Since our community first formed, we’ve asked more than 100 questions. These prompts provide space for a cornucopia of stories, perspectives, and interpretations around a single theme. The artful, introspective answers are our shared bounty.
I’ve always loved questions. I suppose it began with friendly debates about everything from baseball players to guitarists. In college, I learned that curiosity about people and a desire to not be the center of attention could both be achieved by asking questions. When my son was young, we noticed that family dinners were often dominated by conversations about work, bills, and the like. So, we created a box of about 75 questions all of us would have fun answering. Hilarious conversations ensued. We called in Table Talk.
Questions are woven throughout each day. We read interviews with notable people and answer interview questions in search of the perfect job. First dates are filled with them, and if we’re lucky, every date thereafter. There are perfunctory questions (“What movie do you want to see?”, “Did you clean up your room?”) and life-altering ones (“What did the admissions office say?”).
Naturally, all of this raises another question: What are the ingredients of a great question?
First, great questions are specific. “What’s your favorite book that you received as a gift?“ might spark more ideas than “What’s your favorite book?”. With broad questions, it’s sometimes hard to know where to begin. This is true with offers of help, too. “Would it be okay if I dropped off a meal this weekend?” is easier to answer than “Is there anything I can do?”.
Second, great questions are unusual. A predictable question almost always leads to a predictable response. Great questions beg to be answered: “What phrase would you like to print on a t-shirt?”, “What is your favorite amusement park ride?”, “What is the bravest thing you’ve ever done?”.
Third, great questions don’t make a point. There are questions that are not exactly questions: “What were you thinking?”, “Is that the best you can do?”, or the iconic film question, “How can you be so obtuse?” The best questions have more than one right answer.
Finally, great questions show that you were listening last time. We’re distracted in so many ways that undivided attention has become an act of kindness and willpower. We’ve all been asked a question and thought, as the person stares at the screen in front of them, “You don’t care about my answer and won’t remember it later.” What a difference it makes when the question reveals the opposite. “Has your job gotten better?”, “Did you ever figure out who that text was from?”, “How was the concert?” rather than “What’s new with you?”
The heart of any great question is genuine, eager interest in the answer. It’s the attention every person deserves.
The latest dispatch asked, Do you have a favorite poem, song, film, or book about love?
My favorite song about love is “The Book of Love,” by the Magnetic Fields. I heard it first at the wedding of dear friends, and I couldn’t get over how right it seemed. Like the best kind of love, it’s so simple and funny, surprising and true.
I would like to draw your attention to Love Actually and Frozen. Given how popular those movies are, this is probably not the first time your attention will have been drawn to them. If it is, probably you should watch them before reading the rest of this. My favorite plot line of Love Actually’s many is the one between Liam Neeson’s character, Daniel, and that of Thomas Sangster, who plays his son, Sam. My second favorite is between Sarah (Laura Linney) and her brother Michael (Michael Fitzgerald). The element of Frozen that I like most (Probably. Maybe. It’s a hard call.) is the reveal about what undoes Elsa’s curse. The common thread, here, is that these are stories about non-romantic love. They’re the love of a parent and a child, or between siblings. Romantic love is great, sure. But it is so celebrated in media that I feel like it’s sibling, platonic love, is often forgotten. And it’s not like it’s a smaller love. It’s no less miraculous or life affirming or day making.
“The Book of Love” by The Magnetic Fields is just about the perfect contemporary love song, I think. It opens on an ironic note (“The book of love is long and boring / No one can read the damn thing”) but shifts quickly into more heartfelt territory (“But I love it when you read to me and / You can read me anything”). This interplay between wry detachment and romantic sentiment strikes me as a faithful representation of how any self-respecting 21st-century citizen experiences love: we try, and ultimately fail, to stay cool in the face of it. Plus, it’s simply a beautiful tune.
I studied Shakespeare (Macbeth) at school and came away thinking, “I can see what the fuss is about, though you have to put effort in to cross the language gap of the centuries”. Recently I picked up one of my children’s English textbooks and came across Sonnet 116. “Let me not to the marriage of true minds...”. It came across the centuries like a missile and needed no work to put goosebumps on the back of my neck. Even rereading it now has the same effect.
Love is the most well-documented and developed topic, there are literally tons of music, literature, art, on the topic of art. And yet people still feel the need to talk about it and create art about it. Even I, a teenage writer/poet, write about love more often than not. But if I start pondering on why that is as it is, I’d write a novel here. So instead I’ll just say what my favourite book about love is.
I, as everyone else, have read, listened to and watched a lot of stuff about love. But my favourite is still the book and the movie “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”. The thing about it is that it’s not just about love. It’s mainly about friendship, about how important relationships are and how high they can lift you in one moment and how deep they can bury you the next. It’s about growing up, about abuse, grief, suffering, feeling infinite and feeling dead. It’s about everything a person has to go through in their life, but especially in your teenage years.
Maybe not everyone will like it, maybe it’s a teenage thing, but I highly recommend giving either the book or the movie a chance. Or both, they are equally good.
I’m going old school: Sonnet 116 by William Shakespeare.
Lately, the poem that has been resonating most with me is i like my body when it is with your body by E.E. Cummings.
My favorite film about love—or friendships, relationships or just humanity—is Y Tu Mamá También. The film’s slow pace lends a gravity to mundane situations, pushing focus onto the people and their relationships. Their circumstances are both unremarkable and bizarre; even uncomfortable. But their humanity is pervasive.
Many other films adopt a similar style (e.g. “21 Grams”), but are overwrought to my mind. “Y Tu Mamá También” seems to have a good balance for my taste.
I suspect many who read this week’s prompt will at least think about this song, even if they don’t decide it’s their favorite: “The Luckiest”, by Ben Folds. Not only is the music haunting but hopeful (one of the best kinds of songs, in my opinion), but the poetry exactly captures the beauty and agony of loving another person so much you feel you must have been destined to be with them. Every verse tells its own truncated story, and somehow the unwritten punch line of each makes itself felt all the more strongly for its absence.
What if I’d been born fifty years before you, In a house on the street where you live? Maybe I’d be outside as your passed on your bike, Would I know? And in a wide sea of eyes, I’d see one pair that I’d recognize
I included this on a playlist of songs I made for my wife on the one Valentine’s day when we were dating, and I play that playlist every year on that day. I put “The Luckiest” at the very end, because it contains one of our shared hopes:
Next door there’s an old man who lived to his nineties, And one day passed away in his sleep, And his wife, she stayed for a couple of days, And passed away.
I don’t even believe in “soulmates” or romantic destiny, but this song makes it pretty hard not to.
Internet cafés by Adam Brault:
The Human Internet needs more neighborhood cafés. Quiet corners. Safe places. A healthy mix of strangers, acquaintances, and old friends.
Why the modern world is bad for your brain by Daniel J Levitin:
The kind of rapid, continual shifting we do with multitasking causes the brain to burn through fuel so quickly that we feel exhausted and disoriented after even a short time. We’ve literally depleted the nutrients in our brain. This leads to compromises in both cognitive and physical performance.
What do you wish people would ask you, but no one ever does?