She was seven the first time she asked, “Can I make a survey?” Of course, honey, you can come up with some questions to ask people, and we can print copies that you then alphabetize in three-ring binders. And yes, we can do this again in a couple years and again after that and again the next time you have a new batch of questions to toss out to the world.
When it came time to write her essay for college applications, Allegra didn’t struggle to find a topic: she wrote about her surveys.
Over the years, many of you out there have kindly responded to her questions, and you live in fame in those three-ring binders. A few weeks ago, we were talking about how valuable those responses continue to be — now that some respondents have passed away, yet reading their answers makes it feel like they’re in the room again. Also, we realized that we can’t remember our answers to many of the questions, and it’s only when she pulls out the paper and reads to us that we even know what we once thought.
“You should go back and compile a list of your best questions from all the surveys, Leggy,” I suggested. “We can answer them again and then compare them against what we said years ago.” It took no time at all before she’d done it: Allegra created a Google form of “best hits” from previous survey questions.
If you are someone who has participated in these surveys in the past, and you’d like to answer these questions again, she’d then be happy to send your previous responses to you, for comparison. Or if you are someone who’s new to this whole history of a kid with questions, now grown up, WELCOME. Any chance you’d like to use her questions as a chance to do some year-end reflection and personal writing?
For anyone who is interested, here is the link to the Google form:
Below are my new answers to her “Greatest Hits” questions from previous surveys.
What is your favorite place you have ever been to?
I mean, Lake Superior is not stupid. Nor are the mountains in The West. Allegra, I LOVE THE WEST. But I might, as of this typing, say our 400-year-old Greek house in Ortahisar. It was a weird house, and not really functional in a lot of ways, but it was a space like we’d never experienced before, nor would we again, and it was ours for that seminal year as a family.
Where have you always wanted to visit?
Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Iran, New Zealand, Thailand, Vietnam, Newfoundland, Machu Pichu; I want to go everywhere, really, but especially if there are beautiful outdoor spaces and exciting food. Also: Antarctica.
What is the kindest thing you have ever done for someone?
As I type this, I’m in year 32 of teaching college writing and literature, having just waded through yet another chaotic and stressful end of semester. Every term, I’m surprised all over again at how taxing it is to get to the finish line; every semester, it’s like I’m new here. And maybe that’s because the ways students implode and melt down are always variations on the theme of “Stress.” Just when I think I’ve heard every story of woe and crisis, my Inbox receives a new sad-faced email explaining someone’s anguish, and their anguish is specific to them.
My response is where the kindness comes in: even though I, too, am overwhelmed and hanging on by my fingernails — even though I have 125-150 students all coming at me eleventy ways — I make sure I don’t hit Reply until I’m ready to meet them gently. If my initial reaction is an eye roll or a harsh puff of air out my lips, I keep my hands off the keyboard. The kindest thing I can do in a relationship with an inherent power differential is tamp down or release any annoyed reactions and remember that the student who has written me a plea is struggling.
The way I reply and the extent to which I’m willing to be accommodating not only can defuse their anxiety, it models for them a way to be in the world: if someone is telling you they’re not okay, believe them, and do what you can to help them feel better. This doesn’t mean letting them off the hook, but it does mean making that person feel heard, seen, and affirmed.
Absolutely, I often am beyond exasperated with certain students, and I get peeved and out of sorts with some of them, but even when someone’s driving me wild, I’ve found it’s good to remember they have their reasons, most of them invisible, so I should greet their need with compassion. I do that every single day in my work life, and I’ve done it for decades now, so the kindest thing I’ve ever done for someone is actually ten thousand tiny “Aw, I’m sorry you’re struggling. Can we make a plan to get you through?” moments.
What do you think is the best invention ever and why?
I’m torn between the printing press (mass dissemination of the written word has played a pretty important role in my life) and electricity. In the dark months especially, if I’m out for a walk or parking in the back after nightfall, just the sight of the house all lit up is reassuring in the most comforting way.
What age do you wish to be and why?
43. I felt really strong and sharp, physically and mentally, and I was old enough to have waded through a lot of insecurities and wondering what shape my life would take. I knew the shape of my life, but it still felt rich with possibility and potential.
What makes you feel better when you are having a tough time?
If it’s been grey outside, the moment when sunlight breaks through the dimness is an immediate mood shifter. I might have been feeling down, but light from the sky has a physical effect on my psyche; it uplifts my spirits the second I step out the door. Also, I’ve found that externalizing my feelings is essential to releasing them or finding a way through them. Inside my head, I can go round and round forever, but if I say the things out loud to someone or several people, they lose their power over me. Or at least they become less intense.
Describe one of the best days of your life.
Right after Byron and I got married, before you were born (during the 4.5 months of marriage we had without a kid), we made a thermos of tea and rode our bikes to a big park in Austin where we played bocce. That afternoon, the sunlight slanted at just the right angle, with the perfect amount of warmth. We got married in November, and you were born in March, so was it a rare gorgeous winter day? Memory fails on the details but fully recalls the blissed-out honeymoon of that afternoon — a pause all about “just the two of us” between major life events.
If you could remove one thing from your life, what would it be and why?
I’d remove the two-party system in the U.S. and, thus, the idea held by most of the populace that they have to support either “the party that caters to corporate interests and uses its power to shore up white supremacy” or “the party that caters to corporate interests while making limp motions toward caring about others while actually following the blueprint of the other party, less effectively.” As part and parcel of getting rid of the two-party system, I’d also toss capitalism in favor of socialism.
What has been the hardest decision of your life? Do you think it was the right one?
I won’t use names, but deciding to stop trying with certain friends and family members has been a *process*. Once the decision is made, it’s liberating, but getting there takes years of agony and disappointment.
What have your worked hardest for in your life? Was it worth it?
The application I wrote and submitted to Fulbright in 2017 was a massive undertaking. Previously, even when I first met Byron, I’d applied a few times for Fulbright (when the program available to me was a direct teacher exchange) and never had a placement. Eventually, I stopped applying.
But then, something in me kicked up again in 2017 as I considered an imminent sabbatical opportunity. I wanted an opportunity to teach abroad and to see and do things unimaginable. Once I looked at Fulbright programs and how they’d changed over the years, I realized I could try the Fulbright Scholar program. I tried to be really strategic about looking at what countries would consider an English teacher with a master’s, someone without a research or publication history. That immediately took my options down to two countries, I think.
Once I settled on trying for Belarus, I began attending webinars, taking notes, and doing research as I tried to identify a “need” in Belarus that only I could satisfy. Obviously, making that case was an exercise in b.s., but I managed to come up with b.s. that felt true enough to remain straight faced about. Writing the actual application took maybe 60 hours — this while teaching full-time and having family life in full swing — and then there was the reality that if I managed to land a Fulbright, I’d be going alone. Mostly, that felt okay. I was compelled to try for this thing, I’m independent anyhow, and we’d be all right.
When I got the letter of award, it felt like an amazing affirmation of all that I’d poured into the process, and to be honest, it felt like a nod back to the person I’d been in my youth, when I’d won honors and been marked as an academic achiever. I’m glad I didn’t know then how much more work was ahead of me, in terms of the paperwork, the visas, the preparations, etc.
After all the hard work, I got on the plane and headed to Minsk and one of the best experiences of my life. Still, I cannot believe the beauty of the Belarusian people, the fascination of that post-Soviet culture, and the hospitality that greeted me everywhere. From start to finish, the Fulbright was almost a cliché: I worked really hard, and the payoff was immense.
What would your idea of a perfect day entail?
I’d be on a trip in a different country, well over jet lag, and there’d be good coffee and baked goods near my right hand. You and Paco and Byron would be there, too, and we’d head out on some sort of outdoor adventure — would not be mad at a hike or a kayak — followed by a visit to a place of unusual architecture and history. At the end of the day, we’d get our dinner from a bakery (something bready with cheese on it never sucks), and we’d sit on a wall overlooking the ocean while we ate. There would be no pesky seagulls, but our fingers would get oily, and we’d lick them as the sun set.
What’s something you wish you would’ve learned when you were younger?
I wish I’d been more comfortable when I was young with not everyone liking me. Having everyone’s approbation seemed like the only way I could be sure I had worth. It’s taken my whole life to accept, in my gut, that the way I feel about myself can and should come from me, not from reflections I see in others.
What is your favorite word? Why?
You know we like “ubiquitous.” Also, I suspect my previous survey response might have been “verisimilitude” because that word is such a beautiful mouthful.
However, these days, I am appreciating “No.” Part of capitalism and part of living in any society is the push to do, meet, participate, and show up. Often, when I give over to those pressures, there’s a personal cost. I like to be home. I like to be alone. I love unscheduled hours. I don’t see the value of many things that are labeled “work” or “service” or “tradition.” As we grow up, we’re not told that we can refuse to engage in many of the ubiquitous rituals and obligations that present as verisimilitude but which are, in fact, hollow demands on our energy and time. What a relief it is to choose to say “No.”
What teacher has made the biggest impact on you? Why?
I’m sure I wrote a whole bunch about Mr. Lowell Gorseth, my English teacher junior year of high school, the first time you asked me this question. He was fun and funny — we loved his put-on German accent as we discussed Eugene O’Neill or John Updike — and I credit him with teaching us how to analyze literature and draw from outside sources. More importantly, he made each of us in the room feel like we were something.
My favorite thing was that he had a big recliner in the classroom, and it was my ultimate safe space during those shaky years of confidence. I’d get up really early every morning, like 5:30 a.m. early, and I’d curl my hair and paint on baby blue eyeshadow while listening to Rush on the turntable. After a quick bowl of some not-sugared cereal, I’d drive to the high school, hoping to be the very first student there (out of 1600 students). That way, I’d get the best parking spot, and, crucially, I’d walk through the main entrance of the school before the masses arrived.
This was important because the school entrance had “Jock Rock” running along its side, a kind of stone bench where jocks and sometimes their girlfriends would sit. Any time a girl would walk by, on her way into the building, the boys would rate her on a scale of 1-10. My entire life was built around getting past Jock Rock before any butts landed on it.
ANYHOW, I’d get past the threat of Jock Rock, hit my locker, load up with books for morning classes, and head straight to Mr. Gorseth’s room, where I’d sit in the recliner, do some homework or study, and start my day with a male who was interested in my thoughts, not my waist-to-chest ratio.
What song is a lifetime favorite of yours, and why?
I’m laughing at the first thing that popped to mind because it’s predictably cringe. But it’s true: “Don’t Stop Believin’” by Journey came out when I was in 9th grade, so it was a big hit when I was just the right age to feel like music elevated my life and made me cooler. Decades later, that song went and found new pop culture life from GLEE and then all the other shows and social media moments that have used it. Given that I’ve heard that song probably 5,000 times, I can’t believe how much it still hits, emotionally. Those first notes land, and I want to sing, to dance, to sway around. It’s never not been a feel-good drop of bars.
Do you have a go-to question or story to use when there is a lull in conversation?
Ah, you know I’m full of a million questions and stories, so I can’t say there’s a go-to. I like to adjust depending on the circumstances and vibe. In a pinch, I’d say the “desert island” type questions are always a good way to get someone talking and learn more about them. I used them on Byron the night we met, and that’s how I found out my desert island food (warm bread dropped from a helicopter once a month) dovetailed perfectly with his (cheese). At that moment, I knew I had to partner with this guy so that we could go down in flames together.
Can you identify a turning point in your life? What happened?
When my mom filed for divorce from Dad a few months before their 40th anniversary (and a few months before he died), it shredded me in ways that kept me off balance for years. Mind you, I didn’t and don’t fault her decision to divorce; she had every right to change her life to find happiness. However, she was pretty awful about my dad during the process — because she needed him to be the villain so she didn’t have to, and this did a terrible injustice to a most decent man; the way she handled things not only blew up my nuclear family but also made me rethink everything I’d ever known.
After that wrenching period, I changed quite a lot. As of this typing, the mom I loved when growing up is a distant memory, and damn but it’s weird to have a parent who’s continued to live, who sounds the same, has the same gestures and voice, but who is unrecognizable as someone who used to be one of my favorite people.
The result of losing my mother while she’s still alive has been that my personal boundaries are tighter, I have little patience for those who avoid self honesty and reflection, I am absolutely willing to say no to things that don’t feel authentic, and, on some level, I’ve realized that every relationship I hold dear could be gone tomorrow, so I always need to be sure I’m okay on my own.
What is your favorite sound?
The sound of you humming along to “A Spoonful of Sugar” this morning while you watched MARY POPPINS for the first time at age 22 was pretty sweet. I also really love how low and gentle Byron and Paco’s voices are. Then there’s the sound of the hot oil in the wok when Dad dumps the first bowl of chopped veggies into it when he’s making stir fry. That sound is so full of vigor and promise.
If you could become an expert in a specific area of something, what would it be and why?
I’d like to know more about the evolution of English, especially the ways it’s changing right now. While I know some things from observation or experience, it would be cool to have more of a grounding in what’s changing, why, and what it means for the future of the language. I love that hardcore prescriptivists are obsolete, even as they hang onto grammatical rules until their well-buffed fingernails bleed. Being a know-it-all is never a good look, so if I have to be a know-it-all about something, it would be fun to have that subject be, essentially, how nobody is right, and no one can control a varied, slippery, living thing.
Alternately, I’d like to be a pundit about punk rock. It would be so fun to have an arsenal of stories about Iggy Pop’s pants, Henry Rollins sleeping with a speaker as a pillow, and Glenn Danzig piercing his privates.