Carol Oates has asked to come on August 1st. So she will be reading from her latest work and answering questions. So I would invite you back for that. Also, I want to thank Kathryn Boor, the Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences for the use of this auditorium. I told Kathryn, every lecture I thank her, and indeed I do.
Amy has been up since 4 o'clock this morning. And she didn't bring any books. Those of you who read that there would be books to sign, she doesn't have any books. But she sold her house today, her Freeville house.
And-- well, wait a minute. It's not over with. And she has bags of garbage in her car.
And she promised she would autograph those bags if you will take them.
They don't cost anything. You just have to take them with you. OK, seriously, Amy Dickinson's syndicated advice column "Ask Amy" is read daily in more than 150 newspapers by an estimated 22 million people. These newspapers include large circulation papers like The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times and more locally and with less circulation The Ithaca Journal and the Cortland Standard.
Who could have imagined that someone growing up on a small dairy farm in Freeville, New York, in and around which her large family has lived since the Revolutionary War-- she has characterized her family members as hilarious short-waisted Methodists-- would one day write so wisely from both her head and her heart for so many people? She's also said this about her family, quote, "my extended family is a collection of married and divorced parents, single mothers, step-relatives, adoptees, devoted siblings, cousins, aunties, uncles, and grandparents. I grew up hearing stories about my ancestors' exploits.
My great-grandfather was warden of Sing Sing prison. And my great uncle ran off to Europe and joined the circus when he was 40. [LAUGHTER] Life in my hometown is like growing up in Lake Wobegon only with worse weather and high unemployment," end quote.
Amy graduated from Dryden High School, where she was a cheerleader and the lead in the unforgettable 1976 production of Bye Bye Birdie. Graduating eventually from Georgetown University, she worked as a receptionist for The New Yorker magazine and also as a lounge singer. So if you need any standard songs sung, Amy's here.
After a job as a producer for NBC News in New York, she moved to London and then to Washington DC, where eventually she was hired by NPR again as a receptionist. A single parent of a young daughter, she also began a career as a freelance writer. While at NPR, she talked the All Things Considered producers into letting her do stories for the show. And for several years, her stories, many of them set locally, aired on that program.
In 1999, Time hired her to write a weekly column about family life and parenting for the magazine. 16 years ago, Amy was selected from thousands of applicants to succeed Eppie Lederer, the famous Ann Landers, as the Chicago Tribune-- I'm sorry-- Chicago Tribune's nationally syndicated signature advice columnist. A former Tribune editor said of Amy that she brought, quote, "a fresh and insightful approach to column writing, one that is grounded in common sense and solid reporting skills."
Amy has also been a panelist for NPR's Wait Wait, Don't Tell Me! from its inception. A few years ago, she set out to write a how-to book, one full of tips, hints, and useful information. But that just did not work out.
Instead, what she ended up writing was a memoir of the 18 years she spent raising her daughter Emily with the help of the women in her family, women Emily called the Mighty Queens. That book was entitled, The Mighty Queens of Freeville, A Mother, a Daughter, and the Town That Raised Them. That book became a New York Times bestseller.
The sequel, Strangers Tend To Tell Me Things, A Memoir Of Love, Loss, and Coming Home has been optioned. And a television show is in the works. First, two more of her quotes, and then Amy herself.
"In my work as an advice columnist, people often challenge me by asking how I know what I know. I'm not a counselor. I don't have an advanced degree.
I got here the hard way, by living my life and making my share of mistakes. I took the back roads of life through marriage and divorce and raising my daughter as a single parent. I got here with the help and support of the people in my little world."
Another quote, "in my work giving advice to other people, I often feel that the two hardest questions for any of us to answer are, who am I? And what do I want? I struggled with those qualities-- I'm sorry. I've struggled with those questions myself. But finally, through telling my own story, I found the answers, Ask Amy answers--" Amy Dickinson.
AMY DICKINSON: Hi.
Thank you, Bud. I decided to sashay. I have been up since 4:00 in the morning. My car is full of garbage. And so I'm a little punchy, so please forgive me for the sashay.
I really appreciated your introduction. But it was kind of a reminder of what a long journey it's been. Like a lot of locals, whenever I come into Cornell's campus, I always feel like, first of all, why is there no parking lot for local people?
I feel like we need-- I know.
Like, I feel like we need a parking lot, like, just passing through, you know? Or I live in Dryden, I just want to swing in. I don't know.
But I feel such a kinship for this campus. Whenever I come on campus, I always feel just like I wish I had come here. My mother sort of kicked me out of the county when I was a senior in high school.
I wanted to stay home. I wanted to go here. And my mom was like, no, I don't think so. She said, you're the one that needs to go. So I did.
I made my own slideshow. It is going to seem maybe at times like something you would see in a church basement. But just be cool, be cool about that. Be cool with me.
So how many people here are from the Cornell Alumni University? Oh, great. OK. Well, welcome and thank you for coming. And how many people here, just local people looking for air conditioning, anyone?
OK. And again, free garbage in my car, because I've spent the last couple of weeks moving, vacating a house I've owned for 25 years. And as it turns out, I have been to a few flea markets in my time. And these things sort of turn into trash after a while. These things, these precious things I picked up at flea markets are now just trash.
So a little about me, I was born on a falling down dairy farm just up the road in tiny little Freeville. Anybody here know Freeville? I'm sure some of you do. Yeah.
Population 505, Freewill is a pokey little place. It has one stop sign, a church, and a tiny post office. Ithaca is surrounded by little villages and towns like this, which many people only see through their car windows as they zip through looking for Cornell's campus.
Main Street is lined by homely weather-beaten houses, which are buried under snow from October through April. My family has lived in this place since 1790. There are advantages of being so entrenched even in such an ordinary place.
Mainly, for better or for worse, I grew up always knowing where my home was. This is the only picture ever taken of my family together. My father, Buck, there in the middle, wasn't much of a dairy farmer. But he was an even worse father.
When I was 12, he abandoned my mother and all of our cows and took off for parts unknown. We lost everything in an auction held right in our driveway. My father went on to get married five more times, leaving more abandoned wives and families in his chaotic wake.
Anyone here once married to my dad? I just need to--
No? Because it's happened. I have had women-- you know, just checking.
I was eager to get out of Dodge. And my life took me away to college and then to New York City, London, Washington DC, and then Chicago. I love this picture. It's taken on the campus at Georgetown where I went to college. And I am quite obviously wanting to be Mary Tyler Moore.
I knit that vest myself. And I look-- I think I'm holding a newspaper that I had a story run in. So I don't know who took this picture or how it landed back with me, but I really love it.
So my journey took me to all these different cities and then Chicago, where I was hired to write the "Ask Amy" column after Ann Landers' death. And no, I had nothing to do with Ann Landers' death. She was old, and it was time.
I raised my daughter Emily in these distant cities as a single mom. And then my life brought me back home. After 30 years of living in far flung cities, a little over 10 years ago when Emily went to college, I decided to move back home to Freeville.
My mother's health was failing. And I decided to do what 4 in 10 Americans are doing and what probably a lot of you tonight are also doing, which is to go home to take care of a family member at the end of life. My journey home affected my life in the most profound way imaginable.
I had been single for over 17 years. In almost two decades of single-hood, I would try to find someone, give up for several years, and then try again. I followed my own advice from my advice column, signing up for online dating sites, taking swing dancing lessons, and trying to stage minor fender benders with attractive drivers.
My friends all warned me. And they worried about me. You'll never find a guy in your living room, they said.
But guess what? Sometimes you can find a guy in your living room. I called Bruno, a guy I'd known all my life to do some renovations on my little house on Main Street. Bruno does work in a tuxedo, just letting you know.
If you call him to build your deck, he will show up in a tuxedo. So I called Bruno to do some home repairs on my little house on Main Street, the one I sold this afternoon, and to do some stuff in my mom's house. Bruno was the original hometown guy.
He and his 12 siblings grew up in a dairy farm 3 miles away from ours. He had never lived more than 5 miles away from his family's farm. Bruno darkened my door that day like John Wayne and the quiet man--
--handsome, self-assured, and available. During our first meeting, after reviewing the building project, he asked me if I had heard about his divorce. No, I had not.
Bruno and I quickly fell in love, conducted a whirlwind courtship under the watchful eyes of both of our families and got married eight months after our first meeting. And you know what? He never did that renovation.
I think it just occurred to me. I feel like he owes me a renovation. I moved into his beautiful farm house in the midst of sheep pastures, a short bicycle ride down from where we had both grown up.
So when this writer married the hunky hometown contractor, my life fell into the plot of a Hallmark Channel movie. This is taken at the chapel at the George Junior. Has anyone ever driven past that? So lovely, it's really, really lovely.
The New York Times even wrote about our fairy tale story complete with the beautiful pastoral landscape populated by family members and livestock, lots and lots of livestock. But the best fairy tales not only offer happy endings, but are also fraught with complication and danger. In order to have our fairytale ending, Bruno and I have been tested.
We've been handed many, many obstacles and challenges. During our years together, I've often had to excavate the wisdom from my own column and use this wisdom in my own life. And sometimes I just sit in my car alone and sigh or cry. Well, now I've got a lot garbage in there, no room.
When I married Bruno, I became a mother to four adolescent stepdaughters. By our first-- wait, yeah, that's our gang. By our first wedding anniversary, I found myself a grandmother when one of our daughters got pregnant during her senior year of high school.
We had an inexperienced teenage mom and a baby in the house. My mother was dying just down the road, and my own life careened out of control. My life was starting to seem less like a Hallmark movie and more like a Lifetime movie.
And you know what I'm talking about with a Lifetime movie, right? Somebody always dies. This sort of feels like a graduation address.
And in a way, it is. Because my life and yours is a series of graduations from one stage to another. What I knew at 20 was not what I knew at 40. And now at almost 60, I can only hope that the wisdom has kept up with my crow's feet. If each of the creases next to my eyes marked one lesson learned, I'd come off as very, very wise.
All the same, my life lessons are with me, waiting for me to use them. And yet flawed as I am, sometimes I draw upon my own wisdom and sometimes I don't. Age has definitely sharpened my intentions, though.
I am fascinated by the idea of empowerment, and I've been chasing it all my life. We live in an age of self-improvement and empowerment. I always thought that being empowered was like a cloak I could wear granting confidence, radiating light.
My cloak of empowerment would protect me, and it would be so slimming from every angle. My search for empowerment, enlightenment, self-helping has taken me to books, therapy, Ted Talks, diets, exercise programs, meditation retreats, yoga classes, swing dancing lessons, banjo concerts, prayer sessions, and one seance. I take all of this as evidence that I am either a true seeker or an exceptionally slow learner. I blame a lot of this on Oprah.
OK, that doesn't leave the room. Just like every writer, I am constantly trying to suck up to Oprah. But I feel like it might be time to just give up on sucking up to Oprah and now just start to diss her at every turn.
But let's keep that to ourselves. Oprah has always made enlightenment look so easy, and she definitely makes it look possible. So a few years ago, my search took me to California, where I attended a weekend event hosted by Oprah Winfrey's production company. It was part of something called Oprah's The Life You Want Tour.
I knew the life I wanted. And the life I wanted was more like Oprah's and less like mine. The Oprah weekend was held in a giant convention center.
Hundreds of women wandered around going to various booths selling empowerment products and books. It was like a giant trade show for menopausal women-- [LAUGHTER]
--or a Spanx convention.
Dr. Phil spoke. Martha Beck spoke. Gayle King spoke. And various people from the Oprah entertainment galaxy spoke to us. And each speaker talked about owning your power, about living your best life.
I found the whole experience profoundly depressing. My best life would not come to me from watching extremely successful and wealthy people preach to me from the stage. That day, I did not get my a-ha moment.
Instead, I ate my box lunch alone in the convention center and sampled some Oil of Olay products. After an entire day of this, I left before Oprah even made her appearance. My VIP ticket had cost almost $1,000.
The two hardest questions any of us have to answer are, who am I? And what do I want? The answers to these questions will keep changing.
And as it turns out, my most valuable life lessons have come to me as I've lived out my biggest challenges-- divorce, single motherhood-- and being a caregiver to someone I loved who would never recover. That's the thing about end of life care. The caregiving only ends when the person dies.
There's no shortcut around that. No miracle accompanies that. It's hard as hell. And then after that, grief pays you a visit and knocks the stuffing out of you.
Writing the "Ask Amy" advice column turns out to be the source of some of my most profound lessons. Reading people's stories, diving into their dilemmas, researching and answering their questions has led me toward some insight. Sometimes this insight seems profound. Sometimes it's common sense. Often, it's something I've learned from my mother, my husband, my sisters, and children.
The pressure of being an advice giver has deepened my seeking and my searching. People do look to me for answers. And in answering them, I'm forced to take a position to state my own truth.
But as many in this room know, it's easy, so much easier, to deal with other people's ailments than to cure what's ailing you. It's OK to have-- I know, the resemblance is scary.
Yeah, seriously, I think they based her on me.
It's OK to have problems. This came to me directly from my therapist. I started seeing a therapist soon after I moved to Chicago to write my column.
I spent probably a year's worth of sessions outlining my petty problems about my co-workers, or work pressures, siblings, friends. And I would compare my problems to people who have what I would call real problems, like the people who wrote to me for advice, the people grappling with addiction, dislocation, poverty, depression, loneliness, or the perennial question of how to handle the in-laws. I kept saying to her, I mean, I know, I'm really lucky. And I shouldn't complain, but-- and then one day my therapist stopped me short.
It's OK for you to have problems, too, Amy. We women, I think, often put ourselves last. We submerge our wants, our desires. We know we do that.
But I think that on some level we also think that, if we have problems, our world will fall apart. That's how I felt anyway. I protected everyone in my life, my family members, my kids, my friends from my own problems.
And then there was the pressure of being an advice giver. I'm supposed to have the answers. But it turns out sometimes I'm smarter on paper than I am in real life. And here in this room in this academic institution, give it up if you're smarter on paper than you are in real life. Yeah.
OK. But here is a list of things I actually learned to do and which I do consistently. These are lessons taken directly from my 16 years as an advice giver. I'm thanking the thousands of people who have written to me for advice over the years.
Not only have they kept me employed, but they have led me toward some wisdom. And if it's not actual wisdom, at least I think I'm a little smarter than I used to be. OK.
Oh, I love that picture. I just threw that in, because I love it. OK, zip it. Watch your mouth.
Last week I was in Church, and our pastor read from James chapter 3. The tongue is more dangerous than the sword, the Bible says. We've all heard that the pen is mightier than the sword.
That's an affirmation about the power of thought. But the tongue is more dangerous than the sword. That's a warning to watch your mouth straight out of the Bible.
I would say that 95% of the problems any of us encounter are because of something we've said or something that was said to us. Words are powerful and dangerous. 1,000 I love yous cannot undo one you're worthless. We all know this.
I often think of that famous quote from Maya Angelou. She said, I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel. In the Bible, James then goes on to talk a little crazy about the power of the mouth, describing it as a fire that can consume a forest.
This sounds apocalyptic, but it is also true. What we say can destroy our relationships and cause families to rupture. I see this over and over again in my column.
But I'm a pretty mouthy person. I've always been assertive, sarcastic, and pretty loud. I'm still that way, but now I wait.
I cannot stress this enough. I wait. If I'm unsure about something, I'll wait. If I'm confronted with a personal dilemma, challenge or offense, I'll wait to respond.
I'll say, I need 5 minutes. Let me call you back. Let me think about that. Or sometimes I say, I'm sorry, but I really don't know what to say. And then I try to shut the hell up.
OK, use your ears. Be an active listener. That's me with my two granddaughters. Maybe you have a friend or a family member who you think is an exceptionally good listener.
I'm lucky to have several great listeners in my life, but I'm a talker. And talkers often have a tough time listening, because we're so eager to convey our amazing insights, observations, or hilarity. Every day I try to practice active listening.
And of course, in my work I'm called on to do a lot of what I would call paying close attention. I give my full attention to the thing presented to me. And this has taught me about the power of attention.
Attention is incredibly powerful and affirmative-- making eye contact, asking questions, making affirmations, demonstrating that you're paying attention. A friend of mine said this to me, we're all walking around holding up an invisible sign. But the sign says, please see me.
When you pay close attention to someone, this is what they perceive. I see you. They feel seen.
I have very young children in my life. And I also have a 90-year-old aunt with dementia. There we are at the-- we spend a lot of time at the cemetery. I think it must be like a Methodist thing. Did anybody else here, like, go to the cemetery a lot and have picnics there?
When I tell people-- yeah, OK. So when I tell people that, like, oh, yeah, I go to the cemetery all the time. And I don't know, I do a lot of eating at the cemetery. All of a sudden that sounds pretty unhygienic. But I do have a car full of garbage, so, you know, my standards are pretty low.
But there I am with my Aunt Jean. Aunt Jean has dementia. She's 90 years old.
When I'm communicating with kids, I try not to interrupt. I don't correct or redirect. Have you ever had a young child tell you a rambling story that makes you want to poke your own eyes out?
Sometimes, yes indeed, you have to shut that stuff down for your own sanity. But sometimes, sometimes, you should say, really? And what happened next?
When you're trying to communicate with someone who is impaired, go with them. Don't correct. Ask questions and respond to their answers. Studies are showing that people with advanced dementia are able to tell complex stories when they're prompted by photographs. All they need is somebody to listen.
Loving detachment-- I spent time recently with a different aunt, my also 90-year-old Aunt Ann. There she is. This aunt is my father's sister.
After our battle, dad left the family. His sister, my dear aunt, stuck around. She and my mother enjoyed a life long friendship. What a great lesson her loyalty taught us.
When I was with her for her 90th birthday, I took the opportunity to ask my aunt if she could think a big life lesson she could pass along to me. And she said, I just wish I had spent less time worrying about things I can't do anything about. Right now, it feels like a big waste of time and energy.
Detaching from other people's problems is probably the single largest and most personally high impact lesson I can pass along. 90% of the questions I receive from my advice column are from people who are frustrated or worried or furious, because of someone else's behavior. The Buddhist thinker Pema Chodron refers to this tendency to attach to other people's problems as biting the hook. We bite the hook that another person dangles in front of us.
A lot of parents my age have young adult children who are facing life challenges themselves. They're maybe picking the wrong partners, raising their own children like wolves, coping with student debt, unemployment, or underemployment. And what do we do?
We parents judge. We weigh in. And we advise. We want happiness and success. We'd love perfection, but we'll take happiness and success.
Our children's pain, their indecision, their poor choices, their struggles, and their little and large failures, these common life experiences sometimes seem impossible for parents to bear. We want to fix. Not only can't we fix someone else's problems, but most often the more fixing we do the less competent living and growing they do.
We impede a loved one's progress. We hover too close and hold them too tight. And what they learn isn't, oh, my folks are so smart, helpful, and loving. And they're right about everything.
No, they don't learn that. What they learn is I'm a loser. I constantly need help. I'm not capable of managing my own life.
If you want to foster another person's growth and encourage them to reach their own potential, then let them know you will make mistakes. We all make mistakes. But your mistakes don't define you.
You can live your own life. You be you. I'm hoping for the best. And that's it.
And I understand that for a lot of us these affirmations might not be the whole truth. But you know what? That's OK.
Telling someone that you have confidence in them even if you don't is a completely acceptable lie. It's one of those, honey, does this make my butt look fat kind of lies. My mother-in-law, a very devout Catholic with 13 children and 85 grandchildren--
AMY DICKINSON: Oh, I know. She did her share of caretaking and rescuing. But when she got older, the sheer number of family members simply overwhelmed her. And she would respond to family drama like this. Well, I'll pray for you.
Genius. Genius. My dear husband, Bruno, is a classic over-functioning parent. I asked him not to come tonight. So again, the Oprah stuff and the Bruno stuff just stays in the room.
But he is a real over-functioning parent. He's a competent fixer. My favorite example of this happened when one of our daughters called him from the car.
She was driving somewhere. She was actually looking for the Carousel Mall. So she was driving somewhere near Syracuse, and she got lost. And she called her father. And she said, where am I?
He said, I don't know. Where are you? And she said, I don't know. That's why I'm calling you.
Bruno actually-- and this is, like, pre-Google Maps. Bruno very patiently said, drive to the next street and read to me the street sign and tell me which direction the car is pointed in. Oh my gosh.
So he talked her through it. But this was an older teen who literally thought her father would know where she was even if she didn't. It was as if she thought she had a beacon, and that dad would always beam in for the save.
Bruno made a lot of decisions for the kids well after they could make them for themselves. We all do that. And this made him feel great, in control, needed, and necessary.
But it also might have stalled their confidence and competence. I was like, honey, I have an idea. Let's teach our girls to read a map. Then they'll always be able to find their way home.
And let's talk about enabling for a minute. Enabling happens when people are so attached and afraid of facing real consequences that they will actually contribute to their loved one's problems. The person who time after time bails out a family member in debt, the parent who won't let a child experience the consequence of poor choices, the spouse who covers up for her partners addiction-- this behavior merely draws out the problem and delays any resolution. At the most extreme, enabling is literally loving someone to death.
So learn to sit in your own just comfort. Oh, I hate that. If you can't over-function and enable someone else, what do you do? You're forced to sit in your own discomfort.
You let your own anxiety wash over you. And you learn to tolerate it. And then you work on fixing your own life, because your life is not perfect either.
So I was riding on an elevator recently with one other person. And we stopped at a floor and no one got on. So I did what we all do, I punched the Close Door button a bunch of times.
And then the door closed. I had closed the door. The man riding with me said that he works for an elevator company.
You know those buttons don't actually do anything, he said. Pushing it doesn't actually make the door close any faster. Then why is the button there, I asked him? He said, well, it gives you something to do while you wait.
I don't know if this is actually true. But I love the idea. And now when I'm frustrated or anxious, I picture that button. And I just push it a few times. And it gives me something to do while I wait to feel better.
And if that doesn't work, if I can't get to that box of wine fast enough, then I try to breathe through it. Get to know your own breath. Your breath will see you through.
I travel a lot. So I'm in airports a lot. And that is a very anxious making, frustrating place to be. And I have found that I use just basic deep breathing a lot when I'm in airports.
It used to be you could smoke. You know, now you just have to breathe in. I know. No one here-- I used to smoke.
I wish I still could smoke. Just saying that, does anybody here now want to smoke? I know.
OK. Express gratitude out loud. So I found this postcard. It's from my mother actually. And I love it, because actually it's just a little thank you note to my friend Margaret.
But I had just taken the Ann Landers job. And look, she says, blah, blah, blah, "Amy has sent me some columns. And they seem to me to be so solid and intelligent."
I don't know if she ever said that sort of thing to me. And some of you here I know knew my mother. She didn't really talk like that. But it's so sweet to know that she wrote like that. That's nice.
I received so many questions from people about thank you notes. To judge by the contents of my mailbag, the lack of gratitude in this country has reached epidemic proportions. But I have a question for grandparents who complain that they never receive thank you notes from their grandchildren.
When was the last time grandma and grandpa that you wrote a thank you note to a grandchild expressing joy for a gift they've given you? My daughter Angela does a really smart thing when her children receive a gift sent in the mail. She'll shoot some video of the child opening the gift with the child offering a personal thank you into the camera. Then she sends the video to the person who sent the gift.
It takes 30 seconds. And it is delightful. Embrace these new ways to communicate. And please don't insist on a note, because that note will never arrive.
Abide, abide, what does it mean to abide? It means to be patient, to endure. My experience as a caregiver for my mother taught me so much about patience and endurance.
The caregiving experience is guaranteed to rock a person's world. Because everything about it is upside down. Taking care of our flinty and independent mother was a huge challenge to our relationship.
My mother did not go quietly. My sisters and I frequently didn't agree about what to do. My elderly aunts and cousins, basically the entire Greek chorus in Freeville, everyone had an opinion about what we should do and a judgment that we were doing many things wrong.
My sisters and I bickered a lot. And we basically traded off taking charge or sulking on the porch. I really knew my life had truly changed the day I skipped a conference call with my agent to take my mother's cat to the vet to be shaved.
Now, you may wonder why a cat might need to be shaved. And who could possibly make enough money to shave cats for a living? I, too, had all of these questions. And the answers are mats and burrs. And number two, no one makes enough money to shave cats for a living, but they do it anyway.
Abiding is also about being a good friend. It's most important to abide when a relationship is tested. When someone is grieving, sad, or depressed, don't say, let me know if there's anything I can do for you.
They will never let you know. Just tell them you're sorry. Remember the person who's gone. Honor the relationship, and keep in touch.
Abide with them. Be with them. Help them sit in their own discomfort. If a death was sudden, do not ask them to describe it.
Do not ask them what happened. Be willing to sit silently and be in the moment along with them. Bearing quiet witness is a hard thing to do in our noisy and cluttered world.
Here's another lesson, learn something new. We all tread our well-worn paths through life. But learning to do something outside your own wheelhouse will challenge and stretch your own capabilities.
A couple of years ago, I started teaching myself to play the ukulele. I know. A four-year-old can do it in, like, 5 minutes. But it's taken me a couple of years to figure it out.
I took lessons. I watched YouTube tutorials. And I taught myself the basics. I play my little ukulele everyday learning and stretching.
Is this a useful skill? No, it is not. Will I ever play Carnegie Hall or even the State Theater? Let us hope not.
But doing this brings me a private joy. And that is an end in itself. Here's another lesson, apologize.
So my dear husband, Bruno, is the most self-actualized person I have ever met. He's a big strong guy who also talks about his feelings. When he and I have a problem to work on, he describes his feelings using I statements even though he hasn't had a minute of therapy or read even one Dr. Phil book.
But mainly, Bruno is a world class apologizer. And he's taught me to do the same. Being apologized to is an incredibly powerful event. It paves the way to forgiveness.
Forgive, forgive people. Forgive people even if they don't deserve it. You deserve it. You deserve to be a forgiving person, so be one.
Near the end of my father's life, I took on the responsibility for his care. Our contact over the years had been sporadic. Decades would go by where I never saw him.
He led such a high wire life. And he was estranged from all of his children. None of my siblings would have anything to do with our father. And I didn't blame them one bit.
But at the end, I tiptoed toward him. I spent time with him. I provided for him. And I thoroughly forgave him.
My father never apologized for anything. He didn't apologize for his abandonment, for his selfishness and neglect. But I forgave him anyway.
Here's another lesson. Buy bigger pants, ladies. Like many women, I've struggled with my weight and my body image my whole life.
I could mark the many eras of my life based on whatever diet I was on at the time. And I've done them all. I have a closet full of skinny clothes I wore during my thinner phase. In fact, I have my one remaining pair of skinny jeans in my car with the garbage right now.
My little size four pants made me feel like I was stuffed into a sausage casing. My constant discomfort was an ever present reminder of my many dieting failures. But I recently made a huge decision.
I bought bigger pants. I bought bigger pants, and I gave away all the skinny stuff. And no, I don't look like I want to, but at least I can breathe, move, and not worry about popping a button that might put out someone's eye.
Buying bigger pants is not about giving up. It's about surrender. And surrender isn't giving up. It's accepting reality.
Treat yourself as well as I treat Chester. Meet Chester. I adopted Chester many years ago from our wonderful SPCA up the road. Chester is now 20 years old.
He's sort of the mangy old man cat. He howls his displeasure with the state of his empty food bowl and regularly misses his litter box. But Chester has been a faithful and loyal witness to my story.
Through many moves and changes, through all seasons good and bad he has done his job very well. I treat him very tenderly, petting and brushing him, cleaning up after him, talking to him, and carrying him around like a kitten. Recently, I thought to myself, what if I treated myself as well as I treat Chester?
What if I were a patient, loving, and gentle toward myself? And so I let my old cat be my guide into occasionally giving myself the big break that I deserve. But what if my real superpower is merely to survive and to live in this world shouldering instead of shedding all of my faults and frailties and to walk around just a little bit wounded?
I think of that great line from the movie Broadcast News. You know, the Albert Brooks line? Wouldn't it be great, wouldn't it be a great world of insecurity and desperation made us more attractive, if needy were a turn on?
Tell someone your story. Very near the end of her life, my mother told me some difficult stories about her life that she had been quietly sitting on for over 70 years. Knowing these things about her helped me to make sense of some of the more mysterious aspects of my mother's life.
My mother led a remarkable and successful life. After being abandoned by our dad, she left her life as a farm wife and came to work as a typist here at Cornell right over there at Carpenter Hall using a skill she always said that she'd learned in the eighth grade. After I went to college, my mother applied to college here at Cornell.
She got in. She promptly quit her job and got her undergraduate degree in four years. Then my mother went on to get her MFA here at Cornell.
And then my mother, former farm wife, former typist, single mom, became a professor here at Cornell. She later moved on to Ithaca College, which was also a wonderful experience for her. Her own success was so deserved and remarkable that it continues to be an inspiration to me and for a lot of people.
It's funny when I come down past Carpenter Hall, it's still there. I think they're going to tear it down. Are they going to tear it down? No.
I remember waiting in my mom's 1972 Plymouth Duster. I remember waiting for her to get off work just sitting in the car and waiting for her to finish up and come and take me home. But my mom, she always held something back.
It was like there was something in reserve. Turns out she was sitting on some secrets. And there near the end of the life, of her life, the two of us sat with her story, quietly sitting with it comforting each other. But things fell into place for both of us there at the end, because she was brave enough to disclose some of the tougher aspects of her own story.
Your own story might not be so dramatic. But judging from my mail bag, there are a lot of people discovering lots and lots of family members through DNA testing. Who here has discovered a family member through DNA testing? Couple? I'm sure I have loads of half-siblings probably in the Cortland area, because that was kind of my dad's stomping ground, Cortland.
But for a lot of people, it is so shocking. And I hear from so many people who have discovered family relationships, and then their first impulse is to keep it a secret. And of course, I just don't think that works out. I don't think that works out for people.
OK. So your story might not be so dramatic. Maybe you didn't discover a half-sibling in Cortland. But you should find a way to describe your childhood, your life, your work, your relationships, and the roots of your interests and passions. Write about it. Record yourself, or simply tell your story to family members.
My mother's sister Millie died last summer. There's Millie. She was 94.
Did anybody here know Millie? She was-- yeah. Millie lived on our family homestead on Main Street in Freeville, a house our family has owned since the Civil War.
I saw my Aunt Millie almost every day. My sisters, cousins, and I moved into her house for the last two weeks of her life keeping her company, taking care of her, singing to her, and abiding with her. Millie was a single mother, who'd had a very successful career for decades in Washington.
We knew only that she had worked in the Johnson White House and for the Kennedy family. But my aunt was discreet almost to a fault. Now, you don't make a career working for the Kennedy family if you spill your secrets, but Millie told us almost nothing about her work life even when we asked.
After her death, going through her house, her daughter Jan found a trove of artifacts from my Aunt Millie's work life-- inscribed books from John, Robert, and Ted Kennedy, personal letters and photos and historic testimonials from presidents and senators, and this adorable picture. I know, doesn't Johnson look like he's going to swallow her whole? It's like--
Oh, gosh. We had no idea. And because she was so discreet about her own story, we will never know the fullness of it. I've written two memoirs.
For an ordinary life, I have squeezed a lot out of it. The thrill of being published eventually fades. But I often think to myself, at least I've told my story in my own way. I have to laugh sometimes when one of my daughters makes it obvious that she has not read my books.
My daughter Emily always says, I don't have to read about it. I lived it. And I'm fine with that.
But after I'm gone, people will know who I was. And they'll know the story. Yeah. Isn't that pretty? And they'll know the story of a family in little Freeville, a place no one has ever heard of, populated by a lot of ordinary people who, in their own way just like you, have led extraordinary lives. Thank you.
Thank you, you are too kind.
Thank you very much. Listen.
So who besides me is going to come next week and see the moon shot memory? Anybody? Yeah, I'm coming. OK, anybody in this room line up as I did to view the moon rocks here at Cornell? Anyone?
OK. So let me describe. So the word got out that via, I'm sure, above the fold front page Ithaca Journal story that Cornell had procured a couple of moon rocks. And they would be on display. And these were the days when hundreds and hundreds of people lined up to shuffle into-- I don't know if it was-- Bailey Hall or Barton Hall or a very large gymnasium to see the moon rocks.
And when we got there-- I was maybe nine. I mean, they're just pieces-- they look like gravel. I mean, like everyone, I was like, I bet they're glowing. But it was like a tiny little piece of gravel in a Lucite box.
And I have to say it was totally worth it. I'll never forget it. I guess it was the experience of doing it.
And you know how when you do something that's hugely sort of underwhelming, especially when you're a kid, and then you feel like you have to jazz it up just to make it, like, how awesome it was? Like, sometimes mini-golf strikes me that way.
The mini-golf in Cortland, I always go to the old one next to the A&W. And it's so sweet. I know, woo. You are on lady, no.
It's very sweet. But you know, the windmill doesn't really move. I don't know. It's a little bit overwhelming.
And I always take kids there. And I like to watch them sort of plump up the-- like, we drive past the fancy one with the neon lights and the-- what's that, shipwreck island or something? We go right past that, and we go to this dinky one.
And I like watching kids sort of plump it up, like it was really awesome. All the way back in the car they're like, that is fantastic. So I love that.
And that's kind of what the moon rock experience was like. No regrets, though. OK, so we can have to see that.
And then Joyce Carol Oates. Who's going to come see Joyce Carol Oates? I know.
Do me a favor. I'll probably be here. At some point, if you could just say to her, Joyce, you're great, but you're no Amy.
I would really-- just do it for me. I would really, really appreciate that. I would love to take, let's see, a few, maybe 5, 10 minutes of questions. Anybody have any questions for me? Anyone? Anyone? Sir?
AUDIENCE: In your column today you asked us to ask you the story of when you skipped your bio chem class to go to a [INAUDIBLE].
AMY DICKINSON: Oh, yeah. So in my column today, I often suggest, I give wording for people to use. And this was a question about-- so a college kid had gone off and done some pretty bad stuff. And his parents were trying to figure out how to discipline him.
And so, of course, they came down really hard on him. And then they got chicken, and they started backing off. And so in my sort of suggestions to them, I suggested that they say to him-- and actually, I alluded to this in my remarks.
I suggested that they say, everybody makes mistakes. You know, I did skip a final to go see U2 play. Oh, my mom saw Stevie Wonder here at Bailey Hall. Actually, it was at Barton Hall. This is a great story.
She loves Stevie Wonder. So she gets tickets. She comes to see Stevie Wonder. And she was a typist at the time and knew a lot of the professors.
So this very nice kindly professor saw her go in. And he was like, oh, Jane-- because he'd brought his kids. And he was like, oh, Jane, come out with me. And we'll have a cup of coffee while we wait.
And she was like, dang, I paid, like, $12 for this. What are you talking about? So yeah, I made my share of boneheaded choices, often to see people perform. So yeah, I've done that. Anybody else? Sir.
AUDIENCE: So now that you've sold your house, are you still a Freeville resident?
AMY DICKINSON: I am. I am, because--
I know. Yeah, represent. I am. I inherited my mother's house, which is one reason I'm off-loading this other house. And it was really quite an experience to sell it.
I've had it for a really long time. It's very important to me, that house. But I got a car full of garbage.
So, yeah. OK. Sir, back there?
AUDIENCE: Do you have any working appliances in that garbage?
AMY DICKINSON: You know what's weird? I have-- like, I don't know when--
AUDIENCE: No, I'm serious.
AMY DICKINSON: Yeah, I do. I'm just going to tell you. It's as if every time I wanted to make a cake I would go and buy a hand mixer. So I probably have six hand mixers and a bag of assorted-- what are the whirly things that go in the hand mixer?
AUDIENCE: The beaters.
AMY DICKINSON: The beaters, yeah, so I have that. See me after. OK.
AUDIENCE: When's your next book?
AMY DICKINSON: My next book, thank you for asking. Every writer loves that. It's really fun when you're on tour, like selling your current book and people start asking you about your next book. And you're like, I'm just trying to get through the day, honey.
I actually have no more books. I keep declaring I'm not writing anymore memoirs. I have no plans for any books. And I feel liberated.
Any academics here will understand the vice-like pressure of writing and publishing. It's a lot. I did, however, write the pilot script for this television series that may be coming out someday.
I don't know. But I did that. And that felt awesome. Like, it was really fun to write a script.
I had wanted to do it. Actually, my cousin said to me-- I was like, oh, I wrote a script, and I finished it. And she said, wow, I remember when you lived in Washington you talked about wanting to write a script.
And I thought, oh, dang. I have been talking about this for 25 years. So I finally did it. It was really fun. It was really fun to sort of fictionalize my hometown story, really, really, really fun, so fingers crossed on that. Ma'am?
AUDIENCE: Every morning, I read your column in The Washington Post along with Carolyn Hax and "Miss Manners." Do you and Judith Martin and Carolyn Hax ever get together and compare notes?
AMY DICKINSON: Of course, yes. We have a club.
It's called the secret-- OK, so now I'm going to tell you a story. A million years ago when I was first hired to write the column, I went to New Orleans. Like, it was a convention of newspaper feature editors.
And you know, the Tribune asked me to go and be on a panel to talk to these feature editors. And I was thrilled to do that, because I was going to be on the panel with Carolyn Hax and Dan Savage. And I showed up super excited.
And I went, and I sat next to them in this room full of editors. And they were super mean to me, way mean to me. OK, Carolyn Hax might be five, six years younger than me. And Dan Savage is probably 10 years younger than I am.
And they both kept-- I was seated at the end. And they were both like, well, I don't know. When I'm Amy's age, maybe I'll make a different-- you know, like, they kept making references to how old I am.
And they were super mean. And I thought to myself-- it just totally threw me off. Because I thought, I literally thought that we would become friends and that we would, like, go to the bar together and that we might go dancing, like high jinks. I just pictured high jinks.
And they were super mean. So I go back to my hotel room. And I cried over the phone to my mom.
And she was like, it's not called show friends. It's called show business. That's sort of what she said. Like, did you really think these people were going to boost you up and be super nice to you? And I was like, yes, I did.
But, no, we are not friends. I've never met Judith Martin. I'm a huge fan of hers. And Carolyn Hax and I sort of circle each other very carefully. Yeah.
It's competitive, you know? When I first got the job-- OK, "Hints from Heloise," do any of you know her? So I had had the job, like, 10 days.
I had just moved to Chicago. And a friend of mine at The Washington Post said, oh, Heloise-- I can't remember her last name. She's going to be in Chicago, and she would like to meet you. And so my friend put this together.
And so before work, I went to her hotel, and we had breakfast. And she is lovely, lovely and wonderful. I remember I was wearing, like, sweat pants.
I was going to go, like, to the company gym. I don't know. That was a fleeting dream for a day or two, but anyway.
And she was, like, really beautiful, very put together, really lovely. And here's what I loved. She was super nice to me, but she kept giving me, like, tips. Like, you know a little vinegar will-- I mean, she was really-- she knew the many uses of vinegar.
And she would just, like, pepper, like, work it in. It was awesome. She gave me advice about makeup. She was, like, you know, high def cameras really mess with you.
So what you want is you want the spray-on kind. I mean, she was, like, amazing, full of helpful hints. I know. I felt like I should pay her afterwards. She was super nice, yeah. Otherwise, no, it's very competitive. Anybody else? Sir?
AUDIENCE: How do like Wait Wait, Don't Tell Me!?
AMY DICKINSON: I hate that show.
I hate it. It's no fun at all. No, Wait Wait is really-- look, so over the years, the show has really changed. I'm sure those of you who have listened have probably noticed it.
When the show first started, it was journalists. All the panelists were journalists who were funny. That was the whole idea. Over the years, it has really morphed into comedians who read the paper.
It's like, so literally 100% of the time I will be on with two other panelists both of whom are stand up comics, can do impressions, are amazing comedians. I'm not. That's why I spend a lot of time laughing on the show. I laugh a lot, but it's really, really fun.
For the comedians who are on the show, I don't know if they get the joy out of doing it that I get. Because, for me, it's this huge lovely break from kind of what I do for a living. So I really love doing it. The next time I'm on the show is I think taping September 5th. Yay. Sir?
AUDIENCE: Could you tell me if you've read the book [INAUDIBLE]?
AMY DICKINSON: You know, I have not read it yet. My daughter sent it to me. So I'm dying to read it. Everybody loves it. So why did you mention it?
AUDIENCE: Because [INAUDIBLE] she was home schooled and she had lived in a dysfunctional family in Idaho. And I thought that maybe [INAUDIBLE].
AMY DICKINSON: You know, my family-- unfortunately for me and for my memoirs, my family was pretty high functioning despite everything. I know, I hate that.
I was so pissed off. And I remember saying to my agent-- because when my first book came out, it was like the era of-- was it A Million Little Pieces, the James-- you know, it was sort of the era of the addiction memoir and, like, Running With Scissors, and the really edgy, edgy, super edgy memoirs. And I remember saying to my agent, I don't know. Like, who's going to want to read a story about sort of average people where stuff more or less works out? And she was like, everyone.
So, but yeah, I'm dying to read it. Yeah. No, there's no question. The more dysfunctional-- you know, Nora Ephron, her parents are writers. And her mother coined the phrase, it's all material, you know?
So the one advantage of being a writer is that this stuff that happens you can tell yourself, well, it's grist for the mill. Yeah. One more? One more, sir?
AUDIENCE: Given that there's only so--
AMY DICKINSON: This guy doesn't need a mic.
AUDIENCE: Thank you.
AMY DICKINSON: He's super projecting.
AUDIENCE: Given that there's only so many problems and so--
AMY DICKINSON: So little time? Oh.
AUDIENCE: --so much repetition, as you allude to, how do you keep it fresh?
AMY DICKINSON: You know what's weird? This is what gets me. There are just so many categories of problems.
But for instance-- the man who wrote to me about how he and his wife commissioned a nude portrait of her from her cousin, and the cousin worked on that for five years and didn't finish it. Like, that's kind of gold, you know what I'm saying? That's pretty good stuff.
So at least twice a week-- and you know me. I mean, if you read my column, it is I think respectful, and serious, and responsible, and compassionate. Like, that's how I see it.
But every once in a while I really like to deliver a nice smack down. So when I was answering this letter about the nude portrait of the woman that had taken five years to complete, I wrote, so the Sistine Chapel only took four years to finish.
And so five years for the nude-- and then so she had completed the nude. And then they didn't want it, because they had downsized to an Airstream. So that was-- I love stuff like that.
OK, so wait. So there's one coming out. I just filed my columns today. So Wednesday is like my Friday. That's partly why I'm punchy and have a car full of garbage.
So I filed my batch of columns today. And there's one I love. It's from a guy who says, oh, my co-worker brought in her eight-month-old baby grandson to show to the office. And he's adorable and really sweet.
And so my co-worker told us that this baby's parents aren't married and are just out of high school, but I don't have a problem with that. And then she told us that this baby's mother is black. I don't have a problem with that, he goes.
He goes, I'm from the Caribbean. I'm biracial myself. And we islanders understand these things in a way that Americans just don't.
So he's already established himself as somebody I want to smack. So he goes on. And he's like, I'm sorry, what I have a problem with is looking at this child who is very dark skinned, there is no way this child has a white parent.
And I'm worried that this young guy will end up raising a baby not his own. I mean, this guy spun out this one brief encounter into the most convoluted racial whatever. I mean, it was crazy.
So basically, I was like, stand down. Being from the Caribbean does not make you the arbiter of race. So mind your own-- you know, and any way, that kind of thing. And every once in a while it's like, oh, I can't wait for that to run, you know? That's going to be fun. That's going to be fun.
And another one-- very kind of sad in a way, from a woman who's, like, so been married for over 40 years. And my husband has over time become kind of a racist asshole. And she gave these examples, which were, yes, terrible.
And she was like, is divorced the only way? I was like, well, you could. And then she gave these examples of how horrible his behavior is.
And so I was like, well, you could try counseling. Look for a counselor who's a person of color. Anyway, yeah-- so anyway, yes.
Problems are always-- there are five problems, right? But because we're all individuals, there are myriad of ways to talk about them. Yeah, that's great. That's a great, great question.
OK, so I feel like, have we covered everything? Bye Bye Birdie got mentioned, which was pretty great. I'm really proud of that legendary 1976 production.
Thank you all so, so very much. Don't forget to give Joyce Carol Oates the Amy thing, OK? Thank you.
SPEAKER 1: This has been a production of Cornell University on the web at cornell.edu.
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Nationally syndicated advice columnist Amy Dickinson spoke at Cornell University as a part of the 2019 Summer Events Series. Dickinson talked about growing up in the tiny town of Freeville, NY, her escape to college and career in big cities, and the ups and downs of her homecoming to Freeville after marrying her childhood friend.