texasmonthly.com: The most obvious question first—how did you come up with all these questions?
Anne Dingus: I confess; that’s the easy part. I could concoct questions all year, on any given topic. This is partly because I know a lot of useless—I mean, relatively obscure—information about Texas and partly because Texas is so big and diverse and densely populated that any halfway decent researcher could quickly accumulate one hundred questions. Shoot, a thousand questions.
No, the real problem was trying to pack into that mere hundred questions the entire scope and depth of the state’s cultural history. I’ve authored academic-history quizzes for Texas Monthly before—heavy on the Alamo, cowboy, and oil aspects—but this quiz tested Texas literacy across the board, so there were all kinds of categories that demanded to be included but that weren’t readily obvious from a quick review of facts and figures and Lone Star VIPs.
For example, such things as slang and junk food have not, in the past, entered into any of our “Tex education” pieces. So “This Is Only a Test” was a lot more fun than something totally school-y (if I don’t get sent to the publisher’s office for using that as an adjective!).
texasmonthly.com: Did you think of all the questions at once, or did you jot them down erratically while doing other work?
AD: If any person tried to sit down and amass all those questions at once, her head would explode in less time than it took for General Sam and his men to kick heinie at San Jacinto. To be honest, I worked on this quiz over a period of about six months. Occasionally I got all fired up about some aspect of it and spent a few hours at my computer, but I was more likely to just ponder the issue off and on while I was doing other things—mainly driving.
At various red lights or in those oh-so-familiar gridlock moments, I’d grab for the nearest piece of paper and scribble something short and apparently meaningless, such as “geog.—ord. riv?” or “NM—his her?” Later I would retrieve these scraps and (assuming I could read my own scrawl) add them to my master list in clearer form.
So, eventually, obscure notes such as the examples above were developed into “Geographical question; order of rivers” and “Need a Neiman Marcus question; list various his and her gifts from the Christmas catalog over the years.” My file on this quiz looked like someone had emptied several wastebaskets into a manila folder.
texasmonthly.com: Why do you employ riddles, rhymes, and puns in so much of your writing?
AD: Congenital trait, in part—I am lucky to have a lot of natural talent with words—but mainly I like to play around with language because it’s fun. (My sons say they wish more English teachers agreed.) Fortunately, Texas Monthly is the kind of magazine that not only tolerates but encourages that kind of attitude, and certainly my work for the magazine over the years has honed my sense of humor and my ability to convey my slightly, um, skewed view of the world.
As far as my fondness for wordplay goes in relation to the cultural literacy quiz, I used riddles and such a fair amount to keep the test interesting. Anyone who takes this quiz—even a New Yorker or an Iowan or an Alaskan—will enjoy it, even if they score abominably low, because it’s funny. (Pardon my modesty.)
I think the very best part of assembling the entire hundred-question test was coming up with the wrong answers in the multiple choices. For example, one question asks the “student” to give the word for which the nickname “Bubba” is the abbreviation. One choice I gave was “Beelzebub.” For some reason, I’m still snickering over that one. Another reason, by the way, that this article includes little rhymes and such is that the test begins with extremely simple questions, à la kindergarten level, so I was aping the style of elementary school teachers.
texasmonthly.com: How well do you expect the average Texan to do on your quiz?
AD: Tough call. I’d say about a seventy, and I think that’s pretty good. I don’t think too many people besides me are going to ace this test. I would only because I, of course, know all the answers! And believe me; even then I have trouble remembering some.
The former names of Texas’ professional sports’ teams, for example—I cannot for the life of me keep in my little-bitty brain the names of the teams that the former Houston Colt .45s and Washington Senators became; we repeatedly double-checked the answer key during deadline, and I had to look up those answers every time.
You know, every time I do one of these quizzes, the major complaint I get is “It was too hard!” But everyone agrees it was fun, and I think it’s better to have fun taking a hard test than take a lowest-common-denominator test and yawn about it. To paraphrase Martin Luther, test boldly!
texasmonthly.com: How did you come to be an authority on all things Texas?
AD: Well, you study any subject for a quarter of a century, and some of it’s bound to stick. Before I ever started writing about Texas, I remember listening to grandparents and aunts and uncles on both sides of my family telling me stories about not just Alamo heroes and cowboys and such but also the struggles and adventures of my own ancestors. I supplemented that with a lot of reading. (That darn revisionism! It keeps us amateur historians on our toes.)
And, of course, I was born and raised here; I’m a fifth-generation Texan. I had relatives who ranched and farmed and hunted and fished, yet I’ve lived in cities for more than thirty years, so I can relate to both rural and urban life. Let me say that I’m tickled to be called an authority, but to some extent I acquired that mantle by default; among the Texas Monthly editorial staff, few other people have the Texas roots I do.
Today eighty-five percent of our population lives in cities. And many of them are newcomers, which may not suit some diehard Texans but which I say is certainly good for the gene pool. Today Texans drive cars instead of riding horses—or they ride bikes. They eat chicken instead of beef—or they’re vegetarian. They’re skeptical about Alamo myth, perhaps, if they’re Hispanic.
Texas today is wonderfully diverse. That’s why this cultural literacy quiz should be fun for most Texans; it isn’t about seventh-grade Texas history and beyond, it’s about living it Texan—working and playing and making a home here. I say, don’t sweat your score.
No matter what grade you make, whether you’re an expatriate or a Yankee-come-lately or a lifelong resident and devotee, if you’re living in Texas—heck, that’s an A-plus right there.