Tuesday, March 6, 2007

HTT, can pirate advice help land-lubbers?

Before I answer my next question, I need to provide a little background. I’m not quite sure how, but my step-mother, Faith, began correspondence several years ago with a fellow named Cap’n Slappy, who founded Talk Like a Pirate Day (www.talklikeapirate.com). If you’re even mildly dubious about the whole pirate thing, and I hope you’re not, you should know that the Cap’n has received all kinds of coverage, including mention in Dave Barry’s blog. And the Glasgow Daily Record. And the Sacramento Bee. (Press coverage of Here’s the Thing
to date…mmmm…zero.) This pirate business is hot stuff! I’m ready to buy an eye patch and learn the Talk Like a Pirate theme song.

At any rate, to help me publicize my new advice column, Faith wrote to the Cap’n, who gives sage advice of the pirate variety to his readers. Not only was Cap’n Slappy kind enough to allow this cross-promotion, but he also submitted the following question.

Dear HTT,

Okay, here’s the thing! I’m a pirate-themed advice columnist whose advice can typically be described as “misguided” at best and “legally indefensible” at worst. For example, it is my firm belief that most of Life’s little dilemmas can be resolved if one drinks enough rum and/or finds someone worthy and administers a savage beating with one’s fists and forehead. Common sense stuff for a pirate, really!

Still, I can’t help but wonder …

Am I really helping? Sure, my sponsor, Captain Morgan’s Rum is keen on my “Jigger a day” campaign. And I just received an honorary doctorate from the Center for Advanced Studies of Pre-Frontal Blunt-Force Impact Head Injuries – but even so, I can’t escape the nagging feeling that I’m simply perpetuating a stereotype of a much misunderstood cultural sub-set.

Also, your step-mum pimped your site pretty hard in my column – and because I have nothing but respect for her – I let her! Do you think the other pirates will think I’ve gone soft? And how many savage beatings with my fists and forehead do you think it will take to remedy that perception?

Just call me Cap’n Slappy,

Cap’n Slappy
P.S. We sell our book from our web site – it’s very funny and everyone should buy at least twelve copies.

Dear Cap’n Slappy,

First, it’s an honor to receive a letter from someone as experienced in advice-giving as you. Second, I would like to express my gratitude for allowing Faith to pimp my column on your site and for your kind words about my nascent avocation.

I fear that our approach to advising is so different that I’m not qualified to comment on rum and beatings (at least not in a public forum that my mother and several coworkers have been known to visit). However, I would like to address the broader question you asked, which is if you [or any advice columnist] can really help your readers.

I’ve actually mulled this over quite a bit. Where do I get the nerve offering advice to anyone? I’m not exactly issue-free myself, and I’ve often felt that I could benefit from my own personal advice columnist to help navigate my relationships and moral dilemmas. (Pirates are supposed to be good at navigation, no?)

But I’ve decided that the advice we give is really only half the point. I believe that the very act of writing the letter gets advice seekers to think about their problems in a new light. Putting words to paper and making ourselves understood by others demands a certain focus, a certain remove from the emotional tangle our problems become in our head.

But here’s where the advice columnists’ half of the equation comes in. Everyone wants to be heard. And sometimes it helps to be heard by someone who doesn’t already have a dog in the fight. (O.K., so all my questions thus far have come from friends, but still.) You know that exercise that therapists recommend…the one about writing letters to express your feelings, and then trashing these blistering missives instead of sending them to the person who caused you all the angst in the first place? No offense intended to any therapists out there, but I’ve never gotten ANY satisfaction out of that activity. I want someone to recognize that I’m hurt or to feel bad that my problem is waking me up at 3:00 a.m. And it would be nice, too, if that person actively thought about my problem for a few minutes, offered some sympathy, expressed an opinion, and then asked a few pointed questions to get me thinking about my own solutions.

Whether I agree with the opinion isn’t of utmost importance. Either way, I’ve purged, I’ve been heard, and maybe I can more clearly see some options for a way forward.

So, the person purged to doesn’t have to have all the answers, and neither do you or I (thank God). The best we can do is make an honest effort to address a reader’s concern and offer a well-considered opinion, but of course our own experiences—be it success with rum in your case or a penchant for talking things out in mine—will color our reply. What people do with the advice is up to them. To get to the crux of your question—are you
helping?—probably, in some fashion, or people wouldn’t keep reading. Personally, at this early stage of my column, I’d be happy just to amuse and do no harm.

Best wishes, matey.