The Ask

This morning, I settled down with my cat, Padfoot, and finished reading Mary Roach’s fantastic new book, Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War.

It is, like much of her work, laugh-out-loud funny. My favorite part was the chapter about scents where someone declared a scent titled “U.S. Standard Bathroom Malodor” to be “wearable.” My second favorite part was a chapter where Roach plays on the concept of a “missile defense luncheon” by altering the phrase to describe other unpleasant kinds of luncheons. I didn’t know what was happening until the second time I saw it, but once I caught on, I loved it. I would adopt it for everyday life, if I thought anyone would get was I was referring to.

(Side note, and similar to this: in the book Fourth of July Creek, by Smith Henderson, one of Henderson’s characters uses “Wyoming” as a verb to substitute for sobbing. This made such an impression on me that I remembered that turn of phrase but couldn’t remember the details of the story it came from. I only found it by searching “Best Books of 2015” and “Best Books of 2014” until I saw something that looked like it might be the right book.)

In the acknowledgments section of the book, Roach highlights something that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. She recounts her many asks that allowed this book to happen. “Hey… could you work me into combat simulations where I don’t belong?” and “Could you find someone to approve my spending a few days at sea…?” among others. She expresses gratitude that time after time, people said yes.

This stuck out to me because, as I’ve been working on blog posts for the past ten days, there have already been a few times where it would’ve been handy to ask someone else a question. I’ve thought about surveying political science professors on Facebook to get their sense of when it’s appropriate to schedule appointments. I have some future posts rattling around in my head that would clearly be made stronger and more interesting if I talked to someone first.

I’ve been noticing that all of the media I consume, at one point or another, requires its author to reach out and ask a stranger for a favor. And then to ask them questions!

To be fair, I’ve reached out and asked random people questions before – and when I did, I hid behind the badge of Harvard University. If you can lead an email by saying, “I am a graduate student at Harvard and I’m researching…” then you’ve bought yourself a badge of credibility. I assume the same is true for the folks at NPR and Mary Roach; they never really need to explain why they’re asking a question. They only need to show that it’s part of their job to ask questions.

All this to say: if I’m going to keep working on this for another 354 days, I’d better start getting comfortable with asking questions. The posts are worse for not interacting with anything.

(My second thought is that if you start asking questions, you have to producing a product that you’d be willing to share with the person who donated their time. I’m not sure that I’d be willing to share this blog with anyone as it currently stands. I can’t tell whether I’m being extra thoughtful here or just being cowardly.)