Essay Questions

What is your most memorable childhood experience?My dad is a classical musician, and when I was 7 he took me with him for a recording session near Munich. When he was finished, we went on a road trip through the Alps toward Milan. I had probably never seen real mountains before, let alone anything like that, and it was also my first time out of the country. The impression it made on me was massive - it expanded my idea of how big the world was, exposed me to other cultures and languages, and instilled in me an undying, irrational love for mountains. I still have a vivid, detailed memory of blasting through the foothills toward a wall of mountains as Italian opera played on the radio, in a time before internet, when Bill Clinton had just won the election. Little things about that trip come back to me sometimes - a really shady Italian hotel proprietor who spooked us away from his establishment, Mozart's piano in Innsbruck, a rainy day eating weird sausages on the Danube. I think I was just old enough to start forming solid, lasting memories, and that trip was perfectly timed to be really formative. That pocket of mountains is still my favorite place on the planet.
What immediate family member do you closely identify with and why?My uncle is a widower due to cancer, as am I. This is probably the most significant thing I could have in common with someone, regardless of who they are. It has helped me get to know him better, despite us being very different. He's a retired firefighter and massive baseball fan, a real working class city guy, and I'm a somewhat nerdy musician working in medical research, but we have that in common. I've made it a point to get to more games with him.
What character traits do you admire in an individual?The single most important trait in a person is a sense of humor about themselves. This trait alone can redeem many other character flaws, and shows wisdom, kindness, and humility. Conversely, without it, it's difficult for a person to be truly sympathetic. Of course I admire all the other positive qualities we all appreciate, but sense of humor about oneself is near-sacred.
What is the funniest thing ever to happen to you?On a business trip in Beijing, I had a day to myself after a morning of meetings. Wandering the city and seeing the sights, I noticed a little elderly woman carrying a gigantic bag of rice - it seriously could have been a year's worth, and must have weighed nearly 100 pounds. Watching her struggle to carry it step by step down the huge boulevard, with no visible end in sight, I had to go at least offer to help. I figured why not, I'll have a much easier time than her, and it would be a fun and unique experience with a local. Of course, I don't speak Mandarin, and I'm sure my efforts to pantomime the offer to carry it for her were alarming at first. Here was this crazy bearded foreigner in a suit who seemed REALLY interested in her giant bag of rice. She finally realized what I meant, and her eyes absolutely lit up. I proceeded to carry that million ton bag of rice at least 2 miles to her 5th-floor walk-up apartment. She was scurrying ahead of me, smiling ear to ear, beckoning for me to follow her with rapid-fire Mandarin, kind of like Yoda in Empire Strikes Back. When we finally get to the apartment, I'm sweating bullets (it's November), and a group of her friends were there playing mahjong. Let me tell you, they couldn't BELIEVE she let a visitor break his back for her, and a storm of teasing and griping erupted that was unmistakable in any language. They insisted I have tea with them, which was in itself bewildering and hilarious, and I went on with my day. The comedy and oddness of that ordeal is something I'll remember with a laugh for the rest of my life (and she'll probably never live that down with the mahjong group).
If time and money were not an issue, where would you travel and why?First I would go to Antarctica. I can't think of a more exotic, extreme place, nor one I'd be less likely to go to otherwise. Logistical costs would add up really quick. I would love to see the endless white landscapes, completely devoid of any life or civilization, mountains beyond sight that no person has ever set foot on. And where there ARE people, it's an isolated utopia of scientists. Of course, there are penguins, but by all accounts they're not a very pleasant bunch to hang out with. After that, I'd just disappear. Go from place to place, living simply, enjoying local foods and meeting people, hiking, attending festivals as a bewildered observer, everything. I'd constantly fly friends and family to wherever I am, invitations I'm sure they would accept. Eventually, though, you get sick of travel and need somewhere you can feel at home. In which case, with no financial concerns, I would go get a cottage in the high Alps (refer to question 1) and get a cat and a dog.
When and if you ever have children, what would you like to pass on to them?Above all, I would want to pass on thoughtfulness. Just the ability to stop, think, and consider the current situation. Most people have a good number of good traits, naturally and through social conditioning, but it's hard for them to shine through when constantly getting caught up in the fog of life. It's so easy to fall into a rut of thoughtless, auto-pilot emotional reactivity, going through the motions while subject to base traits like selfishness, and it's the reason things in society get as bad as they do. If people were taught to really be mindful, to stop and think, you would see less ugliness and foolishness, and a lot more happy people. But really, this dynamic, and the importance of really monitoring your own mindset and stopping to reset, is basically unheard of, and I would want my kids to be armed with this pro tip.