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As a Jew and a journalist, questions are a highly significant part of my life. Being Jewish, my life has been spent grappling with questions like why the righteous suffer, why I'm not the boss yet, why I always end up in the wrong checkout lane at the supermarket.
And as a journalist, my career has been spent looking for clever ways to essentially ask the same three questions: Why now? What for? How come?
"The question is the mother of the answer," my favorite journalism professor thundered 22 years ago, in what remains one of the wisest things I remember any of my college professors ever saying.
As a result, an appreciation of questions, and sensitivity about what to ask, has long been ingrained in me - or so I thought.
Well, I was wrong; my understanding of the Question - what to ask, when and how - was not as well developed as I had assumed. That painful self-revelation occurred during a recent trip to the US where, in the most innocent of situations, I found myself asking the most innocuous questions that kept proving inappropriate.
"How's your husband?" I asked the wife of a high-school friend, expecting a perfunctory "Fine, he's doing fine." Instead I was told that he was emotionally crippled by his 10th grade son's decision to move out of the house and run away to the Rocky Mountains.
A COUPLE of days later I ran into the mother of an old acquaintance.
"How's Mike doing?" I asked, expecting to hear that he was a high-powered executive somewhere, happily married with the cutest little kids you ever laid eyes on.
"He got in some trouble and is not well," came the reply. "But we love him all the same."
Then, after that, I met a woman with the same last name as another old friend. Since it was an uncommon name, I asked if she knew my old buddy. When she told me the guy was actually her brother, I felt a thrill, as if I had hit the "Jewish Geography" jackpot.
"Wow, really," I enthused. "Great guy, truly a great guy. I understand he just became a grandfather."
"I wouldn't know," my interlocutor replied. "We haven't talked in 10 years. I have no idea what his kids are doing."
Tail between my legs, I thought back to what my old professor said about the question being the mother of the answer, and wondered how I had managed to sire these illegitimate offspring.
"All I did was ask an innocent question," I later explained to the wife, looking for comfort.
"Learn a lesson," was her sage advice, "there are no innocent questions. Just say 'How ya doin'?' and move on. You never know what sets people off."
SHE WAS right, and I should have known better. I should have shown more delicacy, especially since I remember to this day hating when people asked me certain things.
Each stage of life comes accompanied with its own "dreaded questions." In junior high school I cringed when people asked when I was getting my braces off, because it demonstrated that - unlike what my mother had promised - people did notice.
As a high school lad at around this time of year, I hated being asked what I was doing for New Year's Eve, because "going bowling with Scott Greenberg" didn't exactly live up to my idealized notions of that romantic night.
And as a senior in college, I hated it when decent folk asked what I was going to do after graduation. I didn't know, in fact I didn't have a clue, and every time someone asked it only hammered home how truly clueless I was.
And on it went. I've learned that "When are you getting
married?" is a bad question for the single set, because what if the single set is not getting married?
"Where do you work?" is tricky for strangers, because how about if the person doesn't have a job, or, worse yet, just got fired. Or if it's a stay-at-home mother, offense will be given by this same question - I've learned the hard way - because it implies that staying at home with the kids doesn't really constitute work.
Be careful, as well, about what you ask retirees. My father, who retired 20 years ago, still hates being asked what he does in retirement, because it's bad form to say, "Well, I watch television."
So instead he tells well-meaning folk that he has a fascinating hobby: a seashell collection scattered on beaches around the world that he visits from time to time. "Really, that sounds amazing," one innocent woman replied, not realizing dad was just joking.
AS FOR ME, I'm at that stage of life - braces off, no longer interested in New Year's Eve, having finally figured out what to do after college - where I don't get annoyed anymore when people ask about my job or family status. Rather, I get ticked off when they ask for my zip code.
Overloaded with random numbers - ID numbers, bank account numbers, home phone numbers, cell phone number, a gazillion different computer access codes - I can't, for the life of me, remember my zip code.
The five-digit number means nothing to me, makes no sense, forms no rhythmic pattern that makes it easy to remember. In fact, they only introduced it to my neighborhood a few years ago.
So when I'm asked for my zip code I cringe, and end up detesting the person who had the nerve to ask, because - as in high school - the question spotlights my inadequacies.
Or, as the wife wisely said, "one man's innocent query is another's arrow."