“To become different from what we are…

…we must have some awareness of what we are.”
Eric Hoffer

True words, those.

We have come to the end of the Proust Questionnaire series, although there certainly are more questions to be answered. I took mine from the online version done by Vanity Fair, but if you Google the PQ, you’ll see a lot of other questions, including the ones that Proust actually answered. Such as:

  • Your favorite names
  • Your favorite heroes in fiction
  • Your favorite occupation
  • Your heroines in world history

And so on.

These are all great questions, but the kind that don’t come up much after, say, college. Once you’re mired in the world of bill-paying, pleasing your bosses, and just praying that your body doesn’t decide to up and quit on you, the existential kind of falls by the wayside. And that’s without even talking about having kids, a responsibility I’m pretty sure I will never shoulder.

The task of just getting through life is what takes up our attention, and we replace our own understanding of who we are with a placeholder, a desktop icon that just reads “I”, without thinking much about what “I” means. But just like the “My Computer” icon on your desktop isn’t actually your computer, this placeholder-self isn’t actually you. From time to time you have to open it up and take a look inside to see what’s there, before the whole thing crashes and you’re left with a philosophical Blue Screen of Death and the horrifying prospect of rebuilding everything from scratch.

Okay, enough metaphors. Let’s get this done. To the end!!

Nosce te Ipsum

Welcome to the third installment of my answers to the Proust Questionnaire, as found over at Vanity Fair. You can answer it for yourself, and they will come up with a hilariously inaccurate celebrity match for you. Enjoy that.

There are bits and pieces where this feels awfully self-indulgent, especially the ones where I get to dig up the more unpleasant parts of my self-image. I know the internet is supposed to be that place where you kind of let loose and just vomit out all your deepest and darkest thoughts [1], but it’s something I try to avoid when I can. Perhaps it’s my New England upbringing, that idea that you shouldn’t talk too much about yourself, or maybe it’s just that I can’t imagine anyone wanting to look at my naked brain.

This section doesn’t have quite as much of that in it, though. So we can all be thankful.

11. If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I would like to remember how to make friends.

As I mentioned back on Day One, I have come to suspect that I’m not actually a friendly person. I think I’m polite, kind, supportive, even funny. I can be nice, helpful, I can teach without being condescending, and I can listen to what people have to say.

Lost somewhere in all that, though, is the kind of openness and willingness to make a genuine connection with others that would best be described as “friendly.” I hold myself back. I keep a certain measured distance between me and other people, and I’m really not sure why.

Tell me about this "friendship" thing you speak of...

I figure I must have been able to do this at some point – after all, I do have friends. And I’m talking real-people friends, not just names on a Facebook list. Barring catastrophic betrayal or the triumph of apathy, we’ll probably be friends for quite some time. But whatever talent it was that I had back in the day seems to have dimmed.

Maybe it’s the situation that I’m in now. My Japanese abilities are limited, so making friends with Japanese people is a whole lot more work for everyone involved than it might be back in the States. I can’t imagine anyone putting up with it long enough for us to get to the point where we can call ourselves “friends.” And what’s holding me back from my English-speaking compatriots? I don’t know. Maybe it’s not an ability that can be parceled out like that, where I can be friendly with one group but not with another. Maybe it’s because relationships here can be transitory and fleeting – just when you get to know someone, they jet back to their home country again. Maybe I’ve become a suspicious bastard who doesn’t trust people enough to believe that their intentions are good, that this friendship is going to be an investment with a good return.

I get jealous of people who have a lot of friends, really. People who have a Group that they can go out with. My colleagues, especially the younger ones, hang out a lot outside of work hours, and sometimes I wish I was willing to make that kind of commitment to other people. Whatever it is, I’ve found in the last decade or so that I’ve really narrowed my relationships down to a near-singularity that includes The Boyfriend and me, and that’s it. And even he thinks I should go out and make more friends.

12. If you could change one thing about your family, what would it be?
I wish we hadn’t moved as many times as we did.

On the upside, I'm damn good at packing up a home.

Sometimes I think that my failure to connect well with others has its roots in the involuntary peregrinations of my youth, but again – I do have friends, so I don’t think I can really blame my parents for this one. [2] Having said that, though, I do wish we hadn’t moved as much as we did. I wonder, sometimes, what would have been if we had stayed in one place until I went to college. Would I have had childhood friends of the kind you see in your better class of Stephen King novels? Would I have developed that sense of community that comes with having grown up in a place all your life? What would it be like to have a childhood with continuity, where you could know that the house you lived in would be the only home you know? Where the only time you moved was when you took your place in the world of adults?

I really have no idea, and it’s an entertaining hypothetical at best. There’s no guarantee that having lived in one place all my life would have been any better for me than having moved a lot. After all, I was born in Houston, TX, so it’s entirely possible that I’d be a twang-talkin’ evangelical Christian who was active in his local Megachurch by day and fervently praying to Jesus to take the gay away by night. Hell, I might even have willingly voted for Dubya. Twice.


13. What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Setting up a successful (so far) life in Japan.

Plum blossoms always look good.

This was something I never never would have expected. If you had told me, back when I was slogging through Beanie Babies after college, that I would be teaching in a private high school in Japan, I would have laughed right in your face. This was something that I did because it seemed like a good idea at the time, and never really thought that it was something that would last a long time. Maybe stay for a year or two, then come back and do… something. It wasn’t like I was overburdened with career choices before I came here, which may be one of the reasons I’ve stayed for so long.

One year turned into two, which turned into… many. And the thing of it is that I’ve made a pretty good life for myself here. Can it bear some improvement? Absolutely – see number 11 above. But I live in a great place, I have a job that I really enjoy, and The Boyfriend and I have been together for quite a long time now. Things are comfortable, things are good. And before I came here, I never really expected that to happen in my lifetime, in Japan or anywhere else.

14. If you died and came back as a person or thing, what do you think it would be?
A raven.

C’mon, ravens are awesome. They’re near chimp-level intelligent, if not better. They can work out puzzles, work in teams, and plan ahead. They are ancient harbingers of war and death, but also agents of thought and memory. They can live anywhere and eat anything, and if you piss them off, they’ll remember you forever.

Plus, I look good in black.

15. What is your most treasured possession?
My Waterman fountain pen.

This has become a surprisingly popular photo on Flickr.

This was a gift from The Boyfriend quite a few birthdays ago. I was looking for a nice fountain pen, and I saw a green Waterman that I really liked. The price was a bit more than he was looking to spend on a present, so I said I’d cover the extra but it would still count as a present from him.

It really is lovely, too. The green enamel is starting to flake a bit, showing gold underneath, but it writes like a charm and never fails to get compliments. It’s really a pity I don’t like writing stories longhand. It would be an excellent tool for that purpose, I think.


[1] Though that would technically be LiveJournal. WordPress tries to be a bit more upbeat from what I understand, and I’m not exactly boosting the curve there.
[2] Don’t worry, Mom and Dad – I’ll find something to blame on you eventually. There’s a shrink somewhere who needs a yacht.

I know I am, but what are you?

Well, yesterday’s unloading was an interesting experience. While I wish I could say that I feel unburdened or uplifted or something, I haven’t felt much different for having posted all of that, probably because so much of it has been circling around in my head for so long that it just feels like talking to myself some more.

Anyway, here’s what I’ve got for questions 6-10 from the Vanity Fair version of the Proust Questionnaire.

6. What is the trait you most deplore in others?
The unwillingness to empathize.

There is a wonderful quote I’ve seen passed around, and it is of uncertain provenance. Some people attribute it to Plato or to Philo of Alexandria, but the most probable source is a guy named John Watson, who wrote under the pen name of Ian MacLaren.

Yeah, I don’t know who that is either.

Whoever wrote it, it’s a phrase that really resonates with me:

by Simon Walker, via Flickr

Human beings are not telepathic, no matter how much we wish we could be. We all live inside our own heads, acting out dramas that no one else is aware exist, and to each and every one of us, what happens to us is of paramount importance. You may be a cancer sufferer who just got released from twenty years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of murdering your own wife, but that still won’t trump the fact that I missed the train this morning and had to stand while a bunch of elementary school kids punched each other and screamed for the whole forty-minute ride.

It’s not that I don’t think your pain is significant – it most certainly is – but I may not know it’s there. And even if I do, I have absolutely no point of reference to begin to understand how you feel, so comparing your pain to mine is pointless. Mine will win because, well, it’s mine.

Now this is the point where the sociopaths among you are saying, “I know, right?” Well calm down before you get all excited.

The mark of being an emotionally functional human being is that once you have that moment where you say, “I value my pain over the pain of others,” you then go on to the next step, which is to say, “But I’m going to act like that isn’t true, because that would make me a dick.” And that’s what we do. We hear another person’s story and say, “Wow, it would be really inappropriate and belittling to complain to this Iraq war vet with PTSD about how the barista at Starbucks never leaves enough room for milk when I buy coffee.”

And you shut. The hell. Up. Because while you cannot truly know what the other person is going through, you can know that it’s bigger than what you have going on. The real kicker is that, for any given person you meet, there’s no guarantee you will ever know what kind of pain they’re going through or what burdens they bear. No one is obligated to reveal that kind of information, and there’s no guarantee you could understand it if they did.

So I guess my point is this: you’ve gotta try and empathize with people, no matter how much you may dislike them or disagree with them. You don’t know the whole story, or what battles they’re fighting, so you’re not in a great position to pass judgement.

But there are people who actively refuse to do this. I had a colleague once who lived by the saying, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” She met someone, judged them, and then that was that. Changing her mind was like shifting the Empire State Building with a series of precisely timed farts. I found that to be not only immensely uncompassionate, but thoroughly dismissive of the nature of the human condition.

There is a converse as well, which I phrase as follows:

Apologies to Mr. Walker. This one's mine.

I had some students last year who were on the American football team, and it was the center of their lives. There wasn’t a single activity or assignment that they couldn’t somehow manage to slip football into.

Now as you may know, I couldn’t care less about sports, and I mean that exactly as it is written. I don’t hate sports, because to hate a thing you have to care about it. If all athletics vanished from the world tomorrow, I probably wouldn’t notice it until the whole city of Boston up and killed itself.

So when one of these boys comes up to me the other day and says that he’d gotten to start in last weekend’s game and that they’d won, do I say, “I’m sorry, and I should care… why?” No, of course not. I congratulate him and shake his hand, not because I care but because he does. This is his victory – meaningless to me, but the world to him, and if our situations were reversed, I would hope to get the same in return.

Being unwilling to imagine the world from another’s point of view, to admit that your perspective on the world is not absolute, is basically shouting a big “Fuck You” to your fellow human beings. You don’t have to approve of everything someone does, or condone every behavior or belief, but you owe it to people to at least try and understand.

7. What is your greatest extravagance?
Comic books.

Calling it an “extravagance” makes it sound like I’m somehow neglecting other, more important financial responsibilities. And who knows, maybe I am. But if you take the word to mean that I spend more money than I should on something that is not strictly necessary, then yeah – comics.

This has always been true, too. Somewhere in my mother’s house are several long boxes with half a thousand comics in them. When I was much younger, most of my paper route and allowance money went into comics, no doubt to the unending consternation of my parents.

As I got older and poorer, I stopped buying as much, because somehow staving off starvation took priority, but once money started coming in again, it went out every Wednesday in a flurry of capes and spandex.

That… sounds like a lot more fun than it was.

These days, I have several shelves of trade paperbacks that still baffle The Boyfriend, and Thursday morning is the day I download the newest batch of comics from DC, who went digital last year. Good thing, too, as American comics are viciously hard to find here.

Why comics and not something more grown-up like wine or travel or high-class rentboys? Well… why not? I’ve known many of these characters longer than I’ve known some of my best friends. I like reading their adventures and seeing all the ways they save the world. I like watching how writers and artists reinterpret the characters, giving them new life and new meaning that their creators probably never imagined.

Simply put, reading comics gives me pleasure, which is pretty much the whole reason for having an extravagance in the first place.

8. On what occasion do you lie?
When the truth won’t do anyone any good.

I really don’t like lying. Whenever possible, I tell the truth or, in the best tradition of the Aes Sedai, something that is true, but not the truth the listener thinks it is. My general position is that the world is already full of liars, dissemblers, and deceivers, and I really don’t need to add to their number.

Having said that, there are times when the truth might not do any good. It might even be harmful, in fact. And I know this is vague and highly situational and useless as a guideline, but if the truth is only going to hurt people, then you need to carefully consider whether a lie might not be better. I can’t tell you when that is, of course. You’ll have to trust your judgment on that.

9. What do you dislike most about your appearance?
My chewed-up nails.

Pity these don't work for humans.

I had a few good choices for this one – my thinning hair, the forty pounds or so of flesh that steadfastly refuses to just vanish because I want it to, teeth that really should be taken to a dentist one of these days. The glowing tattoo of the rune of Dagon on my forehead that hums an atonal dirge every eighteen minutes and causes children to cry tears of indelible shadow. But my nails were the first and last things to come to mind, so I’ll go with them.

I have been biting my nails since I had teeth. Regardless of where I am or what I’m doing, there’s a chance I’ll find myself gnawing away on my fingers. Sometimes I bite them ’till I draw blood, which is why I keep Band-Aids in my desk drawer. And that’s really not a thing to be proud of.

The thing is, I don’t consider myself a particularly nervous person, and I doubt anyone who knows me would call me highly-strung or overstressed, so unless there’s some giant ball of Freudian anxiety that I’ve repressed somewhere, I can’t say that I do it out of stress. It’s just habit that I can’t seem to break.

And gods know I’ve tried. I’ve snapped my wrists with rubber bands when I felt the urge to bite, but usually I can’t snap them fast enough – the realization of what I’m doing doesn’t kick in until I’m already doing it. I got that foul-tasting stuff you can paint on your nails, but again – by the time I think, “Ugh, this tastes terrible,” it’s too late. Besides, the human brain is a master at filtering out unpleasantness, so after awhile I would just stop tasting it.

Not entirely inaccurate...

I even tried putting on clear nail polish, with the hopes that the additional layer of enamel would provide some protection.

I stripped it off with my teeth.

Other than encasing my hands in gauntlets for the rest of my days, I’m really out of ideas. I just have to learn to either keep my fingertips out of sight or accept that they look like gnawed-on sausages.

The worst part is that I was able to quit smoking. That’s supposed to be the demon addiction of the modern man, and I beat that. But somehow my inner need to chew on my own flesh cannot be overcome. Dammit.

10. When and where were you happiest?
Any time I come home from traveling.

This is another question that I don’t really like, mainly because it’s nearly impossible to settle on one answer. Happiness is so highly subject to moment and mood and circumstance, and our memories of happiness can be altered with little or no provocation. Trying to thinking a single happiest moment is like trying to capture mist in a fishing net.

I decided, then, to go for a situation that never fails to make me happy, and that’s when I stop traveling.

To give a little perspective, I always thought the saying, “The journey is more important than the destination” was a big old load of stinky, stinky horseshit.

I like destinations. I like being somewhere. I like being able to be in a place and learn about it and discover it.

Only twelve more hours to go...

I hate getting there. I hate having to arrange for the time off, trying to create a schedule that jams as much activity into as small a temporal space as possible. I hate knowing that there’s no way I’m not being robbed blind on transportation costs.

I hate the constant feeling that I’m doing something wrong, like I’m just barely in control of what’s going on. For example, I can never shake that feeling like the Customs officer is going to open my passport and half a kilo of heroin is going to fall out. It feels like there are a thousand things that can go wrong, and I’m only even aware of a few of them.

And then, when I finally get where I’m going, to a place where I want to relax and catch up with people, there is always that knowledge in the back of my head that pretty soon I’m going to have to turn around and do it all again. There’s part of me that’s watching the clock, wondering if I’ll be able to make it to the airport on time, wondering if I can pack everything up efficiently to survive the trip home.

My nightmares are literally about this kind of thing. Being late for transportation, not going the way I want to go, not being in the city I need to be in. For me, travel is just a catastrophic series of clusterfucks that are waiting to happen. They just need one little push – a late taxi, a cranky TSA agent, a weak bladder – to come cascading down and cause me no end of trouble.

The day teleportation becomes a viable travel alternative will be the happiest day of my life…

All right, not quite as personally introspective as last time, but there are still ten more questions to go. See you there.

Just who do you think you are?

I was listening to a podcast of a recent episode of The Colin McEnroe Show (broadcast out of Hartford on WNPR, co-starring my sister, Chion Wolf), and as part of their discussion of how well we should get to know our candidates for public office, the Proust Questionnaire was brought up several times. From what I could gather, this was a kind of “Know Thyself” exercise that was popularized by Marcel Proust, and variations of which are used today as a kind of window into the soul of the person you’re talking to. The idea is that the only way to honestly answer these questions would be to have deep insight into your own mental workings.

He also had a hand in the 500 question Purity Test. The really dirty version...

Of course, the politicians have caught on to this kind of thing, so they prepare for PQ questions by coming up with the answer they think will be most electable. Which kind of defeats the whole purpose.

Anyway, I went to the Vanity Fair website, one of many that has the questionnaire (or a variant thereof) online. The difference is that Vanity Fair’s is interactive and promises to match you with a famous person when you’re all done. I don’t know how they manage to pull that off, though – the questions they give the celebs are quite different from the ones you answer on the site. In any case, I got a 94% match with Karl Rove, of all people, so it can’t be that accurate.

It’s a lot of questions, and a lot of thinking about heavy things, so I’ll break it up into a series of posts. Follow along, and if you feel like sharing your own answers in the comments, feel free!

1. What is your idea of perfect happiness?
A difficult thing, done well.

Right off the top, the big thing about this questionnaire is that it asks you to think in terms of absolutes. The best, the worst – the perfect. The problem with this is that these answers might change from day to day or moment to moment, so this is really more of a snapshot of your mind as you answer than a comprehensive look at who you are as a whole. So when I answered, I tried to be more general than specific whenever possible.

In this case, the times I’m happiest are usually when I’ve done something difficult and done it well. Whether it’s writing a story that had a particularly thorny problem to it, teaching a new lesson that I wasn’t sure would work, helping a student understand a difficult concept – I think the best moments were when I achieved something that I wasn’t sure I could pull off. How this jives with my answer to question 5 is something I still haven’t figured out.

2. What is your greatest fear?
That the people I love will move on without me. And that they’ll be right to do so.

This was something I never really wanted to say out loud, and if it weren’t for travel-induced exhaustion and several glasses of wine a few years ago, I probably would never have. But once you admit something to yourself, and then to others, there’s really no use in pretending it’s not there.

I moved away from the US in 2000, leaving behind family and friends I had known for years. I thought I’d only be gone a year, maybe two, and then come back with great stories, pick up where we left off, and everyone would be the better for it. But time went on, as time does, and our worlds started to diverge. Noticeably. People got married and had kids. They changed careers and developed new interests. They had Facebook friends I’d never heard of and did the kinds of things with them that I imagined we would have done.

If I hadn’t left.

And every year I stay, I realize that re-inserting myself into their lives is becoming less and less possible. As I put it, “There’s no Chris-shaped hole in your lives that only I can fill, and I have no right to expect there to be one.”

Yes, wine can make me maudlin and self-deprecating. Better than tequila.

My memory of that night doesn’t recall any soothing answers, either. They didn’t say, “No, no, you’re wrong!” or “Stop being so silly, of course there is!” Which I would have known to be lies, and I am happy my friends respect me enough not to lie to me.

Regardless, I fear that one day I won’t have anything in common anymore with the people who meant so much to me. Our last real, non-virtual point of reference as friends will be decades in the past, and I don’t have a whole lot of faith in my ability to catch up.

I have plenty of other fears, of course. Insignificance. Failing someone. Not living up to the expectations that I’ve set for myself. And while I don’t have a crippling fear of death, my only true prayer to the Universe is, “Please do not let my death be passed around on YouTube.”

3. Which historical figure do you most identify with?
Thomas Jefferson

The resemblance is... uncanny.

I had trouble with this question, because any answer I give will sound incredibly arrogant. I’m pretty sure my name won’t be remembered for all that long after I’m dead, so comparing myself to Jefferson – or any person of historical caliber – seems like a real stretch.

But there is a point where I think we intersect: we’re both interested in everything. Jefferson was a true polymath, someone who found everything fascinating. He was a writer, a scholar, a politician, a President, a scientist, an architect, a botanist, a farmer – there was no area of human knowledge or endeavor that Jefferson couldn’t get interested in, and I like to think that I’m similar in that way.

Of course, there’s plenty of stuff that I couldn’t care less about. Sports, for example, or pop culture, but I can see where other people are fascinated by it. I’ve been known to lose myself in trivia, I know about things that I really don’t need to know, and I find the whole world just a fascinating place. If I had the kind of freedom of a late 18th century landed gentleman to pursue whatever caught my brain, I think I might have ended up a lot like good old TJ.

Without the slaves, of course.

4. Which living person do you most admire?
My sister.

As you may be able to guess just by the fact I’m writing all this, I esteem self-awareness very highly. I think that the best thing a person can do for themselves is to know who they are, and my sister knows who she is. She knows what makes her happy and what she needs to avoid. She knows what her talents are and how she wants to use them. She is compassionate and empathetic, funny, strange, and brave, and far more at peace with the idea of finitude than I will ever be.

She has dreadlocks and tattoos because they make her happy, knows her whisky, speaks Spanish without hesitation, learned Sign Language because it looked like an interesting thing to do, and has gracefully accepted the mantle of Local Celebrity. She can make childish puns right alongside a discussion of the nature of religion, and takes no joy in making others feel bad.

My sister is great.

This doesn’t mean, by the way, that my other family isn’t just as admirable – they most certainly are. But her face popped into my head first, so she gets the door prize, such as it is.

5. What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
I am ruled by my pride.

In the movie Serenity, the Operative asks Mal a very important question: “Do you know what your sin is?” Mal, of course, has a witty response – “I’m a fan of all seven” – but the question stuck with me for some reason. Probably because I can answer it very easily. My sin is pride.

Not this kind of pride, of course. Though if I looked like that, I might consider it.

I can’t bear to be made a fool of, so I avoid doing things that might make me look foolish. I hate the idea of failing, so I stay away from things that I might fail at. I don’t want to be rejected, so I don’t do things that would lead people to reject me. It’s really the exact opposite of what one should do in order to be a fully-realized, happy human being. And I know it. But I do it anyway.

As mentioned above, I feel best when I do something I wasn’t sure I could do. If my mind were a rational place, that would mean that I would seek out such experiences, not caring about my pride and thus maximizing my chances for happiness and self-satisfaction. But the human mind is a tangled ball of inexplicable contradictions, so there we go. There are so many things I’d like to do – especially crafty things, things where I can make stuff. But those things are hard, and rather than see myself as a beginner on a long journey of discovery, I see myself as someone who really sucks at whatever it is he’s trying.

So rather than try and fail and look like a fool, I give up, and then a few months/years later I look back at it and think, “Wow, imagine how awesome I would be at that if I had kept at it.” That starts the “You’re just a big ol’ loser” cycle of self-flagellation and despair, since by giving up means a guaranteed failure rather than having simply risked it, and I’m then very glad that I’m an infrequent drinker.

What I wish I could figure out is where my threshold is. I had absolutely no problems with starting my story blog, or my podcast, or jumping into a new teaching job. I took those risks and made them work fabulously. Hell, I’m psychologically dissecting myself on the internet, for crying out loud. But there are other things that I just won’t do. Speaking Japanese, for one, is guaranteed to trigger my pride. When I speak Japanese, I feel stupid. Not “Ha, ha, don’t I look foolish” stupid, but actually mentally undeveloped. Like the kind of person who is unable to articulate thoughts in a manner that is understandable to other people, and that hits my pride button hard.

At least I'm better than Mitt at pretending to be human, I know that much.

And in talking with The Boyfriend this evening, I mentioned to him something unpleasant that I had figured out about myself: I can be nice. I can be polite and kind and considerate. I can even be funny. But I seem to have lost the ability to be friendly, if I ever had it. That talent for allowing myself to be approachable and to let my guard down is something I don’t know if I can ever manage. Why? Because of my pride. Inviting another person into your world is inviting a whole lot of chances to be brought down a few pegs, and I don’t seem to be able to handle that.

If you can figure out how to resolve that with number 2, by the way, you’re a better person than I am. The answer to that is reflective of my fear that the effort to rebuild friendships will be so monstrously huge that I’ll end up giving up entirely. And the thought that I might be the kind of person who would actually do that is wholly repellent to me. But there it is.

Keep an eye out for part 2, coming soon…ish.