This is yet another story from my own life, but despite the way the last few posts have been going, it’s not from when I was twenty. No, I was twenty-five when this happened.
When my wife Heather and I were dating, we used to play Twenty Questions a lot. You know, the game where one person thinks of a thing or person, and the other person has to ask a whole bunch of yes-or-no questions until they figure it out. We didn’t really ask, “Animal, Vegetable, or Mineral” like the traditional old school Twenty Questions, and we didn’t limit the number of questions to twenty either. In fact, we often tried to pick hard things to stump each other. We also, over time, developed our own “house style.” One question that often got asked was this: “Is it bigger than a toaster?” We realized early on that neither of us really knew what a breadbox was, so a toaster was a much better yardstick, so to speak. We also found a way to discover if the answer was a mass noun or a count noun. We didn’t know those words at the time, so —
Hold on. In case you don’t know those words either, here’s a quick primer: a count noun is a noun that describes something that can be counted, such as shoes or haircuts. (I have 45 shoes and will receive 16 haircuts tomorrow. I can count both.) A mass noun is a noun that describes something that can’t be counted, but is an undifferentiated unit, such as milk or sand. (I can’t have 45 milks, and I can’t receive 16 sands tomorrow. Yes, I can have 45 glasses of milk (yuck), or 16 grains of sand, but that’s the point — “milk” and “sand” can’t be counted unless you define a unit.
So, anyway, the difference between mass and count nouns is rather important in Twenty Questions, because say the secret word is “wood,” and your partner asks, “Do we have one of them?” What do you say? “Umm, yes?” What if she then asks, “Do we have more than one of them?” “Umm, uhh…” So we developed this question: “Is it an earwax?” That was our way of asking, “Is it a mass noun?” Then we were able to deal with things like wood, and milk, and earwax (why earwax?) much better.
So that was always a fun part of our relationship. We could take a walk, and play Twenty Questions. We could be driving somewhere, and play Twenty Questions. It was always amusing to try to play at bedtime, because one of us would generally start falling asleep in the middle of questions, and completely forget about what we’d already asked. (And when I say “one of us,” I don’t mean me.) But there was one day that a game of Twenty Questions changed everything. It was December 31, 1999, the last day of the second millennium. (Or close enough.) Heather and I had spent the night before at my parents’ house, and after a few hours of watching Peter Jennings’ outstanding coverage of New Years around the world (remember that?), we were now driving back south to — well, we weren’t sure, exactly. Where do you spend New Year’s Eve when a millennium changes? We couldn’t decide. Her parents’ house? My apartment? We had an invitation to a party, but we really didn’t want to go to it. The nice thing is that all of these things were south. They all involved heading down Rt. 309 for at least an hour, so we had some time to decide.
We passed the time with a game of Twenty Questions. As soon as I pulled out of my parents’ driveway, I told Heather, “I’m thinking of a word starting with the letter M.” It was a hard one. It took her about a half hour to guess. And there we were, sitting at a red light in Tamaqua. She turned to me and said, “Is it marriage?” I said, “Yes. Will you marry me?” She said, “Yes!”
And I’ll tell you, you might have a better proposal story than that. But you have never played a better game of Twenty Questions.
And we did end up skipping that party. What did we do instead? None of your business.