Poor Alice has her hands full

29 April 2012 - 02:19 By Paige Nick
A Million Miles from home

I once had a geography teacher who used to say that there was no such thing as a stupid question. I think that might be the only thing I remember from class. That and how to paint my fingernails with Tipp-Ex.

Paige Nick: A million miles from home
Paige Nick: A million miles from home
Image: Lifestyle Magazine

These days if you have a question, any question, no matter how stupid, all you have to do is type it into the Google machine. In fact you don't even have to have a fully formed question in mind, just type in "how do you ..." or "what is a ..." and the computer will climb into your mind and suggest the rest of the question for you. And then provide 265401 possible answers.

When I typed in "How do you ...", the computer suggested "How do you tell if someone is cheating on you?" and when I went for "What is a ..." the computer finished my sentence with "What is a virus?" Clearly these are the things humanity is questioning most around the world right now. Cheating and viruses. One worries.

But you have to wonder, before there was the great big internet in the sky, who we turned to if we had a difficult, private, or embarrassing question to ask. The kind of question even your friends didn't know enough to answer, and you couldn't possibly ask a parent, teacher, or God forbid, your pastor.

Agony Aunts were big back then. Just about all the magazines had them. Full of questions like: Dear Abby, my one boob's bigger than the other one, should I be worried? Or Dear Abby, my mom won't buy me Rick Astley's new record, Never Gonna Give You Up, but my friends Mandy, Candy and Sandy all have it. Why is life so unfair?

Even the name "agony aunt" makes me smile. The word "agony" brings to mind a person writhing around on the floor in pain, or bleeding from the eyeball, not just somebody looking at themselves in the mirror wondering whether it's normal to have a zit the size of Burundi on their chin, or whether the oddly shaped rash on their penis is anything to be worried about. (PS: YES IT IS! See a doctor immediately!)

I'm fascinated by these columns. Mainly by the kinds of questions people ask, but also by the answers. In fact I'm so enthralled by them that I made the heroine in my most recent novel a sex agony aunt, just so I could trawl the internet doing research on the subject, and make up ridiculous questions for my character to answer. Which is how I came across a very unintentionally funny website called "Go ask Alice". Poor Alice, I think some days she really does have her hands full.

"Dear Alice, my boyfriend kisses with his eyes open. I've heard you're not supposed to trust people who kiss with their eyes open. I naturally kiss with my eyes closed (except to peek occasionally to see if his eyes are open). What's up with him kissing with his eyes open?! What does that mean? - Peeker."

Of course, Alice's answers are always polite, informative and, most importantly, non-judgmental. She's very good at this, our Alice. I probably wouldn't have been able to restrain myself and would have responded with something like:

"Dear Sneaky Peeker, maybe he doesn't kiss with his eyes open either. Maybe he's also just peeking to see if your eyes are open, at the same time that you peeked to see if his eyes are open? Now he doesn't trust you either. I'm sorry to say it, but your relationship is doomed."

Here's another example of the awkward questions Alice has to deal with:

"Dear Alice, I've been having this problem with my girlfriend. Whenever we make out, I get the impression that she wants me to do something with her breasts ... but I don't have the foggiest what to do. - Clueless."

I don't know who to feel more sorry for here, "Clueless" or poor Alice?

The truly great thing about the agony aunt column, and possibly the reason why they've stood the test of time and still exist today, is because they really do seem to help out a ton of people who have nowhere else to turn. And also because, well, when you read them you just can't help feeling a little bit better about your own life.

Because no matter how many times you've been dumped, or how flawed your sex life, or how rashy your rash, you can always read one of these and feel slightly grateful for the fact that you will probably never have to write a perfect stranger a letter like this one:

"Dear Alice, should you talk during sex, or just make grunting and moaning noises?"

I may have to argue with my old geography teacher here. Perhaps there really is such a thing as a stupid question.