How should I feel?

Bring your mental and emotional uncertainties to Salon's newest advice columnist, Dr. McFeely. Your dull, confused interior life will glow like new!

Published July 12, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

It's all uncertain. The world keeps getting bigger and more elaborate and we're lost. We hear ourselves at the dinner table and think, "What?" We leave smoky parties after irregular gestures, asking, "What was that?" Our scientists and historians understand more than ever before, and yet things have never been more ambiguous. We don't know what to feel.

Advice is ubiquitous but thin. What's missing is clarity. What should we feel while we're doing? Are we to enjoy the sound of the train when it enters the station? Should we regret the milk spilled if it landed funnily on the dog? What to make of the way white jazz musicians dress these days?

Salon is pleased to introduce the certainty of Dr. McFeely. Unlike the world's Dear Abbys, Dr. McFeely explains how to feel, not what to do. He is unencumbered by doubt. Picture a building emerging in the fog, a lighthouse clarifying itself on the rocky point. Dr. McFeely has been to many places. He has spoken with some of the finest minds available. His mansion is probably covered with books. He does not offer instructions. He has a medium amount of time. Most of all, he knows how you should feel.

See for yourself: Write to Dr. McFeely day or night. If your question or conundrum is suitable, it will be printed and resolved in his next column. Should you already know how to feel, feel free to observe as others learn.

Dear Dr. McFeely,

People think I'm cruel because I frown at babies. But I have a reason, and really, my heart's in the right place. My job is to expose babies to complexity, to show them a roomful of different faces, not just grinning ones. One day, as a result, the baby will be an adult with a more textured sense of what things are like. I, however, am not this kind of adult, and last week at a seafood restaurant in Chicago, I folded under the pressure. The 6-month-old in the cloth diapers saw all 20 of my pearly choppers. How should I feel?


Dear Unclear,

Chicago is an interesting city. Even more interesting is Gibsonton, Fla., which was settled by ex-freak show freaks over 50 years ago. The mechanic was the sideshow fat man and the second deputy of police was a dwarf. If you wanted bait and tackle, you went to Giant's Camp, etc.

You should feel like this is America, and you can frown wherever you like. Don't feel it in an indignant way, because that leads to grouchiness. Feel it with enthusiasm, like you've just heard "The Star-Spangled Banner" or have just settled your own town, where Mildred the alligator woman gets to read the paper in peace.

Dear Dr. McFeely,

My wife says I'm handsome. However, I'm actually ugly. How should I feel?


Dear Ambivalent,

You should feel concerned that one day your wife will stop feeling this way. It would be strange and unconvincing to feel otherwise. But you shouldn't feel too concerned, because even if she does, it sounds like she really likes you. And on the day she starts finding you ugly but still loves you, you can let your dirty fingernails grow wild and stand around with your mouth open. Just make sure you keep being kind or gruff or whatever it is that she's into. Also, make her thoughtful crafts, and not just with construction paper and Magic Markers.

Dear Dr. McFeely,

When the plane started dipping and rattling, I convinced myself it was OK to die. I thought about my life and decided that it was full and satisfying. I would experience a terrifying last two minutes, yes, but before that were years of happiness. I unclenched my fists and let myself be calm about whatever happened next.

But the turbulence passed and we landed safely at JFK. Later that day, people on the street looked gray and I ate the most tasteless Reuben I've ever held. I went to a movie that evening and didn't care even when the terrorist pointed a huge gun at the protagonist. When I fell asleep that night, it was like eating lukewarm Wonder Bread. Ever since not dying, things have been bland. How should I feel?


Dear Blah,

You should feel pleased that you feel spiritless and indolent, as these are the appropriate responses. In the movie version, you land safely, kiss the ground and with virility tell your bewildered loved ones that you will now live life to the fullest. But in truth you're simply not dead, which is exactly how you were before the flight to JFK. In addition to pleased, you should feel tired and slightly bored. This will last for two days, and then you'll forget about the plane thing and go back to your normal routine, which might also have been bland but not self-consciously so.

Dear Dr. McFeely,

This girl in a long leather coat stared at me. I wrote my number and a clever note on a receipt. When I handed it to her at the cafe, she shook her head like a horse and walked off. I saw her a week later in the same coat reading Latin. I just stood there. HSIF?

Unclearly Moved

Dear Unclearly Moved,

Leather coat? You should feel that feeling you get when the best part of the opera is coming up. It's excitement but also nervousness, because maybe someone will talk right when it happens, and you'll be forced to realize they don't understand anything at all. But then you remember you're not as young as you used to be, and await the moment in the song more comfortably. When it does come, people probably end up remaining quiet, and you find yourself surprisingly disappointed with your response to the music. You'd thought the voices did something more moving. But then later everybody drives out to barbecue. People are still having fun at 10 p.m. and everyone stares into the fire.

Dear Dr. McFeely,

He says patronizing things about homeless people, but I'm sure this sweet, simple man would do anything to help. How should I feel?


Dear Perplexed,

Napoleon was visited by ailurophobia, the fear of cats. It is unclear how this affected his life, but for the occasions where cats were present. Maybe sometimes he'd be walking by some trees and would get shifty. Mainly he was short and orotund, and these made a bigger impression.

When your friend sees the man with the misspelled spare change sign and says, "It's so Americana," you should feel irrationally annoyed. You should think about other annoying things he does -- something with his hands maybe? -- and then parse his childhood. Did this sweet man grow up sheltered, you'll ask yourself. Then you'll feel petty and soon something will snap your attention to things less abstract, like a cat on a tree branch. You should feel cautious around this cat.

Dear Dr. McFeely,

At night I sit up in bed and stare. There are nasturtiums out the window, plus tall ginger plants and an azalea. They look like ghosts. HSIF?

Ghost Observer

Dear Ghost Observer,

You'll read that Paul Theroux book about V.S. Naipaul. You feel that Theroux is boring and stiff but this time it's different. When you get to the part where Naipaul talks about calypso music, you'll feel curious and anticipatory, because maybe you'll go buy a calypso record of your own. And the ghosts? You should feel like they've been dancing to island music for years.

Dr. McFeely always thinks nasturtiums can be trained to grow up a wire he has tied to the side of his porch. But the plants just fall off the wire and end up creeping along the dirt. You should feel like you might have an idea for getting them off the ground.

By Chris Colin

Chris Colin is the author most recently of "Blindsight," published by the Atavist.

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