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  • Writer's pictureGershon Siegel

Don't Ask!

Updated: Sep 16, 2019

I Might Get a Bad Case of Hives…

...the horror!!

How often do you run into an acquaintance wanting to know what you’ve been “doing” lately?

It’s seems an innocent enough question. Yet, when this happens to me, it often feels like I’m on trial, about to be judged. It can make me break out in a cold sweat or even worse.

Years ago at a high school reunion a former classmate asked me that loaded question and the next thing I remembered was waking up in the emergency room with hives all over my body. No wonder I’m not going to my 50th high school reunion this fall.

For those of us already questioning our right to take up space on the planet, “What are you doing?” seems a trick question. In a culture such as ours, just “being” doesn’t quite justify the amount of food, water and air we consume. After all, we’re not pet turtles.

The dreaded “what-are-you-doing-question” gets me ransacking my mental file cabinets. There I’ll scan crumpled lists; duties performed, projects discarded, setbacks endured as well as other assorted debris of life’s vagaries. Why is the inquirer asking? Are they really interested or just making polite conversation? Perhaps they’re looking to critique my sorry excuse of a life?

If I’m feeling secure in the moment without need for validation, perhaps I’ll share some trite incident — the latest movie seen or book read. Sometimes I’ll deflect altogether with a mundane, yet amusing story. Recounting how I handled the scam artist call from “Special IRS Agent Bob Smith,” complete with Nigerian accent, has worked on occasion.

With a new person I might answer, “As little as possible.” Then to put a finer point on it, perhaps I’ll add, “On my tombstone will be engraved, ‘Work was very overrated.’” This wisecrack often fetches something of a giggle, allowing me to hop over the awkward moment without so much as bumping a shin.

Let’s blame my fondness for idleness on a misspent youth watching TV in the 50s and 60s. A significant slice of my world-view comes from situation comedies that most often featured a contented, unemployed head-of-household. On occasion Robert Young carried a briefcase in “Father Knows Best,” but what he did for a living is still a mystery.

And Fred MacMurry, without gainful means, supported not only his three sons, but William Frawley’s “Bub” O’Casey houseboy character as well. And even well before that Frawley had a long-running role as Fred Mertz on “I Love Lucy?” In that role Frawley did nothing but trade insults with his wife, Ethel. And Lucy’s husband, Ricky Ricardo — he was a bandleader in a nightclub! You call that work?

Ozzie Nelson never even bothered to carry a briefcase. Did you ever wonder how Harriet kept her cool while he hung around the house all day? Did we ever see him so much as wash a dish or pick up a sock. All those freeloading TV father figures sent a clear message — unemployment was its own reward.

But it was the “Dick Van Dyke Show” that sold me on the virtue of idleness. Yes, Van Dyke’s Rob Petrie did commute to work in Manhattan. However, his so-called job was writing comedy for a TV show. Even Ricardo’s band-leading gig seemed more strenuous.

One particular Van Dyke episode was central in shaping my work ethic. Mary Tyler Moore’s character, Laura Petrie, had just seen husband Rob out the door as he left for work. The telephone rang, Laura answered and a man with a charming Italian accent said, “Hello.”

Intrigued by the stranger’s voice, Laura nervously replied, “Hello,” back. The anonymous caller then asked seductively, “What are you doing?” Captivated, Laura coos in her patented coquette voice, “Nothing.” The stranger remarks, “Dolce fa niente,” which he then translates as “how sweet to do nothing.”

Thus was planted the “dilly dally” seed deep within the verdant soil of my 13-year-old psyche. Fertilized, as it’s been, by an innate reluctance to learn what doesn’t come easily, that seed germinated and thrived. Now trimmed dense by habitual procrastination, it is a fully matured hedge lining my life’s winding path of least resistance.

In the meantime, when next we happen to meet, let’s stick to talking about the movies or the weather, shall we? We can even discuss the plight of the polar bear or the likelihood of Trump’s impeachment. Or ask me about how I handled Special IRS Agent Bob Smith’s scam phone call — I fake a passable Nigerian accent. But don’t ask what I’ve been doing lately — you might have to call an ambulance when I break out in severe hives.

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