Human communication is a splendid and miraculous thing. Facial expressions, tone of voice, posture, the written and spoken word. Each element of language—nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, and so forth—exists for a reason: We need them to articulate ourselves accurately, completely, and with a little style.
As a father, I am a master at the imperative (“Daniel, brush your teeth and get in your pajamas,” or “Dexter, get off the couch,” or “Krista, I am NOT the one who left the refrigerator door open.”), the declarative (“I’m going to work,” or “I’m going to bed,” or “I’m closing the refrigerator door now.”), and especially the exclamatory (“Luke, be quiet and go to bed!” or “Abby, put that book down and go to bed!” or “Close the refrigerator door!”). However, like an aging baseball player who can’t quite turn on an inside fastball the way he did in his prime, I no longer possess the ability to ask a well-timed, creatively expressed, and pregnant-with-meaning question the way I did in my formative years. This is understandable, I suppose, because the natural process of growing older makes one less tolerant of, and fascinated with, mystery and less inclined to explore it. We geezers are often too doggone exhausted from ordering people around to ask interesting questions. My career as a litigator may have contributed to my “interrogatory slump” as well, for I was taught (as most litigators are) that in a trial or hearing one should never ask a question without knowing its answer beforehand. This tactic produces a more predictable arc in one’s case and therefore the manufacture of less stomach acid. Everyday life, thankfully, is not lived the way a case is litigated and questions whose answers are not known are, or can be, spectacular vehicles of exploration. Marilynne Robinson, the Pulitzer-Prize winning author of Gilead (one of the finest novels I’ve read in the past twenty years), offers “A question is more spacious than a statement, far better suited to expressing wonder.” Indeed. And while she made that assertion as she probed the meaning of the provocative question posed in Psalm Eight (“What is man that thou art mindful of him?”), it applies also to the more quotidian instances of typical parent-child interaction. Moreover, questions also tell you something about the inquisitor—her interests, her anxieties, her desires, her hopes, her areas of ignorance—and, whether open- or close-ended, they can be highly entertaining. Like all children, Abby, Daniel, and Luke ask lots of questions and to the extent that my calcifying memory permits, I have collected the more intriguing, heartbreaking, or humorous ones. It’s probably no accident that most of my favorites engendered the response, “I don’t know.” A tiny sample:
(1)From Daniel, after watching a commercial discussing the rate and symptoms of autism: “Dad, why is my brain like this?” (2)From Abby, during our first instance of sleeping outdoors in a tent. We were in the countryside, gazing at the stars through the open vent and listening to insects and the rustling of nearby sheep: “How did He [God] do it?” (3)From Luke, who has developed an increasing appreciation of the more arcane facets of what I loosely call “society” and “civilization”, while I was putting him to bed: “Who invented police?” (4)From Daniel, after being informed that his behavior at school warranted the consequence of no computer time at home for the remainder of the day, between heart-felt sobs: “Dad, can’t you just spank my butt or something and get the consequences over with?” (5)From Luke, after a lengthy discussion about death and the contexts surrounding the passing of several family members, friends, and acquaintances: “Where do they go?” (6)From Abby, when she was four or five years old and we were engaged in a daily war of wills which inevitably resulted in my disciplining her—sometimes severely: “Why are YOU my father?!?” (This was followed quickly by Abby storming to her dresser, picking up a picture of the two of us in a happier moment, pointing to my smiling face in the picture, and announcing “I want you out of there!”). (7)From each of them, multiple times a day, under every sort of conceivable circumstance, and signaling either a question to follow or the simple assurance of my physical presence: “Dad??”
Timothy Swenson is the author of the weekly column series Virtue and Mischief that is published every Tuesday in The Daily Advocate. He can be reached at email@example.com. Viewpoints expressed in these opinion pieces are the work of the author. The Daily Advocate does not endorse these viewpoints or the independent activities of the author.