When online advice columnists go bad

In an excerpt from Lynn Harris' new novel, "Miss Media," a specialist in relationships has a hard time following her own rules.


Lynn Harris
February 3, 2004 1:30AM (UTC)

On the surface, Lynn Harris' new novel, "Miss Media," might seem just another attempt by an ex-dot-commer to satirize an era that, to those who got caught in it, was almost beyond ridicule. The setup is straightforward. The protagonist, Lola Somerville, is an online relationship advice columnist who sells her Web site to a big, well-funded New York dot-com called Ovum. Ovum is for women and run by women, and, at first, is the coolest place on earth to work. Then things start to go wrong.

The similarities to Oxygen, the cable channel/Web site that was ballyhooed in the late '90s as the ultimate online destination for women, are obvious and intended. But "Miss Media" isn't merely a savage, entrail-rending, bitter memoriam to the excesses of dot-com hubris, New York woman-style. That's not even the most interesting aspect of the novel. "Miss Media" is really a story about relationships and gender trouble, told in part through the emergent dialects of the online age -- e-mail, Internet dating, instant messaging. Harris has a keen, witty ear for how men and women communicate today about the messiness of their love lives (or lack thereof). The plight of her characters is intimately familiar, and the way they express themselves, whether by a hurried IM in the middle of the workday, or in the studied, anonymous flirtation of an e-mail courtship, is absolutely dead-on.

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In the chapter excerpted below, Lola Somerville has come to work on a Monday morning after having A) gone home with a co-worker, Miles Farmington, after getting drunk at a company party, and B) blown off a first date with "Boqueron," someone she met through an Internet dating site, because she was hung over and in bed with Miles. For an online relationship advice columnist who takes a professionally dim view of casual office romances -- and who's starting to wonder if someone's trying to shine a bright light on hers -- it hasn't been a very good weekend.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Lola figured if she scrunched down small enough at her desk, Kat might not see her.

"Happy Monday, boss!" called Kat.

Hell's bells! Should have crawled under. Should not have worn bright pink and orange checked sweater.

"Hey," said Lola, barely turning around, making a loud display of typing busily.

"How's Ping-Pong?" asked Kat as her Mac chimed on. They both had the Panda-cam as their start-up page now. The zoo hadn't named the little one yet, so Douglas, after teasing them both about their obsession, had suggested Ping-Pong. Not bad.

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"Still asleep," said Lola. It was, after all, like five a.m. in San Diego. Lola had come in early to immerse herself in work -- like that's an escape! -- as her home, too, was haunted. The rest of yesterday had been a wash: she'd called Annabel immediately ("I am calling you from the Cafe Reggio bathroom, but I'm so not on my date ...") and together they'd composed the contrite e-mail to Boqueron. Lola had spent the remainder of the day trying -- and failing with flying colors -- to avoid checking for his response. Nothing so far. Finally she'd slept, crookedly, on the post-futon Grownup Couch she'd bought with her Ovum windfall. She could hardly even look at her bed. It still held Miles's faint outline, like the Duvet of Turin.

Right, trying to immerse herself in work.

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Dear Ultimatum Frisbee,

"So what'd I miss after I left Darts?" Kat again.

"Not much, I don't think," answered Lola.

Kat rolled up a chair, disco-ball earrings swinging. She wasn't getting the idea. Or maybe she was.

"So you and Miles shared a cab home, huh?" Sleater-Kinney was doing a sound check somewhere, so fortunately no one could have overheard a thing.

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"How did you know that?" Lola hissed, stunned.

"Aha," grinned Kat. "You just told me."

Lola couldn't help but smile. "That's why I hired you," she sighed.

"You guys talking about Lola and Miles?" It was Ted.

Lola threw up her hands. "What, did someone send out another company-wide e-mail?"

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"Come on, Lola, you know Kat and I share a knowledge base. Except she speaks HTML," said Ted. "Kat just told me she had a hunch, that's all. No one knows anything. We get how serious it is."

Lola's eyes widened.

" -- I mean, how seriously important it is to keep it quiet," Ted replied.

"But isn't it?" wondered Kat.

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"Isn't what what?" asked Lola.

"I mean, you guys have real intentions, right? We know you'd only get into something at work that you were pretty serious about," Kat said, clearly doing her darndest to sound like she wasn't lecturing. "He does seem pretty cool."

"We'll see," said Lola, doing what she imagined was "smiling enigmatically." Anyone who wasn't Kat, or Annabel, would think she meant, "I have embarked on something too miraculous and ethereal to explain in earthly words." Kat, however, would know she meant, "I am not ready to talk about how badly I may have fucked up."

Can't concentrate.

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Two messages in PitchingWoo.com inbox. One from Boqueron. Afraid to read it, Lola clicked on the other.

TO: Truffle
FROM: nicestraightguy
RE: fabulous profile!
I'm a hetero, cute, well-dressed attorney. Outside the firm, you might find me watching a funky dance troupe, or shopping on 5th Ave. I love to read, everything from fashion magazines to The Girl's Guide to Hunting and Fishing to Bridget Jones' Diary ...

Sorry, Lola thought, but I already have a date for the Judy Garland episode of Biography.

Delete.

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Deep breath. Clickclick.

TO: Truffle
FROM: Boqueron
RE: Re: Hell's Bells!
Well, I was bummed, but I completely understand. I had a late night myself, and you're certainly not the first person in the world who's set her alarm for PM instead of AM. So. Sigh. Shall we try again? What works for you? "This week is already crazy for me...". If that were a song, it'd be ours.

Okay, okay. Could be worse. Still, if he really wanted to meet, he would just freaking make time and make it happen, wouldn't he? Oh, wait, he did that. And I freaking made an ass of myself.

Speaking of which, where is Miles? Why hasn't he stopped by yet? Why can't he just leave me alone?

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"Hey." Lola jumped. It was Douglas, looking a tad bleary and wearing a Get Smart T-shirt. Lola pressed a hand to her chest. "Hell's bells! You scared me."

"Sorry."

"No problem, I was just deeply absorbed in procrastinating." Lola attempted an unhurried -- i.e. unsuspicious -- click on her screen to hide Boqueron's note.

"Oh, I think I can help you with that, actually," Douglas replied. "I mean, with procrastinating. I was wondering if now would be a good time to set you up on that new sorting system. I know you don't really use it the way Kat and Ted do, but I thought it would be good for you to be able to access it and stuff."

"Oh! Um! Let me think." Lola fiddled around with her on-screen calendar, reading her meeting schedule under her breath. "Yeah, sure. Now's good."

Please God, don't let Miles come by when I'm here with Doug. Please God, don't let Miles come by when I'm not here.

"Great." Doug rolled up a chair from a small floating table. Lola mentally swatted an urge to reach over and chop off a lock of hair that kept falling in his eye. His hairstyle, or lack thereof, was a little trapped in the early '90s. Lola imagined that it would look much better cropped close than side-parted.

"... able to read even the mail that Ted's deleted. Are there other subfolders I should set up for just you?" Doug was asking. Lola tuned back in just in time.

"I'm sorry, what? Oh. Folders. Yeah. How about 'column themes,' like, for letters that, like, inspire column themes?"

"Gotcha." Click, type type, hair flop, click, type type. Lola glanced over to the juice bar. Miles had just materialized at the counter. Lola inhaled sharply -- quite audibly, apparently.

"Um, Lola?" Fortunately Doug was looking right at her. "You seem a little jumpy today. Are you okay? If you don't mind my asking."

"Am I okay? Of course!" Lola said, a little too emphatically. "I think this sound check is just rattling my nerves a little." She took half a breath.

"Doug, help me out with something. You've been at Ovum much longer than I have, and I don't know other folks here that well yet. Do you have a sense of the attitude here toward office romance?"

"Wait, what?"

"Oh, I'm sorry, I mean, not, like -- " Lola pointed back and forth between the two of them, braying a laugh. "I mean, well, I'm gonna write a column about it pretty soon, speaking of column themes." Mediocre bluff. He must know that you've written this one to death. "And I wanted to make the point that the permissibility would vary from company to company, depending on the culture."

"Oh, I see. Well, I don't think there's an official position on it up in the adminisphere. Of course, this place is pretty mellow about things like that, I guess. Let's see, not a lot of bed-hopping, that I know of. But that might be because everyone's always here."

Lola laughed a little too loud.

Douglas looked at her. "In any case, doesn't 'Ask Lola' say office romance is generally fine as long as it's a serious pursuit with a legitimate future?"

Lola reddened. "Yeah."

"I mean, you wouldn't want to let something potentially great go just because your W-2s come from the same place."

"Right. So what about you? You ever meet someone at work?" she asked, her inner editor for some reason asleep. "What? Lola! None of your business!" she quickly added, feeling obnoxious.

Doug laughed. "Yeah, once, but not here. Summer after college, in this teeny crappy little office where we both used to sit all day and test video games for bugs."

"That's a job?" asked Lola.

"Yeah," said Doug.

"But did you leave there totally hating video games?"

"Well ... no," Doug said.

"Well, right, okay, I spent a summer working at Ben and Jerry's, and oddly, when I finished, I still loved ice cream," said Lola.

"There you go," said Douglas. "So I dated, if you can call it that, the girl who sat right next to me."

"If you can call it that?" Lola sensed that Douglas was open to chit-chat here. And she was open to not working. "Okay, gimme the big tell. What was her name?"

"We worked long hours and were really poor and we had to keep it a secret because the place was so small -- six people in one tiny basement room -- it would have weirded everyone out the door," said Doug.

"Waterfall."

"Wait, what?"

"Her name was Waterfall. Shut up," Doug grinned.

"Douglas, please don't ask me to not tease you about that."

"Lola, I would never ask such a thing of you!" he said. "It's just that you should not commence teasing until you know everything."

"Go on," said Lola, sitting back.

"Since we couldn't really be all coupley at work, which is where we always were, we, um, created online fantasy gaming characters who were in love."

Lola stared, a smile forming faster than any jokes could. There were just too many.

"Yes, Lola." Doug stood up and bellowed, "We created online fantasy gaming characters who were in love, and I don't care who knows it." Of course, in the din at Ovum, he could have yelled, "Where are all those cute headset-and-clipboard girls when a man needs a cup of coffee and a lap dance?!" and no one would have heard a damn thing.

Lola took this in. "So Doug, what was your, what do you call it, 'character?'"

"I was a Ranger. She was a Druid."

"I see," said Lola. "'Together, you're Cops.'"

"Rangers have cool longbows and can detect poison," said Doug.

"Sounds like they're good to have around," said Lola.

"You're not even gonna tease me?"

"Not yet. Way too easy," said Lola. "I shall have pity on you, Ranger."

"Doesn't that make you a tease tease?" asked Douglas.

"Guess so!"

Douglas laughed and made a few more moves of the mouse. "Okay, you're all set." He touched her arm. "Gotta go. Hope that's helpful."

"Yeah. Yeah, it is. Thanks. Bye, Rang -- wait, what was your fantasy name?"

"Forgive me, my good lady, but I am not permitted to reveal that which you ask."

"Geek," said Lola.

"Farewell," said Doug. He rolled his chair away just as Miles arrived with two cups of thick yellow juice. He set one on Lola's desk.

"You like yours with extra biotin, right?"

Doug glanced back.

Lola -- Lolana, High Empress of Serious Pursuits (skilled in the Resurrection of Credibility and the Healing of Hangovers) -- knew what she had to do.

She and Miles made a date for Thursday.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Dear Ultimatum Frisbee,

How come when men want to get married, they're settling down, but when women want to get married, they're giving in?

Hmm.

The letter "S" for Single is much less scarlet than it used to be, but that doesn't mean staying that way is Plan A.

Not bad.

You know, we can't win. They look at us funny if we're not married, and they look at us funny if we say we'd like to be.

I could really get into this one.

Hang on.

TO: tabedon@ovum.com
FROM: lsomerville@ovum.com
RE: show topic
hey, I'm kind of jamming on a big Lola Policy Statement on why women shouldn't be ashamed to admit they want to "settle down." can we do that for next week?

TO: lsomerville@ovum.com
FROM: tabedon@ovum.com
RE [2]: show topic
Hey, I love it but Angela just stopped by to remind me that it's almost the anniv of when the judge threw out the Paula Jones case. So she says we should use that as a peg to do something about how to handle office romance.

As opposed to Oval Office romance, ha ha -- wait. Office romance. No way. Nowaynowaynoway.

Let's slate your other idea for June (open season on weddings). Hey, meantime why don't you pitch it to Penelope? Bet she'd dig it. She said to e-mail her anytime.

Lola felt sick. Sicker. I have to talk about this on TV with a straight face? She leaned back in her chair and looked up at the sky, making a big groaning stretching noise. Somebody up there clearly has it in for me.

"Kaaaaaaat? Why can't it be Sushi Tuesday already?"

"Didn't you hear? Sushi Tuesday is now a thing of the past."

Lola whipped back up, almost keeling sideways. "What?!"

"Mmm hmm. Now it's Tuna Melt Tuesday."


Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of BreakupGirl.net. She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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