Amy Dickinson Of ‘Ask Amy’ Visits Mark Twain House

Many people may read "Ask Amy" every day and ask "who are these people who write to her?" But Amy Dickinson, in an appearance in Hartford on Wednesday, said "stupid" letters give readers a lot of joy.

"Those are some of the best. Those allow all of us to have a really good day," Dickinson said to a capacity crowd at Mark Twain House & Museum. "We can go out in the world and think 'I'm not as stupid as that guy'."

Dickinson confessed she likes the silly letters, too. "I think we all need some of that," she said. "We all need to feel as if we're a little smarter than someone else."

Dickinson was in Hartford promoting her book, "Strangers Tend to Tell Me Things: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Coming Home." She chatted on stage with Regina Barreca, a UConn professor also promoting a book, "If You Lean In, Will Men Just Look Down Your Blouse?" Dickinson, whose column is syndicated to 150 newspapers, discussed classic questions and newer problems presented to her by her letter-writers.

Dickinson said that unlike the New York Times crossword puzzle, which tends to get more difficult as the weeks goes on, her columns tend to get more lighthearted as the week goes on, ending with spiritually oriented issues on Sundays.

She said a large percentage of her letters deal with boundaries — "that guy in my office always clearing his throat," "the woman with too much perfume," "my 25-year-old wants to move back home" — and her advice is, "We need to know when to say no, to put up walls or a picket fence to protect ourselves."

Lately, she said, more and more letters concern the tendencies of the internet to encroach on personal interactions. "It's very common to hear, 'my husband is 100 percent addicted to his iPhone'," she said, adding that smartphone apps "have figured out how to trigger our frontal cortex. We're triggered to go back and back and back to this device. ... It's a very commonplace issue, and I think it's very, very important."

Later, during a book signing, she brought up the issue again with a fan, discussing a fancy dinner party at which a woman answered her ringing phone. "It's total monkey-mind, like Pavlov's dog, the ringing of a bell," she said.

Dickinson's audience was 90 to 95 percent women, filling up the 178-seat theater, with several other women outside begging unsuccessfully for admission. She joked about her process auditioning for the column at the Chicago Tribune. "The Tribune loves focus groups," she joked. "As a media company, they are so risk-averse that if they could test-market their headlines they could."

When people question her qualifications to write an advice column, she refers to her upbringing in a financially shaky but loving home. "If you're brought up poor by somebody who knows how to have a good time, you are so made for life," she said.

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