As a young adult, I once heard someone say that “there’s no such thing as a stupid question.” This came as a great surprise to me, because not so many years earlier, stupid questions had been quite common. In fact, my parents had pretty much convinced me that I was a natural spring of inane and idiotic inquiries, a bubbling fountain of foolishness. If there had been no such thing as a stupid question, I could have surely been granted a patent for one.
According to my hazy and frequently inaccurate memory, my parents didn’t handle this particular character trait with a great deal of patience. They may have tried. I like to think they did, at least at first. But I eventually wore them down to throbbing nerve endings, then pushed them close to the edge of their sanity. As they often reminded me, I drove them crazy.
But I didn’t understand that at the time. A young boy tends to be focused on himself, and so I bounced between just wanting to ask my questions and wondering why my parents were so mad at me. Taking those feelings into adulthood, I promised myself and any future children I might be fortunate to have that I would always listen and respond with thoughtfulness and care.
This, of course, is where the faulty memory kicks in and causes trouble. One day, I found myself driving, with my daughter in her car seat in the back. She’d been chattering away, nonstop, for a good twenty minutes and I realized I hadn’t heard a word she’d said. My mind had drifted off to some quiet place with butterflies and puffy clouds. (I may be inventing the butterfly and puffy cloud image. It’s more likely that I was fantasizing about those glass barriers that they have in expensive limousines, the ones that go up and down between the driver and the back seat. They were soundproof, I was pretty sure.)
I felt guilty about those occasions when I just couldn’t listen anymore. Both my daughter and my son had inherited my incessant curiosity, a fact that I had wished for and thought I would treasure. But I was unprepared for the steady stream, the relentless, brutalizing, impossible-to-answer questions.
“Where is Christmas?”
“Why can’t I see my eyes?”
“What is one million trillion million five hundred and six thousand and three times four trillion trillion and nine hundred and seventy-five?
“Who was the first person to see dirt?”
“Daddy, why are you biting your hand?”
Once in a while, though, they would ask something that made my heart soar with hope.
“Where does the sun go at night?”
“The sun?” I’d say. “That’s a good question. Here, let me show you.” And I’d begin to assemble a sophisticated model of the solar system, using a lamp, a baseball, a can of root beer, an apple, and anything else within reach. But by the time I’d gotten the salt shaker Moon into position, the kids were long gone. I eventually figured out that they weren’t really looking for answers. They just wanted to know that it was safe to ask questions.
And it was. No matter how close to bursting the arteries in my brain were, I held my tongue and remained tolerant, even for their most repetitive wonderings. I had made a promise, after all. And I had determined to be interested and involved in their lives. So it was with a great sense of shock that I discovered how irritating my own innocent questions were when directed at my teenage children, especially my son. My gentle probing was met with a cold silence, a sarcastic word, or a storm of fury. I learned, gradually, to phrase my questions in certain ways, trying to anticipate four or five moves ahead how the conversation might go. Where were the traps, the land mines, the potential explosions of anger?
They were, it turns out, just about everywhere. If I include in my question the slightest inaccuracy, that becomes the focal point, with the larger, more significant issues buried in a lot of loud yelling.
“So,” I say, “when you told me that chapter fourteen definitely wouldn’t be on the test and that you didn’t need to study it, I guess you misunderstood your teacher.”
“What does that have to do with anything?” he demands. “Why are you even saying this?”
“Because you ended up with a thirty-seven.”
“Thirty-nine, Dad! I got a thirty-nine! Where did you hear that it was a thirty-seven? This is what I hate about people. When they say things and they don’t know what they’re talking about!”
And so another war begins. As it escalates, he storms off to his room and slams the door. I go downstairs and wait, for the next forty-five minutes, for my heart to stop pounding. And then I hear it. My son is upstairs, listening to music. And he’s whistling. Whistling! Was it all just a set-up? His way of avoiding my disappointment? Or is he simply handing the rage off to me?
Whatever the explanation, I remain puzzled to this day by the question that continues to echo inside my skull. How is it that I was on the receiving end of all that yelling as a child, and now find myself in the same position as an adult? How did I miss my turn at bat? Or is it too late to be asking? Has this become my ultimate stupid question?