1.28.2006

Father knows best!

One of my loyal blog readers has requested more posts that summarize articles I've read and then react to. In his words:
I like the posts where you summarize an article you read and respond to it. That way it's less reading for me!
I am flattered that one who has not read a book in five years deigns to read my blog, so I agreed to work on it. Ignore for a moment the fact that I hardly have time to do laundry these days, nevermind peruse the daily paper. (And books! What's a book?)

Nonetheless, I read this article on Thursday, and it struck a chord. It was about a father whose kid, at the age of 6, was asking a lot of questions that he didn't know the answer to. (Ending with a preposition! For shame! But I read somewhere else that this practice is perfectly acceptable these days. I forget where. Ah, see the fourth question on this page. It's not where I originally read this, but since it's from the Chicago Manual of Style people, I trust it.)

This is not a particularly deep thought, but it reminded me of how I used to ask my physicist father all kinds of questions, especially when we walked to school in the morning. I'm pretty sure we walked to school together from when I was four or five until I was seven, but he probably remembers better than I.

I specifically remember being interested in why the sky was blue. I was happy with his answer about why the sky was blue, and I think I even remember trying to explain it to some classmates, who looked at me like I was crazy. (For those who want to know, it's basically about blue wavelengths bouncing off of the atmosphere while other wavelengths pass right through it. So when we look at the "sky"--the atmosphere--all we see is the blue light.) I gathered from this conversation, or perhaps my father told me this explicitly, that there was nothing inherently "blue" about the sky or "green" about leaves--it was all about which wavelengths were absorbed and which were scattered. This impressed me greatly at a young age, although I'm sure my classmates didn't believe me when I tried to explain it to them. I also remember him explaining why seashells sound like the ocean. To one who really thought the ocean was inside the shell, or that there was some inherent reason why seashells sounded like the sea--this was a tremendous revelation!

Because my father knew all of this, I was sure that he was the smartest person in the world. How terrific to have the smartest person in the world for a father! Then I asked him how telephones worked. I understood about electrical impulses going through the phone lines, etc., but I wanted to know the specific mechanics of what made the telephone ring, I think, or maybe how the electrical impulses were translated into voices that we heard. I remember desiring a much higher level of detail than my father could give me, and I think he said, in the end, that he just didn't know. (Did he really not know the answer to my question or was he tired of explaining things to an ever-questioning daughter whose curiosity might have been stronger than her ability to understand the answers given? Only he can answer that question.)

There went all illusions of my father's brilliance--right out the window, into the light-wave-filled sky! I remember being so disappointed, and coming to the conclusion that if my father couldn't answer even this simple question about how an everyday item like the telephone worked, then perhaps he wasn't the smartest person in the world after all. (Thanks, Daddy, for answering all those questions anyway! I take full responsibility for any inaccuracies of 20-year-old conversations contained herein.)

The author of the article mentioned above managed to avoid this by taking notes on his son's questions and then referring to "the experts." It was quite an amusing and informative read. Here is one I never would have thought to ask:

"Why are there sidewalks on both sides of the street?"

Iris Weinshall, commissioner, New York City Department of Transportation:

"It goes back to the late 1800's. The city started to grow, we didn't have a subway system, we didn't have an extensive mass-transportation system. How did people get around? If you didn't have a horse and buggy—which was very expensive—you walked everywhere. We started to think how to keep people safe. There were something like 900 pedestrian deaths at the turn of the century. Basically, what the government was saying was we have to recognize there are multiple uses for the streets, and we have to tell the property owners how to create this safe environment for people."

I didn't realize that there used to be so many pedestrian deaths from horses and buggies, and that sidewalks were created in a reaction to that.

Anyway, you can read the rest yourself if you want. And since gender is never that far back in my mind, I want to ask--do other people ask their mothers these questions?

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