Still waiting for the right questions

My two sons are full of questions. How does a telephone work? How come concrete is hard? What time is it in Australia? Some I can answer; others, I show them how to look up. Distressingly, my most frequent answer seems to be, "I don't know. Let's ask Dad."

This is a disturbing situation to someone like me, who struggles to be a good female role model for her sons, to raise boys who view women as equally able to do all that they might - to combat the notion that women can't excel at math, build things, or succeed in sports. Meanwhile, I'm waiting for "my" Jeopardy categories to appear.

The gaps in my knowledge would be easier to bear if I could stake a claim to certain areas of expertise, but my husband is annoyingly well-rounded. He is an artist and an engineer. H can also miraculously recall odd bits of data from junior high geography, like the name of the highest peak in South America. (Answer: Aconcagua.) Worse, he encroaches on my territory with his overlapping knowledge of history, current events, and punctuation - not that the kids are asking.

I tell myself that the prevalence of "Dad questions" is because I have boys interested in traditional male things such as building, big trucks, and weapons. No one is asking me about the subplots of "Madame Bovary," what caused the Depression, or even how to make pancakes. They'll appreciate my knowledge later, I think.

In the meantime, I try to inspire them with my willingness to do things that are hard for me: tangrams, jigsaw puzzles, and plumbing. "Just because I don't know how doesn't mean I can't learn," I say, as they - with frightened looks - watch me hunt for a monkey wrench. "And did you know," I throw in, "that the monkey wrench was named for a guy whose name was Monke?"

My husband doesn't gloat. He knows that someday the boys will be wowed by my explanations of the history of philosophy. For now, he's eager to help me acquire some of his expertise, confident in my ability to learn. He tries to teach me how to use his power tools, certain I can. He's told me (dozens of times) which sequence of buttons to push on two remotes to change from TV to VCR. Still, in weaker moments he moans, "Oh, this is painful to watch!" as I proceed to do it my way. That's when I trot out my special weapon: the chicken coop.

Years before we had kids we lived near downtown L.A. in a tiny Spanish house with a deep yard. First I planted a vegetable garden; then I decided I needed chickens. My husband, who was still in school, spending nights at the computer lab and days acquiring all that math and science to make me look bad in front of the children we had yet to have, said, "Chickens? Are you nuts?" And then finally, "OK, but you're on your own."

"What? You don't think I can build a lousy chicken coop?" I said, fuming, as I worried about just how lousy it would be.

He'd look up from his book on spherical trigonometry to receive updates on my posthole digging. I'll never forget (or let him forget) the triumph I felt when I called him outside to try out the gate I had built, the one that swung shut perfectly with an even half-inch to spare all around.

I recently came across a picture of that coop with Flora, Henrietta, and Darla (who later sprouted combs and were renamed Floyd, Henry, and Darryl). I waved that picture under the noses of my uninterested sons.

The car is where I'm most frequently shown up. Questions come fast and furious from the back seat. My younger son, Nate, is a budding scientist and stuffed just slightly fuller with questions than older brother Sammy. Nate is into quantifiables. He does not accept general answers. "No, I mean exactly, Mom!" he'll say. Sometimes I'll plead, "Look, I'll explain the origins of the universe another time! Right now I'm merging!" But the day came when I'd had enough. Time to face the quizmaster head on.

Nate had asked a question about black holes and had rejected my answer that sounded just like what it was: a whimsical guess. I decided to preface my usual, "Dad would know," with some background information. "You know," I said, "Dad knows a lot of different things, and I know about a lot of other different things."

"You do? Like what?" Nate asked with interest.

Suddenly my mind went blank. "Well, I, uh, know about literature, and, um, history, and the arts, and current events, and the world."

I was just warming up when Nate cut in. "The world? You know about the world?"

"Well, yeah," I answered, a little wary of the excitement in his voice, but envisioning perhaps a discussion of Greek culture.

"Great!" he said with relish. "Then Mom, tell me, is the earth magnetic?"

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