Skip to main content

Queries received an intriguing letter from reader Ratzo B. Harris. It’s not really a letter asking for advice – it’s a letter offering advice. And that’s as it should be. I think of this Queries column as a radio talk show in the newspaper. It’s an easy jump for me to make because I practiced/abused talk radio for years at stations from Los Angeles (KABC) to Washington (WRC) to Berlin (Newstalk 93.6)

RBH writes in response to my report of the American tourist yelling to his buddy on a Latin Quarter street in Paris, “So what the fuck’s a fromage, man!” Here’s RBH’s historical context from the perspective of Hoosier musician who’s traveled abroad. “A certain caste of American tourist has a way with non-Americans that stems from their indoctrination into a ruthless Colonial culture that sees indigeneity as something to gawk at, as if in a zoo or a circus sideshow.”

What a succinct summary, RBH. And those animals were out in force last month when I was in Paris, pointing their fingers and their cameras, clambering for the English-language menus, blocking sidewalks as they looked to their phones for directions to the next line at another tourist trap. RBH offers us all this advice: “I think it would be a good move for the institutionally behavioralized to be offered, and possibly required to take, a course designed to indoctrinate them into how to be better visitors. What that would look like is anybody's guess, I guess.”

Perhaps the course – and passing it – could be a requirement for obtaining a passport? It would be the counterpoint to the civics test the U.S. government requires for those who seek to become naturalized citizens. Of course, as you suggest RBH, who writes the syllabus?!

•••

Another question from a student.

Dear Queries,

How do I quiet my mind and carve space out for myself?

Dear Student,

Isn’t that the age-old question: How do I quiet my mind? And yet it intrigues me that you marry it to: How do I carve out space for myself?

For so many people, I believe, it is that space when they are alone, that space for themselves, that frees their minds to be unquiet. And yet where do we find the time – what with jobs and schools and families and etc. – to even experience the alone time anymore.

Scroll to Continue

Recommended Articles

Our lives are so hectic and only made more so by snowballing tech. How can our minds quiet when AI answers our phone calls to the pharmacy and our prescriptions are filled without us ever talking to a fellow human being? How can our minds quiet when our phones ring and the screen warns us of Spam Risk? (Note to Ratzo B. Harris: wouldn’t that be a great band name: Spam Risk?) How can our minds quiet when we’re stuck in traffic on the 10 heading toward the beach and we make the mistake of listening to KNX and the drone of the dismal details of the daily downer?

So here are two suggestions from me, one for each question. And I urge Queries readers to send me their answers to our student’s laments.

To quiet your mind, I recommend an assignment I often give my students. Schedule an hour when you need not be disturbed. Go someplace where you are unlikely to see anyone you know (and if you do see someone you know, excuse yourself and say you’ll be in touch after you complete an exercise). Shut off your phone and any other so-called device. Bring a pad of paper and a pencil or pen. Now, sitting or strolling, spend 20 minutes noting everything you see. Next spend 20 minutes noting everything you hear. Then spend the final 20 minutes noting everything you smell. Describe the sights, sounds and smells in as graphic detail as you can muster. I can’t guarantee it, but I bet your internal monologue will quiet during the hour. It cannot compete with the exercise if you pay rapt attention to the sights, sounds and smells.

Your second question is answered by the same exercise, right? If you make or take assignments such as the see, hear, smell exercise you have – de facto – carved out space for yourself.

Now I turn to you Queries readers (I wonder how many we have at this point, a month into the launch of my advice column?). What advice can you offer our student who wants to quiet her mind and carve out space for herself?

•••

peter laufer banner 2004

It is correspondence such at the notes from Ratzo B. Harris and our student that bring this advice column to life. So I look forward to hearing from you. What advice do you want and/or need? What advice can you offer the rest of us? We are all a font of opinion, ideas and experience. Let’s use Queries to exchange our thoughts and fears, our troubles and successes, our queries and advice.

One other thing occurs to me. Although they weren’t their real names, Ann Landers and Dear Abbey resonated with readers at least in part because they were identifiable people (not to mention sisters): Ann and Abbey. Miss Manners was a person too, even via her Miss Manners stage name. How about Heloise? Or Angie’s List (now just Angie)? So I think I better change the name of this column from Queries to Dear Me. And Dear Peter doesn’t distinguish the column from the rest of my life. I think the best solution is to take a cue from my recent jaunt to Paris. When you write to me, please address me by my Francophone moniker, Pierre. I think it adds some Continental elegance to our Wild West reality (and perhaps a suggestion of Old World gravitas). I like how it looks on the page. So please do write with your queries (and advice) to Dear Pierre. And I, Pierre(!), will do my best to offer appropriate advice and to take your counsel.

•••

Until next column, I remain your faithful correspondent, Pierre

Send your queries to me at Laufer@uoregon.edu.