Ask Aunt AgathabyFrancisMacomber©
One night back when I was a youngster, my parents rented All the President's Men. I got so inspired watching Woodward and Bernstein unravel the Nixon White House that I decided there and then I wanted to work for a newspaper when I grew up. The idea of becoming a crusading reporter taking on the corrupt establishment motivated me to set my sights on Columbia University's School of Journalism, and thanks to good grades, a scholarship and a sizeable student loan, I actually made it.
Columbia gave me three things that were priceless: a superior education, a reasonable chance at an entry level media job upon graduation, and a beautiful wife. Let me say a few words about each.
Columbia is one of the pre-eminent journalism schools in the country, and it taught me not only the fundamentals about how to research, report and write about the news, but also the skills of investigative reporting, broadcast journalism and digital media. My teachers included experienced working journalists as well as distinguished professors.
The only thing they didn't teach me was how to find a job in the hyper-competitive journalism market. Not only is there a glut of reporters, editors and news people, but the industry itself is in serious decline, at least in the newspaper field. And if you do find a job, the pay is meager at best. This was the uninviting environment into which I headed as my college years ground toward completion.
As graduation neared, I was so desperate for work that I seriously considered accepting an unpaid internship just to gain some credentials. But at the last minute, good old Columbia came through for me -- not the Placement Office but Alumni Relations. It turned out that a good friend of my Dad was a Columbia alum, and he offered me a job as an assistant copy editor/fact checker at one of the newspapers in the Washington, D.C., area. It was not what I had envisioned for myself, but a drowning man will cling to any life preserver in the sea.
One of the reasons I was so desperate for work was that in between my class schedule and practice reporting assignments I had somehow found time to fall in love. In fact, I had even gone so far as to become engaged my senior year. Nicole, my intended, was a political science major, and we had met in a course on comparative politics our junior year. She was intelligent, articulate, ambitious and gorgeous. What started as a classroom friendship rapidly escalated into an ever closer emotional and physical relationship. I discovered that the passion she brought to political arguments was matched by the passion she brought to our couplings. Put simply, we couldn't get enough of each other, and it didn't take long for us to realize that we wanted much more for much longer than a few years in college.
Unlike me, Nicky's future was laid out nicely. The third-term congressman from her home district was a good friend of Nicky's parents, and he had promised their daughter a job as an aide in his office in Washington when she graduated. So my finding a job in D.C. a godsend, and we married right after graduation.
Even with both of us employed, we found we could only afford a tiny walk-up apartment way out in Bethesda. But when you're young and in love, such things are only minor inconveniences.
Nicky threw herself into the inner workings of Capitol Hill and found the new environment much to her liking. As for me, I was glad to have a job but I found my responsibilities somewhat underwhelming. Proof-reading other people's copy didn't comport very well with my dream of being a crusading reporter. But, as I kept reminding myself, it was better than being unemployed and maybe it would lead to something better.
As it turned out, that's exactly what happened, but not in the way I expected.
I was called into my boss's office one afternoon, and when I was seated on the uncomfortable wooden chair across from his desk, he fixed me with an evaluating stare that made me very uncomfortable. Finally, he held up a sheet of paper which I recognized as my resume.
"It says here that you can write. Is that true?"
"Yes sir," I replied earnestly.
"And it also says you're a pretty smart guy, at least book-wise. Is that right?"
"Well, I did alright in school, I guess," I said modestly. I had graduated with honors, but I didn't think this was a good time to brag.
He heaved a sigh. "Okay, here's the deal. Next week is Agatha Cornwell's retirement. That means somebody's got to pick up her column. You're it."
I swallowed hard. Agatha Cornwell was not exactly an intrepid reporter. In fact, she wasn't a reporter at all -- she wrote the paper's daily advice to the lovelorn column. Most of the time, no one on staff even read the column, and when they did, it was the subject of derision. Being told to write it had to be the worst assignment possible, even worse than writing obituaries.
The boss must have mistaken my reaction for enthusiasm. "Now don't go pinning your hopes on this. The truth is that the column gets some of the lowest readership of any section of the paper. But it has a small, loyal following, so the Managing Editor doesn't want to kill it and cause an uproar. And we don't want Agatha's readers to know that the old bat is gone either, so don't go telling anybody that you're the new Aunt Agatha. Got that?"
I nodded my understanding. He didn't have to worry: the last thing I wanted would be for anyone I knew to learn I was now writing an advice column.
He gave me that steely-eyed squint again. "Don't screw it up, understand?"
I nodded and left his office to retreat to my desk and bemoan my fate. An advice column? How was I ever going to hold my head up in front of Nicky and our friends? If word got out, I'd become the laughing stock of the Columbia School of Journalism! My only saving grace was that, thanks to the boss's injunction, I couldn't tell anyone about my new assignment. Even that was small consolation. "Great," I thought dejectedly, "not only do I have the worst job on the paper, but I can't even bitch about it to anyone!"
When I got home that evening, Nicky asked me why I had such a long face, but I made up some story about a rough day at the office, and, fortunately, she let it go because she wanted to tell me about her work. She was agog because it turned out her new boss was making a lot of noise in political circles. Congressmen are usually a dime a dozen in Washington, but Timothy Vickers was rapidly becoming a rising star in his party. He was young, handsome and extremely articulate. He and his wife made a very photogenic couple. Already there was talk that he was destined for greater things. "One of the other aides told me he might be considered as possible vice-presidential material," Nicky told me excitedly. "Just think: I might be working in the White House some day!"
I'm afraid I wasn't as overjoyed about her good fortune as I should have been. I was glad for her, but inside I guess I was still feeling sorry for myself about my new assignment.
On Monday morning I was shown to my new work area, and to my surprise I found that I actually had a tiny office. At least that was some small compensation for taking such a demeaning job. However, once I had seated myself behind the old wooden desk, I found myself stranded in a snowstorm. Everywhere there were piles of letters and papers stacked haphazardly. I felt lost; I had no idea where to start.
Just then there was a gentle knock and pretty young woman about my age stuck her head in the door. "Hi," she said, "I'm Mandy. I'm your assistant."
Assistant? I get an office and an assistant? Maybe this wasn't going to be so bad after all. "Hi, Mandy, I'm Casey," I said, "and I'm completely lost. Please come in and tell me what's going on in here."
She gave me a cheerful smile, plopped herself onto the tiny chair beside my tiny desk, and began to talk. I soon learned that Mandy had only been with Agatha for three months and that she hadn't been excited about her assignment either. "It isn't exactly hard-nosed journalism," she conceded, "but it grows on you after a while. All those people out there are desperate for advice, and you begin to feel like you're doing something worthwhile trying to help them."
She gave me a stack of Agatha's recent columns to read, and I soon got a mental picture of a good-hearted older woman working week in and week out to dispense a little wisdom and common sense to her flock of the hopelessly uncertain.
Next Mandy showed me a sampling of the letters that came in inexorably every day. As I looked at them, it struck me that the questions Aunt Agatha received were all boringly mundane. When I asked Mandy about that, she winked at me and handed over another stack of letters.
"What are these?" I asked.
She gave me an embarrassed little grin. "Those are all the questions Agatha didn't want to answer," Mandy told me. "She just wasn't very comfortable talking about certain subjects, especially those she thought were 'weird' or 'naughty.'"
Wow! When I started reading the letters from the second stack, I quickly realized that we had a lot of weird and naughty readers out there.
I grinned at Mandy. "I don't claim to have all that much expertise in this area, but I promise you that we're going to stop ducking questions about 'naughty' topics. That's the kind of stuff people love to read about, and we're going to start giving it to them."
She gave me a worried look. "I'm fine with that, but I don't know how management will react. They've been pretty comfortable with 'sugar and spice and everything nice' for a long time, if you know what I mean."
"Look, I didn't ask for this assignment," I told her, "but now that I've got it, I'm going to do it my way. If the boss doesn't like it, he can get somebody else. Are you in?"
She smiled. "Okay, count me in."
Fortunately, Agatha prepared her columns several days in advance, so I had a small backlog. That allowed me to take some time to study the letters from the "do not answer" file and pick the ones I wanted to use in my first column. I also gave a lot of thought to the style I wanted to adopt. I definitely planned to give answers that reflected my beliefs, but I wanted to do so with a little attitude. After a few false starts, I felt comfortable enough to give Mandy some excerpts from my first draft to review.
Dear Aunt Agatha, I love my wife, but recently I have discovered I have a bi side. Now I want to do some experimenting with some guys I've met. As long as I don't mess with other women, I don't feel like I'd be cheating on my wife. What do you think?
Dear Switch Hitter, I don't care whether you're a lefty, a righty or you hit from both sides of the plate, it's still cheating.
Dear Aunt Agatha, my husband and I have been happily married for ten years, but recently I had an affair with a man in my office. I feel terrible about what I did. Should I confess and beg him for forgiveness?
Dear Remorseful Roberta, if you confess to your husband, all you're doing is taking the guilt off your back and dumping the pain on him. Keep it to yourself and make up for your mistake by being the best wife possible. The guilt you feel is the price you pay for doing something you knew was wrong.
Dear Aunt Agatha, a married guy in my office sent me a picture of his junk on my cellphone. What should I do?
Dear Grossed Out, why don't you forward his sext to his wife and get her opinion? I'll bet she'll have one.
Mandy looked at me with a sly smile. "I don't know how management is going to like it, but at least they can't say your column is boring."
Sure enough, my boss came storming into my office that afternoon holding the column I'd submitted. "What in the hell do you think you're doing, Casey?" he yelled. "Aunt Agatha's readers are a bunch of sweet little old ladies. You're going to get their knickers in a twist with this kind of stuff!"
I wasn't taking any of it. "You asked me to do a job and I did it. Why don't you give it a chance before you spike it?"
He snorted angrily and stalked out, but he let the column run.
In addition to the print edition, the paper also appeared in a web version, and that gave us the chance to get feedback almost instantly. Mandy had told me that Ask Aunt Agatha never generated much of a response, so I was surprised when she came into my office the next day and, using my computer, accessed the online feedback for my column. Apparently, my first effort had provoked quite a response. Some of the readers took Aunt Agatha to task for being flippant about serious issues, but others cheered her strong stands.
I hadn't been expecting any response at all, so I was a bit nervous about the tempest I'd stirred up. But Mandy was excited. "This is the biggest reaction I've ever seen to an Aunt Agatha column," she told me.
I was still unsure. "Some of them sure didn't like what I said or how I said it," I pointed out.
"Who cares?" she said happily. "At least you made them think about it."
The next few days saw a repeat of the first column's reaction: comments kept coming in both pro and con on the new tone and subject matter. I could only wonder how management would react to it all.
Over the next two weeks, I found the answer to a question I'd asked myself when I started the new job: why did I need an assistant? When I saw the stack of letters coming in, I began to understand. And when Mandy showed me how to check the Aunt Agatha email account, I began to wonder if two people would be enough to keep up with the influx. Every letter and email had to be read, filed by date, and categorized. Some would go into the "To be Answered" file, some into "Ignore" and others into the "Think about It Later" file. Then we'd discuss the ones in the first category and decide how to answer them.
Sometimes we disagreed. For example, Mandy broke into laughter while reading one letters that came in through the mail. "Here's one for the trash," she chortled, "it's obviously a fake." But when I read it, I knew it had to go in the next day's column.
Dear Aunt Agatha, recently I was awakened from a deep sleep by a little green man who took me up to his spaceship and probed my body with alien instruments. Yesterday I learned I am pregnant. What should I do?
Abducted by Aliens
Dear Abducted by Aliens, you need to take this letter to your Creative Writing professor and tell him I said to give you an "F."
The next Friday afternoon I had just finished preparing my Monday column when the boss showed up at my door. I'd been avoiding him ever since our last encounter, and his sudden appearance immediately made me uneasy.
"I just got the latest report on the number of hits for our online site," he said with a scowl. "I also got a report on the feedback your column has gotten." I held my breath. "They may not always like your smartass remarks," he went on, "but at least they're reading your stuff. The number of hits on Ask Aunt Agatha is up 35%. I guess you get to keep the job another week." Then he tromped out of my office.
I was stunned. I felt like that actress at the Academy Awards: "You like me, you really like me!"
Mandy had been eavesdropping, and she came running in to give me a big hug. "Congratulations, Casey! Those are wonderful results, and the boss almost never gives anybody their results in person. He must really be pleased."
I hugged her back and gave her my best John Wayne imitation. "Aw shucks, ma'am, it warn't nuthin." But the truth was that I felt pretty darn good. I might not have the job I wanted, but at least I was having some success at the job I'd been given. As I drove home that evening, my only regret was that I couldn't tell Nicky about it.
I didn't have long to think about it, though, because when I got home Nicky reminded me that we had to leave for the weekend. Her boss, Congressman Vickers, was holding a staff retreat at the Wye River estate of a wealthy backer, and spouses and significant others were invited.
I guess it's my journalistic background, but I'm pretty cynical about most elected officials. Hearing "Congressman Clean," as the media had dubbed him, preaching about family values and personal morality made me more than a little uncomfortable. As a result, I wasn't looking forward to rubbing elbows with Congressman Vickers and his entourage, but Nicky was excited so I kept my feelings to myself. And later, when I had a little time to talk with him over cocktails, I had to admit that he was a charming if earnest sort of guy.
The next day while Nicky and the other staffers were meeting with him, I had the opportunity to meet Mrs. Vickers, and had an even more favorable reaction. I'd expected one of those plastic "Stepford Wives" types with a campaign speech memorized and ready to deliver on her husband's behalf at the drop of a hat. Instead I found a quiet, thoughtful woman whose only disadvantage was an obvious limp. Without my asking, she volunteered that it was the result of an automobile accident that had occurred not long after they were married. "It was pretty awful," she admitted, "and I can't have children, but I'm lucky to be alive, so I don't complain."
I was impressed by her courage and also by her husband's decision to stick with her. "Maybe he is one of the good guys after all," I told myself.
That night in our room, Nicky was pretty hyper. "He said that he's really happy with my work," she told me excitedly. "He said that he relies heavily on my help."
As I pulled off my clothes, I said, "Why don't you come over here and see if you can give me a little help?" It didn't take much to transform her enthusiasm into passion, and soon we were enjoying each other to the fullest. When Nicky gets going, she's very vocal, and I began to worry that her moans and cries might disturb others in the house. But it's such a turn-on for me hearing her get turned on -- especially when she's nearing an orgasm -- that I quit worrying and lost myself in our mutual pleasure. Afterwards, just before I fell asleep, I thought, "This has turned out to be a pretty good weekend after all."
On Sunday morning we sat out on the patio having breakfast. Nicky, of course, had picked up a copy of the Washington Post, but out of loyalty to me, she also got a copy of my newspaper. I was amused to see her turn to its Living section and begin reading Ask Aunt Agatha. "Why do you read that stuff?" I asked her.
"I guess I'm like everybody else: I like to read about other people's secrets," she readily confessed. "Besides, lately Aunt Agatha has been much more interesting, and I really like the advice she gives."
I almost gave the game away then, but I restrained myself with difficulty. "Wouldn't she be surprised if she knew?" I thought to myself with glee.
Over the next few weeks, I really got comfortable in my new role. Part of what made the job so easy was Mandy, who was proving a real joy to work with. From our lunchtime conversations, I learned that her background was parallel to mine. Like me, she'd always wanted to be a reporter. Instead of Columbia, she'd gone to the University of Missouri, which is also nationally recognized for its excellent school of journalism. And like me, she'd had no luck finding a job as a reporter when she'd graduated. She'd only fallen into the assistant's job when management realized Aunt Agatha needed help keeping up.
Working together, the two of us could now actually plan out the column rather than just reacting day to day. We started picking and choosing the letters to answer so that they followed certain themes and fit more logically with what was going on in the outside world. No more letters about summer romances appearing during the Christmas season! Mandy was also a whiz at doing research, tracking down resources to which Aunt Agatha could refer her readers when they needed expert help.