Heather Havrilesky’s How To Be A Person In The World is a wonderful collection of advice columns she has written under the sobriquet Ask Polly that are equal parts tough love and compassion borne from her own experiences - the child of a parent who passed away when she was in her early 20s, years of hard living and friendships lost along the way. Polly is the cool aunt, the sister who hung with the John Benders of the world in high school but grew up up and figured shit out. Polly may now schedule play dates for her kids, but she still curses like a sailor (Havrilesky is particularly fond of a certain twelve-letter curse word that rhymes with “other ducker”) and is clear-eyed enough to remind you that many people will disappoint you along the way, but for those you care about, a reservoir of good will and kindness is the way to go.
While many of the letters included in How To Be trend younger and female, Havrilesky’s advice is just as applicable to men and women alike. Much of it has to do with being honest with yourself, being hard but fair in your self-assessment (and others), and finding the silver lining even when you have really stepped in it. She is charitable towards those who admit fault (a married woman in her early 40s largely gets a free pass for her infidelity because she is remorseful while a married man in his late 30s who itemizes the reasons justifying his contemplation of infidelity is put on full blast) and quick to apply the lessons she learned along the way to the situation at hand (dead end jobs in your 20s, staying with the wrong person too long, and, looming in the background like an ominous soundtrack, are low-grade depression, anxiety, and fear).
I have to admit, in the first few pages of the book, I was not sure if I would like the format - a curated collection of letters to Polly as opposed to a more narrative form of autobiography, but Havrilesky weaves so much of her own personal life and experience into her answers and the letters collected cover so much of the waterfront of what people experience, particularly in their twenties, that the book turned out to be a total page turner - each letter and response being its own short story of a snapshot in that person’s life. The quality of the curation is also found in how many times I found myself saying “been there” or “are there” as anonymous someones spilled their guts out over lost love, wobbly familial relationships, fears of the future, not having enough friends, and what they should do with their lives.
Polly is not a Pollyanna, but she is pro-you - insisting that her fans avoid gross generalizations about themselves (particularly their shortcomings), goading them into picking apart their own statements to detect both the truth and the bullshit underneath them, and see things from other perspectives. I first read Heather’s work when she was recapping Mad Men episodes many years ago. As I reached the end of How To Be on an essay about growing old and the fear of losing all that you hold dear, I was reminded of something Don Draper said about change, that it can be greeted with “terror or joy.” In the messy and often difficult “thing we call life,” Polly has answered that question simply - with motherfucking joy.