COLUMN: Never, never ask ‘What are you thinking?’

Farm Forum

If my daughter stares into space for a half hour and I ask, “What are you thinking?” her gaze will turn to me, and her blank look will morph into one of irritation. She was composing the perfect novel, with the best storyline ever and the most engaging characters, and suddenly — interruption!

It’s worse with my husband. He’ll be silent for an hour, and I will finally ask, “What are you thinking?” Again, the facial expression of peaceful contemplation — wrinkled brow, eyes far away, lips partly open — will ooze into an expression of annoyance.

I might be interrupting the perfect online chess move. Or placing a blockade into a knotty, philosophical argument. Perhaps my question juts — unwelcome — into a train of pleasant memories.

Or maybe he was about to bring peace to the Middle East, fix the economy, end poverty, prove the Goldbach Conjecture and redesign the Aberdeen Aquatics Center. Then, my impertinent question brings to an abrupt halt the progress of all humanity.

That’s why when I read Peggy Noonan’s account of the IRS scandal, I was transfixed by one question asked of conservative group applicants for tax-exempt status: “What were you thinking about?”


“What were you thinking about?” Among other things, the IRS should know that you don’t need an “about” at the end of that question.

About or no about, the IRS should re-examine its questions and practices.

So, what kind of questions can the IRS ask?

They can ask for reading lists and book reports from nonprofit book clubs because we wouldn’t want subversive reading materials discussed in a tax-exempt group.

They can disclose confidential taxpayer information to media outlets because some groups are just too extreme, politically incorrect or tasteless to warrant normal privacy protections.

They can go ahead and inquire about the educational merit of the prayers of nonprofit groups. After all, some prayers are more educational than others.

They can audit and reaudit individuals who donate to a despised opponent’s campaign because, after all, when you’re in power, it might be time to speak power to truth for a change.

They can delay decisions on the tax-exempt status of groups they don’t like, making them submit questionnaires that go on for pages, while streamlining the process for groups they do like, because Calvinball.

They can ask for personal information on family members’ political aspirations because didn’t some president once say we should carry a big stick?

But they should never, never ask, “What were you thinking?” That is a dangerous question. It startles the brain waves. It interrupts the flow of lockstep ideas. It prevents creativity. And they’ll never get the answer they want anyway.

For instance, when I ask my daughter what she’s thinking, I’m hoping she’ll say something like, “I was thinking about doing three loads of laundry and cleaning the bathroom.” But never once has she been thinking about that.

And when I ask my husband what he’s thinking, I’m hoping he will say something like, “I was thinking how wonderful it would be to drop everything, rent a convertible and go tour the California gold country, just you and me.”

He’s never thinking about that either.

So I’m not surprised that by asking “What were you thinking about?” the IRS didn’t get the hoped-for answer: starving the poor, bullying the innocent and subverting all that is good and true. Instead it got the disappointing answer (from at least one group): the Constitution.

Maybe the IRS should ask at a better time. That’s what I always try to do.

Donna Marmorstein writes and lives in Aberdeen. You can contact her at