Before I go, I have something to say

The Proust Questionnaire

Sometimes, a writer gets tired. Sometimes, a writer needs a crutch. I’m feeling a little lame this week, so the crutch I’m going to use is a questionnaire. Dating from the late 19th century, the quiz that came to be known as the Proust Questionnaire appears near the end of every issue of Vanity Fair magazine. By asking the same questions of people ranging from Dolly Parton to Louis C.K., we learn something about each person’s sense of humor, philosophy of life, and most valued qualities. So, I figured, why not? Here are my answers, some more thoughtful than others.

What is your idea of perfect happiness? Any moment, short or long, of peace, whether physical or emotional. Then again, I like to be completely focused on satisfying work, which brings its own form of peace.

Which living person do you most admire? Nicolas Kristof, for venturing into the most crisis-ridden parts of the world for the New York Times and sending back urgent reports. He doesn’t leave us wringing our hands helplessly, but provides solid suggestions for ways in which we ordinary people can make things better for those needing help.

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself? My tendency to whine. (Ouch! My head!)

What is the trait you most deplore in others? Too much attention to how people look, not enough to how they feel and act.

What is your gravest extravagance? Cookbooks. For me, they are so much more like literature and travel memoirs than simple instructions for making chop suey.

What is your favorite journey? Traveling anywhere with my husband to a place where we can read, write, talk, listen, look for birds, and walk through woods or near water, and just be.

What do you consider the most overrated virtue? Patience. If something needs to be done, why not do it Right. This. Minute?

On what occasion do you lie? To save another’s feelings. They’re called “little white lies” not because they whitewash the truth, but because white is the color of peace.

What do you dislike most about your appearance? If I tell you, you’ll just notice! No woman in her right mind would point out her failings, on the off chance that she’d successfully hidden them. Let me think I got away with it.

Which living person do you most despise? Whichever person is currently recruiting young people to give up on life and become a terrorist. Also, Bashar al-Assad. Time to give up, buddy.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse? That would have to be “really.” Also “wonderful.” For a poet, my bag of superlatives is not really wonderful.

What is your greatest regret? That I didn’t leave my violent first husband sooner, and, after I finally did, that I didn’t protect my daughter and son from his continuing verbal and emotional abuse more fiercely. But hindsight is 20-20, and you know what? The kids are just fine.

What or who is the greatest love of your life? My children have to come first, but my current husband comes close after, and the fact that he understands this is one reason I love him so much.

When and where were you happiest? As a child: half-asleep in bed, listening to my dad shovel snow. As an adult: waking up to birdsong in a rented cottage in northern Wisconsin. (Honeymooning in Venice was breathtaking, but too amazing an experience to call “happy.”)

Which talent would you most like to have? Singing beautifully. I could accompany my musician husband, and I wouldn’t feel so incompetent during hymn-singing time in church.

What is your current state of mind? Frazzled –  by holidays and a daughter’s move. That’s why you’re getting this list instead of a well-crafted essay. I hope my answers, at least, are well-crafted.

What do you consider your greatest achievement? Aside from raising my really wonderful children, earning my Masters in Fine Arts in poetry writing. Even if I never get a book published, it was a dream come true to do this work and to do it with a group of fellow students and faculty to whom the written word is sacred (and sometimes profane, in a laugh-out-loud way.)

If you were to die and come back as a person or thing, what do you think it would be? A slim book of very good poetry that never goes out of print? Wait, that’s what I hope it would be. I have no idea how I might actually reappear. A lightning bug? The Northern Lights? A soft reading lamp? Light is good, and I certainly hope to come back as something good.

Where would you like to live? In the Midwest, as long as we could go to the Southwest for a few months every January and February. I’ve put in my time with snow and sub-zero temps. Enough – and I mean this – is enough.

What is your favorite occupation? Paid: medical librarian. Not-paid-well: poet.

What is your most marked characteristic? Someone once called me a serious person with a great sense of humor. I’ll take that.

What is the quality you most like in a man? That he “get” me. This will make my husband laugh, but that’s because he will get it.

What is the quality you most like in a woman? I love it when a woman confides in me, and listens well when I confide in her. So I guess that translates as trust.

What do you most value in your friends? Both unconditional support and honest criticism, sort of like the way a good editor operates.

Who is your favorite hero(ine) of fiction? Either Franny or Buddy, of J.D. Salinger’s Glass family. After reading Franny and Zooey the first of many times, I wanted to be Franny, with Buddy as my older brother. But my favorite book of the 21st century (not that you asked) is Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, and Clare is probably going to be my new favorite for a good long time.

Who are your heroes in real life? All the women in third-world countries who have started their own businesses through the generosity of microloans from organizations like or They are so strong.

What are your favorite names? Iona, Ethel, Dacil, and Clayton. My mom’s parents gave their kids such lovely, old-fashioned names.

What is it that you most dislike? Any kind of violence or abuse by any person against any other living thing (whether that be a person, an animal, or the Earth), under the delusion that it’s the only solution to their problems.

How would you like to die? In my bed, in the middle of one of those dreams where I’m inside one of my former houses and suddenly come upon a whole new floor I hadn’t known was there. To have that feeling of life opening up just as I’m leaving would be a great comfort, I think.

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