Carolyn: Tell Me About It

On the advice beat, Carolyn Hax tackles problems close to home.

On the advice beat, Carolyn Hax tackles problems close to home.

By Helen Mondloch

By Jonathan Timmes

“Hi, Carolyn. Who made you God?”

It’s the kind of question that pops up regularly in Carolyn Hax’s inbox, challenging her to follow her own advice about keeping a level head in the face of criticism, especially the snarky kind. 

After 15 years as a nationally syndicated advice columnist at the Washington Post, where she delivers a daily dose of guidance to the frustrated and forlorn, Hax is accustomed to coming under fire. Sometimes her critics get pretty personal.

This one goes on, “Are you just some know-it-all journalist who landed the gig of a lifetime: Telling people what you think and getting paid the Post columnist’s pay scale to do it? Or do you have any professional training that gives you license to tell people to grow up and go to hell?”

The reply is signature Carolyn Hax: “The former. But I wasn’t aware that I needed a license to tell people to grow up and go to hell. Let’s try an experiment: ‘Hey … grow up and go to hell.’ I thought that went OK.”

Thanks to her level head and sassy wit, Hax, 45, has not only survived her critics but amassed a nationwide following. With over 200 newspapers now featuring her Dear Carolyn column, Hax has become part of a self-help tradition that dates back to the 1700s, when American colonists eagerly imbibed Benjamin Franklin’s flavorful aphorisms in “Poor Richard’s Almanac,” an annual treatise on living wisely. Hax’s fans, sometimes called “Hax- Philes,” include nearly 17,000 Facebook subscribers who follow her both in print and online. Many seem to swear by her heady philosophy of reasoned self-reliance—no doubt a hybrid product of her native ingenuity and Harvard education.

When Hax’s column debuted in 1997 as a weekly feature titled, “Tell Me About It,” it catered exclusively to the under-30 crowd—appropriate, since she was only 30 at the time. In 2001 she published a book, “Tell Me About It: Lying, Sulking, Getting Fat, and 56 Other Things NOT to Do While Looking for Love,” which laid out some of the core principles of her salty sagacity. One is the idea that “knowing who the hell you are comes in handy.” She still presses the need to have a “solid set of values” in order to survive a world of peer pressure and “verbal flatulence” disguised as wisdom. Similar refrains in her philosophy include: “Make peace with your choices,”  “Let the masses think what they want.”

Hax’s book came out the same year that Time Magazine  acclaimed her as the best “straight talker” in the industry, calling her advice “simple, bracing and smart.” A widening sphere of devotees spurred Post editors to start publishing the column more frequently, eventually bumping it up to a daily feature in the Style section, where it‘s still flanked by movie ads or other light fare. The soul-searching Q&A is aptly adorned by the columnist’s mug shot. (With her youthful smile and sensual cascade of brown hair, she is just the kind of person whose shoulder you might like to cry on.) Just as enticing is each edition’s cheeky illustration by cartoonist Nick Galifianakis, her longtime business partner and ex-husband, who has published a book of his own and is adept at capturing the turmoil of human relationships with a flavor well-suited to Hax’s straight talk.

During her tenure as a top notch advice-giver, Hax has confronted a number of personal challenges—including the kind of relationship drama she dissects in her columns.

The feature has expanded its focus accordingly: No longer the exclusive domain of lovesick young adults, Dear Carolyn now addresses readers of all ages who are wrestling with marital tensions, childrearing conundrums, overbearing in-laws and you-name-it. Besides her longstanding insistence on having a core set of values, Hax urges those listening to be honest—first and foremost, with themselves.

But Hax insists she’s no guru, a term that literally makes her wince. In fact, she wouldn’t mind setting the record straight about her job qualifications—or rather, her lack thereof. Her advice derives heavily from her own mistakes, some of which “could light up the sky.”

No time to spare

In the sprawling lobby of the Ward Marriott Hotel in Woodley Park, just up the street from the National Zoo, Hax rushes in looking flustered and apologizing that an unexpected traffic jam slowed her down.

Wearing a nondescript jeans outfit, with no discernible makeup and a hair style that looks moussed and air-dried, she makes strikingly little effort to appear glamorous or guru-like. She keeps her jacket on as she slips into a seat, turning down an offer of coffee or hard liquor from the bar. It’s early afternoon on a weekday, and she can’t spare much time from home, where she cranks out about 90 percent of her work for the column. (“Sometimes they make me go to meetings,” she says with a roll of her eyes.) Her three “high-energy” sons—twins Jonas and Percy, 9, and Gus, 8—will get home from school in a couple of hours, and after that, the family will begin its evening routine of packing up the mini-van and hauling everyone around to their various activities. Now that hockey season is over, they’ll be making fewer treks into Virginia from their home in Northwest Washington, but baseball season gets pretty crazy, too. Hax’s husband Ken Ackerman, a teacher and baseball coach at the District’s Maret School, often has to run around to his own games.

Like  a lot of moms with full-time careers, Hax is a perpetual multi-tasker,  juggling the demands of a busy family with the things she gets paid for—mainly, wading through hundreds of angst-filled messages a week and composing thoughtful responses to the ones she finds the most compelling and best-suited to her skills. Working the chat room on Friday afternoons requires the breath-taking ability to dish out advice on the spot—with all the insight, wit and precision that Hax-Philes have come to expect. 

Problem-solver with Flair

Hax’s path to becoming one of the nation’s foremost relationship analysts probably violates expectations. She has no background in psychology or counseling. As a child growing up in Trumbull, Connecticut, the youngest of four sisters, she doesn’t recall listening to other people’s problems or mediating conflicts. Nor was she the least bit interested in writing. “I hated writing in high school. I never had to write before that. In ninth-grade I showed up at a private school where writing was paramount, and I got my butt handed to me,” she recalls gravely. 

She entered Harvard University as an aspiring civil engineer. But soon after arriving at the grandly erudite campus, she recalls having an epiphany: “You’re at this school and you’re not going to read great books?”

She ended up majoring in American history and literature. A few years after she graduated, Hax got a job at the Post as a temporary copy-editor, filling in for someone on maternity leave. From there she inched her way up to news editor and began authoring occasional articles. While still working the news desk, she helped conceive the idea for “Tell Me About It” as part of an effort to attract younger readers. The goal was to reinvent a genre best known for its platitudes and clichés.

Hax auditioned for the part of counselor-in-chief by composing a few trial columns. The shrewdness and flair of her work sparked immediate approval and landed her the job.

But for all of her intuitive flair, Hax has never lost touch with her inner engineer. She’s always been a problem-solver, she says. The skill is obvious in her columns, where, like a mathematician working an intricate proof, she breaks down the dilemma at hand, scrutinizing each part through a lens of logic and dispassion—those other keys to successful advice-giving.

“Emotions often confuse things that are logically very simple,” she says. While she once worried about steering readers in the wrong direction—one can only imagine the burdens of delivering syndicated advice—that worry now informs her method. Rather than prescribing a specific course of action, she generally helps the reader probe the issue logically from all angles.

Hax’s approach is captured in her response to a woman who laments that her past year has been “nonstop hell” and that her best friend has “done a disappearing act.” How much support should she feel entitled to? Hax expounds four possible reasons for the estrangement, including this one: “Maybe your friend is going through her own annus horribilis and you’ve either failed to notice each other’s misery while so consumed by your own (and she’s off somewhere else typing, ‘I’m in hell and my best friend has vanished’), or she has tried to be thoughtful and chosen not to tell you.” Each scenario comes with a tang of Hax’s wit and its own set of suggestions—all of which involve uncovering the truth, then meeting it head-on. 

Plain old reality

To that end, Hax often urges readers to let go of romantic delusions. In one case, a chat room participant claims that he is “100-percent sure he does not want kids.” He then asks, “Is it worthwhile/fair to pursue a relationship with the woman of my dreams who, as luck would have it, does want them?” Hax replies, “If it’s too soon to have talked to her about it, then it’s too soon for you to be calling her the woman of your dreams.” She adds, “Can you tell ‘ … of my dreams’ is not exactly the concept of my dreams?”

Sometimes Hax’s pragmatism can be arresting, especially when it relates to the simple things that torture people most, as in this gem from her book: “Be rational about your looks. Make the best of what you’ve got using subheroic measures, then don’t look back.” She also suggests that readers “be rational about others’ looks,” buttressing that suggestion with an astute observation: “Every single one of us has watched friends get better looking in our eyes as we grew to appreciate them more, so it seems to be blatantly in our own self-interest to give less-than-Brad-Pitt-like prospects the same chance to ripen.”

While Hax is sometimes characterized by her critics as a moral relativist (or worse, a “f***ing liberal,” as she points out with a hint of distress), her positions often defy ideological categories. They are grounded instead in plain old reality. She discourages gratuitous sex, calling herself a “prig with gusto”: “There are a bunch of things you can expect from sex for the sake of sex—that the novelty will wear off, that eventually one of you will want more out of life, that you increase your risk of disease …” Elsewhere, she points out that another reason “not to sleep with someone without first developing an emotional bond is that a lot of us are a lot less ready than we think to hear the phone not ring.”

Some of Hax’s most heartfelt opinions relate to the challenges facing today’s parents.

In her essay, “Peace and Carrots,” included in the anthology, “Mommy Wars: Stay-at-home and Career Moms Face Off on Their Choices, Their Lives, Their Families,” she opines on the often “agonizing” decision of whether to stay home with children: “Any arrangement can work as long as parents are selfless enough to make it work.” She also suggests a litmus test: “Would you want to be your kid? Own up. Then make peace with your choices from there.”

One of Hax’s most riveting pieces—and a testament to her Ivy-league intellect—is a spot-on analysis she wrote in response to a reader’s gripe about today’s parents’ over-involvement in the lives of children. The reader echoes the often-asked question, how did prior generations survive without youth league sports or moms helping kids with their homework? Hax requests that the reader “please bite down on a sponge” whenever tempted to “mass-judge” the parents of one era by comparing them unfavorably to those of another. She then expounds the profound social changes that have produced a child-rearing culture where, for better or worse, working parents constitute the majority, pick-up kickball games have mostly faded from the typical neighborhood, and school assignments often presume parental involvement. She adds, “Then there’s the subtle stuff: Have you buckled a child into any kiddie gear lately? Here’s what you see when you do: WARNING: DEATH or SERIOUS INJURY CAN OCCUR. Thanks! I hadn’t fully appreciated human mortality until I became the whole world to this helpless creature I love to an aching degree, and now vivid images of his death fill my mind every time I dutifully employ the safety equipment that now constitutes the baseline obligation for responsible parents that didn’t even exist in my parents’ day!”

Lessons from the Wringer

Such emotional releases are rare for Hax when she’s on the advice beat. She usually keeps her personal life out of it, even if her own experience forms the basis of her insights.

Hax’s greatest personal crucible took place about a decade ago, when several major life crises collided abruptly.

In 2001, after her seven-year marriage to Nick Galafianakis had begun to unravel, she moved back to Connecticut to help care for her mother, who was terminally ill with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). Hax lived there for five years, telecommuting with the Post on her column. Her mother succumbed to the devastating illness in 2002.

In the midst of the ordeal, she found solace by striking up a friendship with an old high school acquaintance, Ken Ackerman. In late 2002, a gossip columnist broke the news that Hax, then 35, was pregnant with twins. She had only recently revealed that she and Galifianakis had planned to divorce. She had never bothered to announce (owing to some bizarre sense that she was entitled to privacy) that the two had been separated for months before she began seeing Ackerman, with whom she had formed a committed bond. The result: Hax found herself embroiled in scandal—the “wringer,” she calls it—with some ‘splaining to do.

While some of her followers were supportive, others charged hypocrisy and worse. One wrote, “Nice going! Just the sort of example I’m proud to see in an advice columnist. Planning on getting strung out on drugs, maxing out your credit cards, and filing bankruptcy anytime soon?”

Hax responded by devoting a chat session to clearing the air.  She revealed that her split with Galifianakis was amicable, albeit painful. (A decade later, they still collaborate on the column, and her sons call him “Uncle Nick.”) As for the accusation that she had betrayed her principles during her time of vulnerability, she simply asserted, “I have no ethical hangover from Kenny.”

With no time to spare, Hax has given up on answering her critics—those irrepressible masses who will think what they want. Instead she has made peace with her choices, including the choice to keep hammering away at advice that is neither divine nor definitive. (Turns out she isn’t God.) The biographical note on the columnist’s chat site probably sums her up best: “Carolyn Hax offers readers advice based on the experiences of someone who’s been there. Hax is an ex-repatriated New Englander with a liberal arts degree and a lot of opinions; and that’s about it, really, when you get right down to it.”

Read Hax’s commentary weekly: Hax writes a weekly column, found in Washington Post’s Style section, and at washingtonpost.com/carolyn-hax.

 

(September 2012)

X