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March 19, 2010

3 questions

When I was a little girl I used to play a game with my dad. It was called 3 questions.

He would tuck me in and then I'd get to ask him 3 questions about anything. Over time I learned that the better questions were open ended, since they turned into conversations. Meaning more and more questions and answers, 5, then 13, pushing bedtime back by an hour or more. Score!! This must have started when I was around 3 and ended when I was 13, when my parents separated and he moved to Texas.

Last week, while I was visiting him, we played again.

It was close to midnight and I was in my bedroom, working on the diss. He came in to say good night and he said the two irresistible words.

"Three questions?"


"You're not too busy?"

"I always have time for that."

He took a seat on my bed and I took a moment to find the first question. I let the surroundings guide me.

"See that shirt? What was the cost to produce it?"

He inspected it, asked if it had a Made in China tag (no), and said around $6. Then he added I must have paid around $45 retail.

"You're right! I got it in France and it cost 30 euros."

For the next question, I thought harder. What did I want to know, or what did I want him to answer? Back in the olden days, my questions were usually about the natural world, since like any little kid I was figuring out how things work -- why do stars shine, do animals sleep too, how much time would it take to drink the world's oceans -- but I was in a different mood.

I asked him a question about survival.

"Say you're on a sinking ship. There are two rafts in front of you, at the same distance from the boat. One has one person and one is empty. Which do you swim for?"

"The one with the person. Because the chances are smaller that he'd be a maniac than that we could help each other."

"What if that boat had 20 people, and the other was still empty?"

"The empty one. Things in the full boat can could get ugly. What if people start starving and eating each other? I wouldn't want to be a part of it."

This is sort of a diagnostic question for me -- it's a way to get to now someone, how they think, how integral or dispensable they consider human society to be to their survival. I figure that one type of person would say he'd go for the lone raft and another would claim to go for the populated raft.

But I already know my dad. It wasn't hard to guess he would say that.

"Can that count as two for one?" I asked. "They were on the same subject."

"Sure. That leaves one more question."

None of these had really gotten him talking. He wasn't biting. What would interest him? What would set him off?

"In what year, or century, do you think the last book will be published?"

"Never. Even if reading transitions into digital formats, books will be a commodity if not a necessity. Maybe they'll become luxury items, specially commissioned, like earliest manuscripts, thousands of years go. They might become rarer, but they'll never die out."

(Comforting to think books will never become extinct, though a world where only kings and magnates get to turn pages is a depressing one. Quoth the blogger.)

That was that. Our 3 questions were up. But that answer made me think of one more question, a somber one.

"Time for one more?" I asked.

"Of course."

"What's the likelihood that the world will end in either of our lifetimes?"

He winced, like it was a thought he didn't want to consider, and started touching upon a mix of related topics. Nuclear war, the three I's (Iraq, Iran, Israel), Russia, the Cold War, Kennedy, Cuba, Che Guevarra, Mexican drug cartels killing just across the border days earlier. Accident, cataclysm, man-made disaster, war, evil, hunger, disease. Still, he concluded the chances were very slim.

As we talked, for some reason a very different question popped into my head.

"What do you think is the single most important ingredient in a happy marriage?"

Earlier that evening we'd gone to see Family Wedding, a silly, simple movie with a Hollywood ending. Maybe that's why it was on my mind... or maybe for other reasons...

"Love. It's all about love, kiddo. Not just being in love, but that feeling that encompasses all of those others things people consider important in a relationship: trust, respect, generosity, understanding, tolerance, friendship, communication, patience. It's a feeling that changes over the decades and it's impossible to define it, it goes way beyond passion but passion is a huge part of it..." And that's where the conversation took flight. I couldn't even reproduce it here, because it's the kind of talk that swells in the present and then sinks in somewhere deeper and more fundamental than your immediate memory.

Three questions had turned into five as quickly three years had turned to almost 30.

Or as fast as you can say, "Good night, daddy."
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