I’m not going to ask any awkward questions. I may describe a few, perhaps walk timidly around a few, but flat-out asking is not on the menu today. The truth is that any question is potentially awkward, with a host of variables determining the amount of searing heat that arrives in having it addressed.
You have been skiing, let’s say, and arrive at work on Monday, slightly wind burned, stopping at the Keurig K575 for a restorative Americano when a colleague asks, “I tried to call you yesterday. Where were you?” No problem, easy enough, chat for a bit and back into the day. If, on the other hand, you snuck out of town to hook up with an old flame and your current inamorato/a asks the exact same question, the throat thickens, mouth dries, arms cross, the nape of the neck reddens, starts to burn, you do that touch the nose thing now commonly understood to be the preface to a lie, and resort to the hemahemahema burble that signals total meltdown.
None of us leap into life with a set of instructions, but we learn pretty early on that some questions are acceptable, perhaps even expected, and other absolutely taboo. The thing about taboos is that they have the force of law, punishment by exile, and yet, they are never spoken. There are tons of behaviors we might consider unsavory or unfortunate, kidnapping, say, or murder, but it would be only mildly awkward to ask a friend if anyone in his/her family had ever been kidnapped or murdered. Ask the same friend if anyone in the family had been a cannibal, and the stakes get much higher.
Cultures differ in what they consider taboo, but no matter where we find ourselves, some subjects will simply never come up in conversation with anyone but a therapist, an attorney, or a judge. Those steeped in the wizarding world know, for example, that speaking the name of
Voldemort He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named is a cultural taboo broken only by wizards determined to face and defeat the Dread Lord. So, taboos can change over time, as we have seen as words once considered unspeakable are now spoken with stunning regularity, at full volume, on television, while others, once distasteful but widely used, have become imbued with such danger to the culture that they can only be mentioned as the _ word if mentioned at all.
Some questions are discouraged in most settings, not taboo but not polite. It’s pretty clear that we are not invited to ask folks how much money they make, although, in the case of celebrities and billionaires, apparently it is OK. I’m not sure how I’d respond if a billionaire asked me how much I have tucked away, feels a little awkward. Then, of course, there are the dozens of questions concerning the most intimate details of one’s personal life that are absolutely out-of-bounds, except that I am confronted with most of them as I wait to check out at the supermarket. Even when not framed as questions, questions are implied.
So, I push my cart to my place in line behind a gaggle of twenty-somethings stocking up on strawberries and quarts of rum, locked in ferocious debate over the number of bottles needed. I’m trapped between In Touch, Star, People, and US; so far just mildly disturbing. Life Style? Ouch! Kim Kardashian announces, “I have Cellulite. So What?”
Not looking, turning, turning, maybe National Geographic, Rolling Stone, Tribute to Elvis, but no.
Every cover offers timely caution or advice. Sure, it’s just advice, but doesn’t the need for advice come from failure, frailty, frustration? And isn’t the supposition that all that disappointment documents partners who have been … inadequate? I’ve yet to see a Cosmo cover trumpet, “Congrats! You’ve got a great thing going!” “Hey, you’ve never been more fulfilled!” No, stuck in line, I have to consider the universe of questions that arise from this month’s cover question: “What to do when your guy gets all quiet.”
I have no idea what the problem is or might be; I don’t want to know. And yet, the mind races. Isn’t the purported advice essentially asking if your guy gets quiet? Whenever. And what you/he/we need to do about that? If it’s a problem. Which it must be, or nobody would need the advice.
Back again in a month’s time. I’m in the Express Line behind the person stocking up on cat food, fifty cans, with coupons, that have expired. Two cover stories shout from In Touch this week. Kardashians spill their guts for a change. “Sisters in Crisis: All Three Humiliated By Their Men”. A smaller photo, a detail shot of a woman’s legs asks the provocative question, “Guess Who? Cellulite at 22.” Still ok. Rhymes, could stay in my head, but ok. Cat food dropped can-by-can in shopping bag. Cashier loses count. Starting over.
Cosmopolitan – Hmmm. Apparently Hillary Duff is back. I won’t ask, I won’t. From where? And then, down to business.
“The Number One Thing Men Are Good For… Besides … You Know!”
Wait. What? There’s a numbered list of things men are good for? Rank ordered? Aren’t they obvious? You know, loving partnership, support, friendship, close conversation, company at end-of-life. That stuff? Is any one of those clearly ahead of any other? Somehow I think I’m on the wrong track again.
Oscar Wilde observed that, “questions are never indiscreet, answers sometimes are.” That’s the nub of the matter, really; once you know, you can’t unknow. A few years ago I happened to stumble on a website that presented the salaries earned by my colleagues. I should have applied my Cosmo defense. Not looking, turning away, closing the page.
I didn’t, and from that point on, I couldn’t see those colleagues as I had before taking a bite of the apple; at times, an answer carries a heavy price. I’m not generally inclined to quote Scripture, but it’s worth considering that the enduring account of how we fell from innocence suggests that what seemed a simple question, “What happens if we eat this?” had far-reaching consequence.
So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubim, and a flaming sword …”
Side note: You really don’t want to cross Cherubim. These are not pudgy kiddies with wings but supernatural creatures something like a Sphinx but with four faces (man, ox, lion, eagle), capable of bursting into flame and striking with the force and speed of lightning.