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Why?

Why am I writing this column? Because I promised that I would and it’s due, uh, yesterday. Why? Because I do it every two weeks. Why? Because I get a thrill out of the possibility that I might accidentally inspire someome to think, laugh, or even act on occasion. Why? Uh, because I have the mysterious ego common to all writers. Why?

The astute among you may be surmising right about now that my daughter has entered one of the famous “why” periods. It is, as all reports promised it to be, incredibly impressive in its suddenness and its endurance. Since we are a household of nerds and default to gamely continuing to answer as long as we can (circumstances and brain cells permitting) we frequently find ourselves in pretty deep. After all, from “Why is it nap time?” to explaining the earth’s rotation is only three or four short jumps at most. (Happily we have cousins in Singapore right now, which helps to put a face, as it were, on “the other side of the world where it’s day/night time now.”)

Not that it’s all high-flying early education. The power of why is that it can be applied to anything: “I want crackers.” “OK, here.” “Why you give I crackers?”

Or, in perhaps its purest form: “Eh. [very short pause] Why I say ‘Eh?’ ” (I suppose if you wanted to, you could call these explorations into cause, effect, and motivation.)

It’s maddening, of course, but also enlightening. What does it mean about my frame of mind that some days I’m inclined to tell her I have to go work because we need money, and other days because there are interesting things I need to do? What do I say to the question “Why am I alive?” How do I answer the question “Why you my mommy?” in a way that’s inclusive of her adopted friends (i.e. not just “because you were in my belly”)?

I may seem to be overthinking this a little (that would be a shocker), but if you’re going to answer a toddler at all, I’ve learned the hard way it’s wise to figure you’re going to be listened to when you least expect it. Today at lunch my daughter overheard her mama, in the process of wondering about how it works to run for vice president with a four-month-old baby, say the phrase “throw a baby in day care.” She looked up from her bowl of food and instantly needed a clarification and reassurance that no babies were actually being thrown anywhere.

Which is to say, most of these questions don’t keep me up at night or anything, but in general when it comes to answering the abstract ones, I’d usually rather stall than come up with something I’ll have to totally contradict later. And that becomes quite the introspective exercise.

Somehow the archetypical why-asking child in my head usually asked tricky scientific questions (“Why is the sky blue?”), veering occasionally into the realm of “religious” (“What happens to people after they die?”).

Though I clearly should have, I didn’t really expect so many questions that force me to put a point on my own values or my own take on societal customs. They’re trickier than I expected. “Why we a family?” “Why you love I?” “Why I need clothes outside?”

I have recently covered with her: not hurting people, not wasting food or water, why people get tired, why it’s nice to spend time outside in the woods sometimes, why most people don’t like to spend all their time alone, and approximately 4,000 other subjects. At my more sleep deprived, I find myself tempted to organize an endurance bout between my daughter and recalcitrant bureaucrats or “customer service” reps:

“No.” “Why?” “Because it’s our policy.” “Why?” “Because it’s our policy.” “Why?” First one to deviate or get incoherently cranky loses.

Or maybe that’s a waste of an incredible amount of power. The “why” stream keeps me on my toes enough that maybe we should institute kids in their why phases as adjunct presidential debate moderators. After each question and the first-blush answer, the kids would get to keep asking “why” until they and/or the audience was satisfied.

“We’ve won in Iraq.”

“Why?”

“Because I said so.”

“Why?”

“Because we’ve killed a lot of people.”

“Why?”

“Because they hate America and freedom.”

“Why?”

“Because they do.”

“Why?”

And so on.

In e. e. cummings’s fairy tale “The Old Man Who Said ‘Why,’ ” a man who persists in asking “why” of a fairy, who quickly gets sick of him, gets younger every time he asks it. Perhaps a good round of “why” could help us all ward off the aging effects of following American politics.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

www.mjoy.org

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