Curiosity could have killed the cat. But it saved me.
At least that’s how I tell my life story. Curiosity saved me from my poor, pathetic, introverted self. As a teenager, I discovered journalism that freed me from my teenage fear and took me into the Kodachrome excitement of the big, wide world.
All of my problems went away when I was submitting stories under deadline. The clock ticked, the computer keys clattered, and the who-what-where-when-why-and-how took over. In one of those random ironies in life, I had to lose myself to find my true self.
Yet there is a difference between questions that follow the noble calling of journalism and plain old curiosity. I am offering my younger self as exhibit A of the latter.
As a small child I once asked my aunt Delly why she never married.
My mother glared at me as if she wanted to turn my neck. “That’s not a polite question.”
Aunt Delly waved her off, however. “No, it’s good,” she said. “The right person just never came.”
Aha! So the two key women in my life had different views on what constituted appropriate behavior. My young mind divided the world into two camps: the cautious Team Mom and the brave Team Aunt Delly. I liked the latter better.
In the course of time my black and white view of the world gave way to gray tones. I saw the downside of curiosity about being overwhelmed. Once I made the mistake of asking a woman behind a shop counter: “Are you pregnant?”
Her eyes shot daggers at me. “No I’m not.”
From embarrassment, I turned 17 shades of red and tried to blame her clothes for it. “It’s just your blouse,” I stammered.
Lesson learned: never ask a woman if she is pregnant.
Nor is it particularly wise to expect everyone to be as open-minded as Aunt Delly. Before my late husband, Fred, developed a cruel degenerative disease, I thought I would have no problem answering questions about his health. Not only that, I would have sided with the well-wishers who asked me questions because they cared about it.
Once in the situation, however, I reacted differently. As soon as I got out of my house, I wanted to leave my worries behind. My gymnastics classes at Y provided a much-needed escape.
“That’s why people should bite their tongues,” I heard mom’s voice in my head.
“But they only ask because they are interested.” I didn’t want to be one of those stiff, uptight, prickly guys on Team Mom.
“If they really cared, they’d wait for you to tell.”
Yup. This time I had to go with Team Mom.
After my own experiences as a mother, I expected that my journalism training would be useful to me. I thought my exploratory spirit would lead to openness and connectedness. Boy was I wrong!
When my son Rio was a teenager, he cleaned me up.
“Mom,” he said with a maturity well beyond his years. “I would talk to you more if you asked me fewer questions.”
From that day on, I’ve tried to control my curiosity, as easily as stuffing an elephant into a monkey suit. I work hard to navigate the difficult line between “researchers want to know” and “mind your own beeswax”.
So instead of asking my kids about their love life, I could say something like, “Have you seen anything good on TV lately?” It’s a clear featherless winner that has given me a number of high-street shows to help me get through the pandemic.
I also reached out to Google for help finding Curiosity. For example, I learned that Queen Victoria warned her granddaughter not to find out the reason for anything and said it would only make her unhappy. I also discovered that the phrase “curiosity killed the cat” with the response “but satisfaction brought it back” was a reference to the cat’s infamous nine lives.
Sometimes I also have the feeling that I have nine lives. Every wake-up call seems like a new passage, which is why I may love the new feel-good TV show “Ted Lasso”.
In a memorable scene from the series, the title character describes an eye-opening moment when he saw a quote from Walt Whitman that said, “Be curious, not judgmental.” He uses the line to put the arrogant ex-husband of his boss in his place.
Even if Walt Whitman never uttered the words ascribed to him, I still take them as my new favorite quote. “Curiosity killed the cat” never worked for me.
Joan Axelrod-Contrada is a writer and lives in Florence. She writes a monthly column for Gazette Only Human, which appears on the second Friday of the month. You. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org.