A young woman sat at the end of long wooden community table in the café, which was empty except for her. Sunlight poured through the large window behind her, spilling over the thick text book splayed open in front of her. From where I sat, I could see the pages divided with the hieroglyphics of math equations on the top and big expanses of blank real estate underneath. The woman had in earbuds. Her palm was pressed to her forehead as if she were trying to keep the contents of her mind from leaking out. Despite the book’s best intentions to provide a space for you to “show your work,” or as I always thought of it “a great place to doodle obscene words and pictures,” the woman was writing in a small teal notebook. Some time passed when I happened to glance over at her again and saw she had put her head down on the table, eyes closed in concentration, frustration, or utter defeat—it was impossible to tell. I know which two would describe me if I were forced to wrangle with inscrutable and utterly useless math. The scene struck me as a postmodern Norman Rockwell canvas titled National Mood. I was tempted to ask the girl, “Are you alright?”
There’s a Lucinda Williams song of the same title, Are You Alright? She wrote it with her estranged brother in mind, trying to reach out to him through the lyrics with the simplest, most basic of wonderings about his life: “Are you sleeping through the night?/Do you have someone to hold you tight?/ Is there something bothering you? Are you alright?” This seems like a question worth asking at any moment, but in these trying, dark, catastrophic, baffling, dispiriting, rage-stroke-inducing no-good-very-bad-times it seems pretty elemental. Yet it barely makes the cut. Questions we have gotten very good at asking include: How could he or she do or say or think or allow this latest horrible thing to happen; how much lower can he or she or they sink (let’s strike that one from the record. It’s become far too rhetorical); and what is wrong with him or her or you? And then there are also a host of creative and spirited interrogatives involving fornication with oneself or one’s relatives or with various inanimate objects. Perhaps actually checking in on one another is a scoop more productive than screeching at each other across parking lots or the canyon of the Internet like Howler monkeys. It’s certainly more brave. Are you alright?
There’s a rule they teach you in improv theatre—a form of performance where there are no scripts, only you and your scary brain making it up as you go along (terrifying)–about questions. When you’re building a scene with other players, questions are generally viewed as things to avoid like potholes and gas station sushi. They drag down the momentum of the scene, they stall action, they burden the performers with having to work really hard to provide information; questions are the shortest route between no laughs and an audience wishing it were attending a sleep study:
Peep 1: Why is this lamp in the middle of the room?
Peep 2: That’s where the movers left it.
Peep 1: Why didn’t you tell them to put it in the bedroom?
Peep 2: I don’t know. I forgot?
Peep 1: What do you mean by that? How could you forget? Why don’t you ever listen to me?
Audience members silently, collectively will a plague of locusts to descend upon the theatre and save them from this ordeal that all too realistically resembles a conversation they had with someone just hours before the show.
Instead, instructors teach you to use questions judiciously. It’s worth tapping the breaks on a scene with a question if it means that it could reveal something interesting, shocking, quirky, or important that enriches the story. Could be worth giving it a try in life on the streets. Call a kind of verbal time out the way you did as a kid playing ball or hockey in the street and had to halt the action whenever a car passed through. Are you alright?
Right now, yelling has become a national sport. It’s the new baseball. We like yelling. We practice this enthusiastically any time, any place—a grocery store, a subway train, a parent teacher conference, the dentist’s office. Heckle Nation is busily getting stitched on sweatshirts, hats, and on the bottom of city seals all over America. We bellow, therefore we are. I’m not saying it doesn’t feel satisfying to let our barbaric yawps fly, to blast someone in the face with a Phil Spector wall of our own sound. It’s fulfilling in the same way that brownie sundaes for breakfast are fulfilling: they go down easy, but they stick to your gut like wallpaper paste. Taking time to engage (are you alright?), to offer people the space and dignity to respond, and then to listen, to actually hear, what they have to say with something that looks like an open mind, something that feels like a soft heart—that’s fortifying, that’s the nourishment we’re missing so badly from our social diets, but we could just as easily add it, a pinch here, a handful there, every single day.
The young woman gathered up her items and left before I had a chance to talk to her. I hope she aced her calculus homework or pulled a Good Will Hunting and cruised into her MIT lab to solve the epic equation on the whiteboard. I hope she took it easy on herself for the remainder of that day. I hope she’s alright.