Sunday, April 3, 2011


            My daughter asks this question a lot.  All kids do.  It is a cliché.  I know it.  You know it. Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?  All the time.  Comedians make jokes about it.  Sitcom audiences can’t get enough of it.  We roll our eyes.  But the most important question remains unanswered.  When did we stop asking why?  And why?
            I have worked with young people for a long time and one of the first things I tell them is that curiosity is important.  Perhaps one of the most important of human characteristics.  Some people are naturally more curious than others.  I have always counted myself lucky that curiosity is a trait I have in spades.  I enjoy learning.  I especially like learning about things of which I know little.  And if the teacher is enthusiastic, well, that’s a bonus. 
            I have never understood people who call a plumber and vaguely point in the direction of the bathroom when he arrives.  Or who go to a mechanic and are exasperated when he tries to explain what is wrong with their car.  I’m right there with the plumber.  I’ll hold a flashlight.  Hand him tools.  Same with the mechanic.  I want to be under the hood where the action is, not reading old greasy copies of People magazine. 
            The cool thing about this is that most people enjoy teaching.  It is human nature to want to showcase your skills.  Sure, the plumber is usually surprised.  The mechanic may initially be annoyed.  But somewhere along the way, they realize that I am hanging on their every word.  And they start telling stories.  The explanations get better.  Not just, “This is a gasket.” 
            Because I want to know why, I don’t have to call the plumber as much anymore.  This saves money.  It saves me time.  It makes me happy.  I hope that I never get tired of asking why.  The idea of it depresses me to no end. 
            I understand that people don’t like to admit that there are things they are not experts at.  I get it.  But come on.  There are a gazillion things you can’t know.  It’s not like if you don’t understand string theory you’re a bad person.  And you may never understand it. 
            We all have our limitations.  I kind of doubt that I will ever truly understand the gestalt of an internal combustion engine.  I get it for the most part.  But I don’t totally get it.  And it has been explained to me hundreds of times.  And I hope it will be explained to me a hundred times more.  There is nothing better than a patient teacher.  I’ve tried to be one, and I respect the ones I know. 
            Richard Feynman was a theoretical physicist.  He worked on the Manhattan Project.  He also spent a great amount of time teaching himself to lucid dream.  He took sabbaticals to smoke weed and learn how to play the bongo drums.  He did experiments in bars on the most effective ways to pick up women.  He read great books.  He had great conversations.  He lived an absurdly interesting life and was adored by his students.  Because he never felt foolish asking why.  And he never stopped until he was dead. 
            It is all in how you hear it.  I could hear my daughter ask me why squirrels have long tails and sigh and resign myself to trying to explain it.  Instead, I choose to answer to the best of my ability.  To research it and find out more about squirrels so we can talk about them.  To revel in her curiosity and the things that it reminds me that I do know.  And especially to allow her questions to be the gentle push off the diving board and into the deep end of the things I do not know.

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