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Bernard Radfar Headshot

Texting Librarians

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ME: My life is falling apart and it makes me question

everything. How can I tell if it's me or the world?

THEM: sorry to hear you're hurt: Thought: Questions are

natural responses to life = part of what we are as humans/

and things can fall apart in many ways - not always yr

fault- hang in there.

In the elevator back to the lot, with a stack of DVD's

about the fall of the Roman Empire in hand, I noticed for

the first time a curious printed announcement, halfway up

the yellow wall, notifying people that questions could be

texted to the library for free, using ASK A LIBRARIAN.

I'm a person who is full of questions, most of which, I'm

hesitant to admit, fall into the category of bizarre or

unanswerable. Thus the philosophy degree and far too many

books read on nihilism.

Paying the fortune I do in taxes and parking tickets,

I figured I'd take advantage of the free library service.

The anonymity appealed to me, though they'd see my phone

number when they answered, I assumed. They could play God

(omniscient and omnipresent, so long as there was a signal)

or Freud. Who would've thought that that most trivial of

communications, the text message, might become a new forum

for ideas? I wouldn't even have to raise my hand.

Little did I know that the correspondence would turn

into an obsession.

The text message is the modern telegram, that same

terse form of communication, only cheaper. I started with

mildly entertaining questions about my close friends:

ME: Who is Bruno Navasky? Is he well known?

THEM: Bruno Navasky is a poet & teacher in NY City, well

known in certain circles. See

for more. Tnx 4 askN.

ME: And is Arnold Helbling an opera singer?

THEM: He's a Swiss painter. See his website for examples of

his work.

Not bad for a free service, but not exactly

intoxicating. It annoyed me that they weren't sweating much

to answer. I sipped some French absinthe and reexamined

the situation. Maybe it would help if I treated them like

Socrates did Phaedo, asking denser questions:

ME: In the 20th century, what is the difference between a

philosopher and a poet?

THEM: A Philosopher is a person who seeks wisdom or

enlightenment: scholar, thinker b: a student of philosophy

and a Poet is one who writes poetry or one (as a creative

artist) of great imaginative and expressive capabilities and

special sensitivity to the medium.

ME: Can one be a philosopher without having a great

imagination and a talent for expressing oneself? Forgive me,

but I'm confused about the distinction.

THEM: I cannot interpret the information for you.

How maddening. They were being short with me already.

I pressed on resolutely, trying a desperate tone:

ME: What do you recommend I do to answer this question?

THEM: Go to your local library and do a detailed search.

Disgruntled, I stopped communicating for some weeks.

The sad truth descending upon me was that oftentimes,

like most people, they had no interest in answering my questions.

After a while, though, I came to realize the potential

of the service. Half of the joy came from imagining and

judging their answers. They wanted me to be a schoolchild

and ask basic questions, such as 'What is a medlar?'

or 'Where was the Marquis de Sade born?' but that was too

easy. There had to be a category of question that could

only be answered by these anonymous texters. I would have

to push the boundaries, becoming daring, the Evil Knievel

of the library world:

ME: I'm going to Barcelona tomorrow to take part in an

anchovy seminar. Whenever I'm in a new city, I ride the bus,

instead of staying in a hotel room. Do you know if I'd be

allowed to stay on the bus all night long?

THEM: According to it is not recommended that

you try this. Here is the discussion: "Don't count too much

on sleeping in the bus, basically because I doubt you'll

find lots of nocturnal trips and long enough ones at that."

I would recommend that you look for cheap accommodations

instead, like a hostel.

Now we're talking. For the first time I was

developing some affection for this texter. The person

had tried to help me, there was an acknowledgement of

an exchange. Humanity at last! I waited to text more

questions because I had no idea who (or were there

many?) was on the other end, whether she'd be

perfunctory, like the earlier answerers. It was time

to make another leap into uncharted territory:

ME: my wife says that I've no sense of humor but my friends

all tell me I'm very funny. Could you clarify what may be

going on? I really don't understand.

THEM: Though ultimately decided by personal taste, the

extent to which an individual will find something humorous

depends upon a host of variables, including geographical

location, culture, maturity, level of education,

intelligence and context. Wikipedia

What a thoughtful person, the one who came up

with that. Respectful of this person's wisdom, I was

compelled to get even more personal, so I continued

later that afternoon, delirious, lounging poolside at

my high-altitude hotel in Aspen on a hot day while my kids swam.

ME: As my wife and I were driving across the Continental

Divide we were having a spat about what it means to be a

supportive spouse. How much bickering between a husband and

wife is acceptable?

THEM: This wouldn't be the same for all couples. "Fighting

fair" seems to be what is suggested. This includes:

preventing arguments before they happen, be solution-based,

remember that how you begin a discussion has a profound

impact on the direction it will go, try to keep their

perspective in mind, & remember to communicate.

ME: Well put.

What does one do when all communication leads to failure?

THEM: Remember that listening is more than hearing -- it

includes recognizing, interpreting, and understanding the

message being sent. There is a difference between listening

to respond and listening to understand. Effective listening

requires attention, appreciation, and affirmation -- pay

attention to what your spouse says & remove barriers between

you. Listen with a minimum of defensiveness, criticism, or

impatience. If communication is still poor after practicing

these things, you may want to seek out professional help.

I started to feel something new for the person

or persons on the other end -- this one was likable,

not so much for the content of the advice, but for

the generosity and concern granted an anonymous,

possibly demented user of the service. Drinking Arnold

Palmers brought to my chaise lounge by a cheerful kid

transplanted from New Jersey, I started to feel a hazy

bond forming. I couldn't let the answerer go. We were

like two strangers at a truck stop who needed to talk.

ME: Since you were so helpful with the other question I

thought I would ask you this: I'm wondering if you can speak

to a characteristic of mine. I have an intensely negative

reaction to certain books and people and ideas. For example,

the music of Philip Glass, people carrying yoga mats,

platypuses (my name for women with lip injections), and

people with bad breath. What do you recommend I do? Is this

a psychological illness?

THEM: It sounds like what you are describing is pet peeves.

This is simply a minor annoyance that an individual

identifies as particularly annoying to them, to a greater

degree than others may find it. The good news? You are more

than likely normal -- most people have a variety of pet peeves.

ME: thank you! I'm glad to be normal enough, therefore.

THEM: you are welcome - go forth and be normal. lol.

The answerer was turning a bit Whitmanesque.

This was my kind of anonymous person. With some trust

developing, I decided to approach the mystery of the

answerer once and for all.

ME: Are my questions private? Answered by how many people?

THEM: The questions are usually answered by one person at

a time - I am the only librarian answering right now. The

questions are then logged for statistics purposes.

I felt a sudden discomfort, as though an

inexperienced therapist had started telling stories

about himself on my meter. These were new lands I was

treading, and I didn't want to know too much. Call it

a first date, one where I decide to be bold about my

feelings about myself.

ME: Deep down I know that no one likes me. What should I do?

I waited several hours without a response,

saddened that they'd lost their patience with me. I
tried again, hoping another, more patient, answerer
was on call. Again, silence. I'd been abandoned, it
seemed. I felt like turning to Roland Barthes for
advice on what to do. Perhaps I was now on the
librarian's version of a Do Not Fly list, The Do Not
Answer These Neurotics List, where most businesses
keep bounced checks. Were there others like me, poor
souls who'd become dependent upon their every word?
Had these malevolent people with library science
degrees really felt terrorized at this point? A world
opened up to me that suddenly closed itself. Somehow I
would find a way to go on. Meanwhile I had to ask them
one more thing before we parted, in that way that
people eventually say good-bye:

ME: If you stop answering my questions I will be sad. Was
it something I said? Don't you care about me? I really need an
explanation for your sudden silence.

Like so much in life, I will never know why our
relationship fell apart.