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 http://www.brunonavasky.com
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
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 allexperts.com 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.
Follow Bernard Radfar on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@BernardRadfar