by Jennifer Dalton

One evening last winter I had a bad cold and was about to head home from my painting studio. I had no Kleenex in my studio, so I blew my nose into a clean corner of a rough paper towel which I had earlier used to wipe up some black oil paint. I then walked several blocks to the subway station, took two trains, went to the grocery store, and walked several more blocks home. I noticed a few people looking at me longer than the usual stranger does, but thought nothing of it (except for the cute guy on the L train).

When I finally got home my roommate looked at me and said, "What's that all over your face?" I looked in the mirror and, to my great embarrassment, saw that I had black paint smeared from my nose across one half of my face. Perhaps hundreds of people had seen me on my trip home; not one of them had said a word. I felt utterly betrayed by each of them.

How hard is it to say, "Excuse me, Miss—you appear to have some black paint on your face "? Surely these same people who politely look the other way when someone on the subway has his fly open go weeping to their professional therapists about the alienation they feel from others around them.

The blame for our culture's mistrust of lay counsel clearly rests on the self-help industry, which tries to convince the rest of us that friendly advice is inappropriate or inadequate so that its practitioners can continue to profit from our alienation. I get so depressed about this that sometimes I'm tempted to pick up Getting to Know Each Other or some such title, myself.

All it takes is some common sense and a little compassion: really, how can any caring person ignore the constant desperate cries for help that compete for her attention? A few weeks ago I saw a posted flier in a neighborhood cafe which read, "POET seeks room in house or apartment in the East Village. Can spend $300-$350/mo." Am I supposed to let this poor person's painful cluelessness continue?

The vigilante therapist's role is as treacherous as it is necessary. How exactly does the dedicated amateur therapist respond to a close girlfriend who says, "I'll be home late tonight because I'm going to be fucking the 21-year-old virgin/recent immigrant to the U.S. who works in the kitchen where I waitress."? Doling out advice, in many cases, has its risks; alienating one's friends is often one of them. But when a fellow human is being stupid, it is your responsibility to TELL THEM.

Which is not to say that you have to be mean or tactless. I recently met an attractive young television reporter who had been bluntly advised by a postal clerk, "You need to re-dye your hair, lady." In response, she was reduced to a lie, and an embarrassingly unconvincing one at that: "This is my natural color. This...this is the color my hair has been since I was a little girl."

Though the postal worker obviously could have more politely articulated his suggestion, the young woman admitted to me that he was right—her hair was in fact overdue for a touch-up. Clearly, we as a culture need not only to develop the skills to give good advice, but to take it as well. Sadly, my dear waitress friend was fired without notice or explanation shortly after she began the above-mentioned affair. I can't help but think that if she'd only listened to me...well, she'd still be at that job she hated. But you know what I mean.   </end>

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