The Art of Asking

While I was away, I listened to Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking. Another blogger recommended it (thankyouverymuch!), and though I didn’t know much about Amanda Palmer, I do know that I’m not great at asking for help, or graciously receiving it when it’s offered. I watched her TED Talk and decided to read the book.

I got it on audio, which I highly recommend, because she includes original music, snippets of other songs she refers to, and more. She probably includes such items on a CD or website, for those who read the physical book, but I don’t know about you all— I seldom get around to going back and listening to such things. On the download from my library, the songs were integrated into the chapter breaks, etc. It took a bit to get used to, but I liked it, especially toward the end.

Let me say, Amanda Palmer may or may not be your cup of tea. She started as a performance artist, she’s been a rock star, she’s married to Neil Gaiman, and she’s definitely marching to the beat of her own drum. Be that as it may, the TED Talk was enough to convince me that she had something to say that I needed to hear.

She talked about how performance art taught her a lot about the trust relationship between giver and receiver, and honestly, the first part of the book might have been worth the reading just to experience life through the eyes of a performance artist, because it’s something I’ve wondered about but never really understood. I kind of get it for a day, but for more than that? That part was just interesting to me.

She did some interesting things structurally, with it. I wonder about how it was presented visually. (Kate, I know you read it— did you read the physical book? Maybe you can weigh in.) She started chapters with a basic chronology of her life as an artist, and then moved more toward the present, where she was wrestling with having given a bunch of advice on asking but struggling to apply some basic principles to her own life. I really appreciated that— this wasn’t really a “how to go about asking in six easy steps” kind of a book. More memoir, very much a meditation— the art, indeed. Not the science. She wasn’t very prescriptive, and she didn’t assume authority in this area— in fact, she was challenged by being treated as an authority, and dealt with that honestly.

She talked a lot about the trust relationship between giver and asker— how even if you’re strangers, as in performance art, the giving and the asking brings you into a trust relationship, whether you like it or not. And that makes you vulnerable. On the street, you can be insulted or stolen from or heckled or worse, but these things are also true in closer relationships, and they usually do a lot more damage, there. She talked about trusting someone enough to ask for help. She talked about crowdfunding an album, and how the key element for her was that she already had a well-tended relationship with her fans, through social media. They are involved in each other’s lives— she crashes on their couches and they bring her food and she makes her music for them and loves them back— helping them where she can, bringing people to connections with other people.

Series of super-long personal-application anecdotes to follow. Can you tell I missed you?!


This made me think of so many things. You may have read in others of my posts that we lost my dad 11 years ago to ALS. Before he got sick, he was always doing for others. If he came to visit, he’d have fixed a handful of things before he left, without your really having to ask. He was such a perpetual motion machine that he would fall asleep almost immediately if you made him sit still. Or even stand still. Military training!

ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) was a particularly cruel affliction, for such a man, because first, it took his ability to use his hands, then garbled his speech as his tongue got progressively paralyzed, then stripped him of his ability to walk and do most things for himself, let alone for the rest of us. And unlike most ALS patients, he was also in pain, with pinched nerves that they wouldn’t fix because it would have hastened his decline. So please don’t misunderstand me when I say that I found particular gifts, during the time of losing him. I’d have given anything for him not to have suffered the way he did. But given that I had no control over that, one of the blessings I found was in being able to do things for him. He was so independent, before he got sick, that it was difficult to do anything for him. After he got sick, there were things he had to ask for help with, and I was honored to help in every way he’d let me.

One of the things that I regretted most, when he died, was that I was sharp with him one time in the months before we lost him. By then, he was in hospice, needing full-time care beyond what my mom and brother’s family could provide. (Mom went down with a fight, trying to be there for him, but it put her in the hospital and we nearly lost her, too.) We went to see him daily— my oldest brother was there multiple times a day, helping the nursing staff with him. My middle brother and I would head up on the weekends. Mom was providing his nutritional supplement— it was less expensive than paying hospice to provide him with the same stuff, but she had noticed that if she put a case of it in his closet, the nursing staff would raid it for other patients and it wouldn’t last as long as it should have. (No judgment— I’m sure they were doing the best they could.) So she took to only keeping a day’s supply or two, there. Since we were there often, there was never any danger of running out. We went to see him this weekend, then I took mom to church, and we planned to come back for a longer visit after we did church and dinner. He got agitated, thinking we were going to forget to bring the Ensure-equivalent. I remember standing in the doorway letting him know that we had already brought it, and then tears came to my eyes as I said “of course we brought it, Dad— we love you. Can you not see how important you are to us? How can you think we would forget to do the things you need from us?”

It wasn’t like me— I wasn’t raised to talk back to my parents and I seldom argue with anyone, but it was a point of pride for me, the way we were rallying as a family, to support him. I was so honored to be standing with him in this moment, because most people can’t stand with you in moments like that— it’s pretty overwhelming, and several lifelong friends just couldn’t cope. I was proud to be there, unflinching, when it counted. And the idea that he didn’t know he could trust us— it broke my heart, just a little. Looking back, I was ashamed that I let that be more important than his terror— he had every right to be terrified and overwhelmed at his situation. I finally found a way to forgive myself for that, and to forgive him for the little things that remained, after he died (the moments when he wanted to give up, toward the end, that kind of thing.)


But like Amanda Palmer, knowing it on one level doesn’t guarantee perfection on other levels. The hard lessons, you have to learn again and again. On my recent business trip, I was talking with a behavioral finance expert who’s done research on cross-cultural attitudes toward money. One of the points he made was that in less individualistically-oriented societies, people plan to take care of a broader array of relatives than we do, in the U.S. In the U.S., people typically plan money to take care of a surviving spouse, their children, possibly a parent here or there. And that’s it. But in more collectivist traditions, it’s not uncommon to see people plan for money to take care of all of those, plus siblings, aunts and uncles, grandparents, etc. It’s not a very surprising finding, if you think about it, but I think about my own attitudes. When I first started as a professional, my big goal was not to ever have to ask my family for money. I know my family would help me if I needed it, without batting an eye, but I wanted them not to have to worry about my mooching.

But when I think about it in reverse, if any of my brothers, or their kids, or their grandkids or anyone needed anything that I could help provide, I wouldn’t bat an eye, and I certainly wouldn’t class it as “mooching.” I’d happily do whatever I could to help. Not that I think they’d want to have to ask me, either. Amanda’s right— there’s a certain amount of trusting someone that goes into a request like that. And though we’re all good for it, in my family, I think none of us wants to be the one who has to ask.

And it’s not just money, that’s hard. I have some friends who are going through hard times. I try to reach out and let them know that I’m here for them. I try to offer something concrete, because I don’t, myself, trust a vague “let me know if you need anything” kind of offer any more that I’d expect them to. But I let them know “if it’s not (for example) a ride to the airport you need, let me know what you do need, and I’m happy to pitch in there, instead.” Most of the time, people suffer in (near-)silence. But it’s a beautiful thing when someone says “you know, I’d like to take you up on that offer…” I don’t make the offer to make myself more important to their crisis than I am, but I don’t think there’s a lot of inherent virtue in suffering in silence when someone wants to do something to try to help you.


On that same recent business trip, in that same conversation with the behavioral finance expert, I was interviewing him on video for work. I had dug into his research, pulled out some findings, and written up interview questions. I’d worked really hard on it. The videographer that I was working with was not someone I knew well or had worked with before, and we weren’t gelling particularly well, but we were getting through it. I was coping with a cough, so I brought hot tea with lemon and honey to the interview, as well as bottled water. There were little candies if my throat got dry, and we arranged with the videographer that I wouldn’t be on camera or mic-ed for the interview, because we really only need to hear from the expert. I just wanted to focus his comments, a bit, with the questions I asked him.

We got through the first few questions before I burst out in a huge coughing fit while the expert was talking. We had to record over his original answer. A question or two later, it happened again, then again. It was becoming clear that I wasn’t going to be able to conduct the interview, no matter how much I wanted to. The videographer offered to ask the questions. I gratefully took him up on it. When I told coworkers about it later (remember, we’re at a conference, so most of my coworkers were in the same building, on the same floor as I was), they asked “why didn’t you let us know you were having trouble?! You had everything written out— anyone could have come and asked the questions for you.” I had to admit, if only to myself, that I was selfishly guarding this experience— I was excited about it and showing off a skill set that I don’t normally get to leverage, in this job, and getting roundly rewarded for it, and I didn’t want it to be “less mine.”


And then on the Alaska trip, I got yet another lesson in asking and trusting and accepting help where it’s offered. We did all of these involved excursions— snorkeling in Ketchikan and kayaking in Juneau and helicoptering to a glacier and taking a sled-dog team across it, in Skagway. It was difficult to pack for all of that, plus formal nights on the cruise and “Smart Casual” in the dining room at other times, and so forth. I brought one pair of shoes suitable for Alaskan excursions, and they were only marginally suitable: a pair of running shoes.

I was really sweating kayaking in jeans and running shoes, in glacial waters. I’ve sea-kayaked several times, and always done it in quick-drying shorts with a swimsuit under them, wearing sandals, because you get wet— either climbing into the boat or climbing out, or when water runs down your paddle, or whatever. I had no confidence that, once the shoes got wet, they’d dry. My friend kept telling me “they’ll take care of us,” but that’s not really how I operate— I make sure no one has to take care of me because I’ve come prepared. And there was no good way to be prepared for this. I checked. They don’t sell water socks on the boat.

They did take care of us. They kitted us out in rubber pants and galoshes and rain gear, and stored my shoes somewhere safe where they stayed nice and dry.


I was worried, again, the next day, about running shoes on a snowy glacier, but I was really worried because I’d lost my sunglasses. Sunny day + snow = snow blindness. And for me, migraines follow that. We agreed I’d buy some sunglasses when I got off the ship, but the only shop close enough to visit before the tour started didn’t have sunglasses. I bought a hat as a “better than nothing” option, and made a lame joke to the clerk in the store about them not carrying sunglasses that I wasn’t seeing, because I wasn’t looking forward to snow blindness on top of the glacier.

“What time does your tour leave?”

“15 minutes.” Not enough time to walk into town, find sunglasses, buy them, and get back.

“You’re coming back here?”

“Yeah, I have to pass this to get to the boat, and my friend wants popcorn…”

“Borrow mine.”


“Sure. Why not.”

So I did. And not only did they provide overshoes to keep us stable and dry on the glacier (and the hat was useless because helicopter— they make you store things that blow away), they offered us sunglasses and gloves and anything we might need before we got on the dog sleds.

“I told you they take care of you on the excursions,” my friend reminded me.

“You did. You did tell me that. You were absolutely right.”


I suspect that I’ll have more on this, as it sinks in. It’s a good book. If you’re easily shocked or offended, it might not be for you, but otherwise, I heartily recommend it.

One thought on “The Art of Asking

  1. I’m seeing many echoes of the same things that resonated with me, and I they are hitting me right in the leaky portions of my eyes, with recognition and the pain of confronting it. I’ve written half a blog post, or a journal or something that I can’t quite finish, trying to wrestle with it,

    From an early age, I had that same instinct, or learned response, to refuse to be a burden to anyone, to not impose my needs on someone else. And, while I’ve gotten better about it in some ways, in others it’s still a war with myself. There’s no way I could’ve paid for the sewer repair by myself — much less if I had to have paid the entire bill. Nor could I have managed a car payment, and am grateful for the “donuts” of the gift of car money from my Uncle, and the gift of the Ireland trip. The later two, were much easier than the former.None of these were actually prompted by asking, which I’d not actually thought about until this instant.

    Of course, like you, I’d not even think twice about helping people out, and wouldn’t count it (in most cases, I do have some moocher relatives who have been cut off from any financial assistance from me, though, if I can give time, I will try.) as any sort of infringement, but, as my monetary resources have become practically extinct, well, it’s been kinda nice to have no qualms about saying “no,”

    The physical book hasn’t actually got much in the way of unusual formatting, Well, after thinking about it, it’s *kinda* unusual, but, it more reminded me of how The Book Thief is formatted, chapters are not delineated in sharp page breaks. There are pictures, they illustrate the bit she’s talking about in the text, and there are song lyrics, but, they are typical, indented and italicized.

    I may need to check out the audio book, because, I’ve been thinking I need to re-visit the content, because it’s fading, and I read it fast as it was a long wait on the list, and then, I couldn’t keep it much longer than reading it. I haven’t actually heard much of her music, I’ve mostly followed her in written form, i.e. her blog, and remember a few of the big moments as they happened in her life from reading them on her blog (cancelling her touring to be with her critically sick friend, the wedding, a few other things), I have never encountered her music. I do know that Carol was a big Dresden Dolls fan, and I know I first heard of them (not knowing Amanda Palmer was part of the Dolls) from her, so, I’m curious, and it might be a way to connect to that.

    The book is wonderful in pinpointing the pain of asking, and the pain around that, even for someone like her, who asks all the time, but, couldn’t ask her husband for help. Totally get that. I find it really hard to be “taken care of,” because, in many ways it’s completely foreign to me, and find I don’t know how to handle that. I get “in kind” exchanges, that to me seems fair, but, I hate charging for services (products, doesn’t feel the same way) and the idea of someone providing something to me that feels like caring? It’s really hard. In fact, when my Uncle gave me the money for the car, he said something about how it was a way he could care for us, and, the two of us, who could stop saying than you, and not much else, because, it was so unprecedented, (a gift without strings? Uncommon in our experience) said “we aren’t used to this, and we don’t know what it’s like to be cared for, and we don’t know what to do with that,” He said something about how he could tell we had never really gotten that, and he wanted to do that for us. Anyway, there is some real grace in the book, to understand that part of the equation is to allow others to be generous, and to share that gift. It’s very much a revelation, and while I will probably never achieve Amanda Palmer levels of asking, (because, wow, sometimes, it was naught but pure audacity to me to ask, and even more than someone would step up with it.) but, I can can work on it, and I can get better at this.

So what do you think?

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