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Trickle-Down Humanity from Amy Alkon

When looking for advice you may reach out to a friend or loved one. If you are particularly lonely you could seek counsel from a psychologist, a televangelist, or even a bottle of drugs. Pretty lame options considering you could always email a real-life goddess known for her red hair and deep fascination with evolutionary psychology. Though it never occurred to me to ask her for advice, I was fortunate enough to have a conversation with…

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What was your first published work?

I wrote a column for my high school newspaper. I won an award, and I thought, “That’s cool.” I wanted to do it some more because when you do something well and people give you some props, you keep doing it to keep getting those props.

What were some prime motivators at that stage in your life?

I grew up in suburban Detroit, in the whitest neighborhood. Even the Puerto Rican people and the black people seemed kinda white. It was very character-free, so my great ambition was to get out of there and go to New York City. That was my prime motivator: You have to do well so you can go places and get out of Farmington Hills, Michigan.

Have you been to New York recently?

I was there a few years ago. I lived there for a long time in various slum apartments. I paid $937 for a 10×12 room and I was dating a guy who had an eight-room, pre-war apartment on the Upper West Side on Weston Avenue for $400. That’s rent control in New York. I could never manage to get that rent-controlled apartment. In my last apartment the landlords were in the Mafia, and you pay your rent on time when the Mafia are your landlords. They were great landlords. They always fixed things and were really nice. I saw my landlord being hauled away on garbage-piling violations on one of those newer “Nightline” shows. All of these places were herbal-dumpy-slum apartments. Living in Venice, I live in a little house and it’s so fantastic. If you’re having a miserable day, you look out the window and there are palm trees and hummingbirds and you think, “Oh, I won’t kill myself today because it’s so pretty out.”

What was your favorite part about living in New York City?

I give advice for a living, science-based advice, and my house right now looks like a giant fire hazard with a bed and an oven because I have these books and papers and scientific journals all over the place. But one of the pranks that my friends and I did in New York was to give free advice on the street corner. We called ourselves The Advice Ladies. We were only going to do this once because we liked to make people laugh and make ourselves laugh.

We had a servant for a while but he fired us–it was a BDSM thing and we weren’t really into that. We just wanted to have him come to our friend’s apartment and have us throw a ball across the floor so he could catch it in his teeth and crawl back to us. Then he said, “My former mistress peed on me.” And I’m like, I’m from Michigan! I’m sure there are people who do that in Michigan, but I wasn’t one of them.

We would have these adventures, and with the Advice Ladies it was so much fun. Our sign said “free advice.” We thought about doing it like Lucy from “Peanuts,” but we thought, “Who’s even going to pay a nickel?” People lined up! It was amazing–New York, free, they lined up around the block! It was fun and interesting and we really helped people, the miracle of miracles. People started asking us serious questions. We had examples on our sign like “wigs and beards, directions and nail biting,” but people would ask us serious questions. I’m thinking, “Oh my God, I didn’t even take psychology in college.” So I started reading through all of psychology. I would read through Freud and realize, “Holy shit! He just made stuff up!” I became a fan of Albert Ellis who started cognitive behavioral therapy. He and Aaron Beck created it both separately and together. It was based in reason, and he became a fan of my work. I told him I didn’t even have a PhD and he told me, “To know what you need to know, it would be a waste of time.”

Sonja Lyubomirsky researches happiness. But I look at her work and all this other work, anthropology and psychology, and I bring it in when I’m answering questions, since I do this science-based advice column that’s also funny. I translate it to normal-person language from professor-ese and try to give people some direction on the stuff they’re doing outside of the perspective of, “Hi, I’m a girl and I publish out of my house because someone gave me an advice column because they didn’t have anybody else to write it at the newspaper.” I just don’t know how other columnist can do that–give their opinion based on nothing.

What advice do people tend to seek from you the most?

It’s generally dating and relationship advice and occasionally manners, because I wrote the book Good Manners for Nice People Who Sometimes Say Fuck. People write me saying, “My neighbor’s doing this horrible thing. What should I do?” A lot of stuff people ask me I don’t put in the column because their questions are boring, but I print the interesting ones. The big problem is that people think the world should be a certain way and it should work the way they think it should, but it doesn’t work that way. There are ways things work and they may be counter to people’s intuitions, so I lay out what the science says why, especially evolutionary psychology. It’s explaining that in ways that makes sense and giving practical advice–that’s basically what I do every week.

Kill Myself

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