Monday, April 23, 2012

Dear Discomfort Czar

This week, we begin a new feature, in which readers are invited to send in their discomfort questions and have a chance at an answer from an esteemed guest: THE DISCOMFORT CZAR. We seem to have a couple of questions already in the hopper, so let's begin with those.


Dear Discomfort Czar,
Why is the word "dilema" misspelled in that graphic at the top? How can I be expected to trust someone who either doesn't know how to spell or doesn't proofread carefully?
--An anxious reader


 Dear Anxious Reader,
We use what we have. I did notice the misspelling. I am a pretty good speller and also a pretty good proofreader, but I like the look of that graphic, so I decided to go with it despite its shortcomings. I'm sorry if it adds to your anxiety. 


Dear Discomfort Czar,
I was out walking the other afternoon, approaching the high school. There weren't many people on the street at the time. One young man was walking behind me (I know, because I saw him making a diagonal across the tennis courts, and then I passed him), and one ahead. The one behind me, with ear buds installed, crossed over to the other side of the street. The one ahead of me was pivoting and pacing, broadcasting a kind of restlessness. He was African American, and the one who had crossed to the other side was white, as am I. The African American youth (let's call him a youth; it sounds clinical) was NOT wearing a hoodie, but something about him made me consider crossing the street, as the other youth had. Still, I decided to stay the course, look this youth in the eye and acknowledge him with a head nod, perhaps even a hello. When I did, he said, "Ma'am, do you have a phone I could use?"
     I did not have a phone with me, and I held up my hands, sort of to show that they were empty, and I said, "Sorry. I don't have one with me." I was actually sort of . . . well, not . . . happy . . . but . . . relieved that I didn't have one with me because I don't think I would have wanted to lie, but I don't think I would have wanted to hand my phone over to him--a stranger, regardless of race or age or style of dress (at least that's what I'm thinking, or wondering, as I'm writing and trying to be honest).
     My question to you, Discomfort Czar, is whether you think he was out of line for asking, and what you would have done if you had a phone with you.
--Another anxious reader (I swear I'm not the one who asked that first question)


 Dear Another Anxious Reader,
Why don't you just stop mulling it over and be happy you didn't have a phone? Some people can't seem to give themselves a break, and you seem to be one of them. But, honestly, he may have had an actual need for a phone (you say he was pacing and/or restless, so maybe he was waiting for someone and wanted to know where they were). This doesn't mean, however, that you would have needed to hand over your phone to a stranger. If there had been a clear emergency, you would likely have offered to make the call yourself. But hand a highly portable and valuable item over to a stranger? I'm sure I wouldn't have. Which doesn't mean that the experience wouldn't have made me uncomfortable as I looked at myself and considered my values and/or my race-based instincts. After all, I am the Discomfort Czar.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Yin Yang of Pesach

During the Seder, one is instructed to drink four glasses of wine. At the Seders I attend, people rarely comply with the full prescription--perhaps ritualistically pouring a little bit in each time it is instructed but never/rarely drinking to the bottom of the glass. The point, I think, though, is that one should end up tipsy. What other state could one be in after four whole glasses of wine? I am now thinking (just having attended two Seders) that the wine is meant to open the participants up not only to the celebration and the idea of liberation but to a mind-altered state in which one might have a virtual-reality experience of the liberation/exodus. So many parts of the Seder are meant to prod and poke one toward reliving that ancient past--the bitterness of the bitter herbs, the sweetness of liberation, the mortar of the pyramid-building, the saltwater tears, the bread of affliction. It's actually kind of Proustian--the idea or hope that a whole world, a recapturing of lost time, could emerge from a particular scent and taste (in Proust's case, his childhood emerging from the combination of madeleine and lime-flower tea).
     At any rate . . . to the yin yang part of the story. One year, my husband and our friend Deborah and I started a little game at the Seder in which we repeated the following sentence, filling in the blanks in as many ways as possible, with as many potentially merged Seder symbols as possible.
     We drank so much that we couldn't tell the -------- from the --------.
     For example, we drank so much wine that we couldn't tell the bitter from the sweet.
     We drank so much that we couldn't tell Moses from Pharoah.

We drank so much that we couldn't tell wicked from the wise.
We drank so much that we couldn't tell the wine from the water.

We drank so much that we couldn't tell the plagues from the blessings.

And we drank so much that we couldn't tell freedom from slavery.

And that's how it went that year.


Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Learning to Smile

For some reason, while I was working out on the cross-trainer a couple of days ago, I decided that I needed to learn to smile. No, that's not it. I know how to smile. Everyone does. I needed to practice smiling, or get better at it, or do it more often, or do it on command, or make it a more regular part of my facial musculature. In any case, there I was on the cross-trainer, jogging and sweating away and at the same time working on my smile, pushing the corners of those lips and the cheek pillows on top of them upward.
     I found that I couldn't hold it for very long--probably less than a minute. It felt so unnatural, and the whole muscular apparatus began to twitch. I've had that feeling before, especially when posing for photographs, something I'm not very good at, and something I'd like to become better at, which I believe is at the bottom of the project I undertook there on the cross-trainer.
     Not everyone smiles for photos. A character in my novel, who is a photographer, does not ask people to smile for portraits, and she says, "I always wonder who they think they're smiling at." Philip Roth is notoriously glum in his photos. I once read an interview with him, and the caption under the photos was "Why is this man smiling?" which of course, he was not.
 Although, here, I think he was making an attempt.

That's the best some of us can do. But I want to do better, so I'm not only practicing, but I've done some research on the subject. You can find lots of articles on the internet (most of them saying the same thing, and most of them annoyingly not-insightful and yes-cliched while trying to sound so very wise).
     Anyway, there's the whole business of thinking of a very happy time in your life, or something that makes you laugh your head off. There's the whole thing about making sure to involve your eyes, get that crinkle going, to make it authentic. There's a whole thing about how much to show of your teeth (although some concede that you need not show any teeth at all). Most seem to agree that one need not involve the bottom teeth at all.
So now I have a new little project. The weirdest thing is that trembling I feel in the muscles of the cheeks, the way I feel when I'm lifting weights and my arms tremble from the strain. I'm thinking it's a matter then of finding the right groove, building up my strength and endurance, and practice, practice, practice.