Over the years I have received, and answered, perhaps 400 questionnaires. Early on, I was exact - even painstaking. Sometimes I still am. In my callow youth, when I thought all questionnaires were important, I spent a great deal of time on them indiscriminately. Being the intense sort, I gave the silliest questions my best attention. I do not remember when skepticism first began. Having settled in though, it increases in form and substance with each questionnaire. I am not often surprised at them now, but I am frequently entertained.
I shall not go so far as to say there are no important questionnaires. Some are more important than others. But there are always too many questions of the ''Are you happy with your house?'' variety, requiring a flat yes or no. These have eroded my attempt to fit the universe into an answer. ''Are you happy with your house?'' Generally, yes. When a window breaks, or a deluge leaks through the roof and ceiling onto an antique ottoman, no.
''Look what questionnaires do,'' questionnaire-biz friends avow: ''identify everything from the number of persons who prefer cotton candy at fairs, to future presidents.'' Frankly, I doubt questionnaires identify anything actual.
I have, at one time or another, received questionnaires concerning my house, furnace, stove, refrigerator, and shoes, not to mention all the others. ''Are you happy with your house?'' Yes, unless I have just locked myself out without a key. ''Are you happy with your furnace?'' Yes, unless the pilot light goes out at 3 a.m. during a blizzard, and I stub my toe and make the dog bark trying to put the flame back. ''Do you like your stove, refrigerator, and shoes?'' Depending on whether I have turned on the wrong burner (and waited an hour for the teakettle to whistle), have forgotten to turn on the icemaker as the guests arrive, felt my shoelace break during a hike, yes and no.
There is hard evidence to corroborate my suspicion that the number and sense of questionnaires correlate with, variously, the price of wheat in the futures market, the color of the moon, and the amount of rainfall. During a period of unusually cold weather last August, there was a glut of doctoral questionnaires sent from the university to a neighbor, Henry Blevins, of the ''If the sky is not really blue, is the earth really round?'' variety. ''Ones without stamped return envelopes I can forget,'' Blevins lamented, ''but ones with return postage I feel an obligation to complete.'' My efforts to reason with Blevins that, stamped return envelope or not, he had no legal or moral obligation to fill them out, were vain. He scribbled his studious answers day and night, like a Middle Ages monk.
''If up is up,'' Blevins shouted into the telephone receiver one frosty 3 a.m., ''does up change to down when one stands on one's head?'' It was several seconds before I recognized his voice. ''Only on odd-numbered days!'' I yelled into the receiver before crashing it into its cradle. The next morning I was sorry, but evidently it did some good. A few days later it was heartening to learn that Blevins had begun to fight back. He still felt an obligation to answer the questionnaires with return postage, but now he also felt an obligation to make up his own questionnaires and fire them back. I don't know where he found the time to do it all. But you have to admire a man like that.