Let’s play 20 (thousand) questions

If you are the father of a new baby boy and you are feeling a little left out because junior only seems to have eyes for Mommy and her rolling hills of milk and honey, take heart. Your day will come. Your day will come with a suffocating vengeance. Junior will cover you with love, elbows, knees, and incessant questions before you know what hit you.

Boys start climbing up and down Daddy as toddlers. This isn’t so bad. Toddlers aren’t very heavy. Yes, they have sharp corners, but there is usually not enough force behind the pointy parts to cause Daddy any serious internal damage. More importantly, toddlers don’t ask a steady stream of questions just to hear themselves talk. They may talk a steady stream of gibberish at you, but all you have to do is smile and nod to keep them happy.

a horse of course

They’ll ride you like an army mule.

Five-year-olds are a different story. They can get to be heavy. We’re talking a serious bag of rock salt here. Their love for Daddy can be a painful one. Worse, five-year-olds are full of Daddy questions. These are not to be ignored, even if the answers are right in front of their faces.

I’m not talking about the occasional, meaningful question – the one that lets a boy put together the pieces of his world to help it make sense. I’m talking about the “narrate the world to me as it passes so I don’t have to pay attention to anything on my own” questions.

Our five-year-old likes to watch history documentaries, especially those dealing with the World Wars. I like watching them too, so this isn’t a problem – until his mouth starts running. For the life of me, I can’t get the boy to understand that if he would just shut his pie hole and listen to the program, most of his questions would be answered before he asked them.

Moreover, his endless questions make it difficult for me to hear the TV, meaning I have more trouble answering his questions. That is, when his question is something more complex than the ubiquitous, “Are those Germans?” That one I can usually handle without the narrator’s help.

I’ve missed out on a myriad of fascinating tidbits of history answering the “Are those Germans?” question. But the boy occasionally asks a thoughtful question. It’s just too bad he can’t write these down to ask after the program.

WWI German artillery

Yes. They’re Germans. Now can we remain quiet and listen to the program for 10 seconds?

In an awkward oversimplification, I have categorized Nazis as the “bad Germans” for him. This leads him to the very reasonable question: “What happened to all the good Germans.” I only wish I were smart enough to answer that. This boy has a strong sense of right and wrong, and great pride in his German heritage. It pains me that I can’t reconcile these things for him. Even his good questions give me fits.

The good news is that I only have to hem and haw over the deep questions I can’t answer for a few seconds before we fall into our old, comfortable give and take:

“Are those Germans?”

“No. They’re Italians.”

“Oh. How about those? Are they Germans?”

“Nope. Greeks.”

Meanwhile, the unheard narrator drones on with his superfluous facts, far less important than labeling everyone in every picture.

Germany rules when Germany makes the rules

It took six hours to assemble our new basketball backboard and bracket. Thanks to instructions compiled by competing factions of preschoolers, those six hours transpired thus: two hours of making progress; two hours of undoing my supposed progress; and two hours of actual assembly, incorporating all I learned about the deficiencies of the instructions during the previous four hours.

Next came two hours of removing the rust-encrusted, old hardware from the pole. This didn’t come with instructions, which is why it did not require six hours. It would have taken less time if I’d been swift enough to cut through the bolts sooner, rather than waste time tugging at intractable nuts. The time I wasted tugging at intractable nuts is embarrassing.

set shot

When I play against him, I feel like an NBA superstar, because I’m not expected to play defense.

It was all worth it. My son loves the new backboard.

He wants to play basketball all the time now. I can see the hoop dreams in his eyes as he calls dibs, “I’m gonna be Michigan State!” Then he wants to know if I want to be the University of Michigan. I’d be justified in spanking him for even asking such a question, but I just roll my eyes.

“Or do you want to play Olympics?” he asks, sensing my disgust at his previous suggestion.

“Let’s play Olympics.”

“Okay. I’m Germany.” If you were five and saw a picture of your great-grandfather wearing his Pickelhaube, you’d want to be Germany too. “Do you want to be your favorite country?”

he scores

If it goes in, he wins. If it doesn’t, his opponent loses. So this is a pretty important shot.

“You mean the one in live in?”

“Okay. You’re USA.”

The thing to know about “Olympic” basketball is that Germany always keeps score. And he doesn’t do it by the generally accepted principles of addition.

The rules of international play are foreign to those familiar with American basketball, and arithmetic. When Germany falls behind, the scores are sometimes transposed, magically jumping him into the lead. Germany’s opponent is not allowed to “get in the way” of Germany’s shot. Germany gets extra points for an otherwise routine shot if his heels are on a particular crack in the concrete.

3 pointer

The three-point line. You have to have your heel on it just so, and you have to be Germany.

When Germany is off on a juice break, any shots his opponent makes don’t count, but when that same opponent steps away to attend to one of Germany’s little brothers, Germany is free to rack up points in his absence.

Germany’s opponent sometimes gets points deducted from his score for inadequate deference to the need for Germany to have the most points by the end of the game.

toddler in the way

“You go move Buster off of the court and I’ll see how many points I can accumulate while you’re doing it.”

But I have a say in the rules too. Being a stickler for such things, I insist Germany dribbles the ball occasionally as he moves about the court. To his credit, Germany complies, whenever he doesn’t forget.

At one point, Germany actually let himself fall behind in a game. I grew concerned that his endurance was flagging. But he rallied, creatively score-keeping his way back into the lead.

Germany is undefeated, having bested the USA, Mexico, Canada, and Italy. I haven’t decided what nation I’ll select to be his next victim.

Yes, I was raised in a barn. Thank you for asking.

I learned lots of lessons in the barn. You remember things you learn in a barn. Sometimes I wish my boys could live on a farm so they could learn stuff in the barn, because those lessons would stick with them. But that would make me a farmer, and I’ve grown far too soft for that life.

A few subjects I studied in the barn:


When I was four, I got promoted from my entry level position of cow caller. As cow caller, I sat on a rock and called the cows down from the pasture at milking time. It was a cushy job, and proportionally unnecessary: the cows generally came down on their own.


Is it milking time yet?

“Did somebody call us? We’re just waiting to get in and get milked if you need us.”

My new, important job was tail holder. The tail holder holds cows’ tails while an older sibling attaches the milking machine to the appropriate utter appendages, because getting swatting in the face by a cow’s tail can be painful and disgusting.

Holding a cow’s tail can have its own ick factor. I would try to ignore the particularly filthy tails, or I would hold a single strand of tail hair between my thumb and forefinger, effectively holding nothing.

When my sister slid between two cows to perform her utter manipulations, I often pretended that the cow behind her was no threat. She tended to disagree, as this was the tail perfectly positioned to wrap itself around her face.

This inspired her to give my first mathematics lecture: “Where there are two cows, there are two tails.” At first, she gave the lesson verbally. Eventually, it came with a dose of punishment the likes of which only a tail-smacked teenaged girl can dish out.

I learned.

The joy of milking

Mr. Cool is holding his own tail – easy to do if there’s no cow behind you and you’re just playing around under there. 

Animal Psychology

The cows aren’t trying to kill you, little boy. No matter how many times they kick you in the head, which they do often when you’re four feet tall, they aren’t determined to see you dead.

Cows kick you because you annoy them. Stop annoying them and they will stop kicking you. They would much rather be chewing on something they spit out yesterday than troubling themselves to fling a hind hoof in your direction.

You people are always plucking at their lady berries. Maybe their lady berries don’t feel like it right now. Also, they don’t always want somebody hindering the free movement of their tails, and sometimes they aren’t comfortable with you standing behind them at all.

They almost never chase you down to kick you in the head. If a cow really wanted you dead, she’d crush you with her head.

Caveat: Bulls do want you dead. They hate children most of all, and they will kill you any chance they get.


“I’m not really comfortable around children.”


A 50-pound  boy is never really in charge of an 80-pound calf.

Calves are so cute and cuddly – unless you are the 1st grader whose job it is to water a vicious pack of them.

Calves gain weight quickly. When they still look cute and cuddly they outweigh the skinny kid watering them. Calves are fiends for water, if the water is meant for the next calf. Three of them at once can fit their crazed heads into a standard steel pail, so long as all the water has been splashed out on the skinny kid. None of them can get their heads out.

If a calf wants his head in there, all that can stop him is the three calf heads already stuck in the pail. The skinny kid they just push out of the way, until they get tall enough to kick him in the head.

Attack the water boy

“Look! There’s a kid with a water bucket. Let’s get him!”

My kids won’t have the benefit of these lessons. I guess they’ll just have to study harder than I did in school.


-Images by Arthur Rothstein, Russell Lee, and John Vachon for the US Farm Security Administration.

Armageddon diaper

School’s out. This allowed me my first day at home caring for all three boys. No more dropping off Big Brother at kindergarten and spending my day off work juggling just Buster and New Baby. Now, we’re all in it together.

Though I do okay on my Mr. Mom days, we have our moments when things tend toward chaos.

New Baby likes his milk. He takes the bottle well, which is a giant boon to the father-infant relationship. After the bottle, he paints his diaper with his love of milk. This is a good thing; the system works – until it works too well.

I was holding him on my lap when I heard the first rumblings. Before I could react, the rumblings grew into a swelling tympani roll of flatulent evacuation. All of my facial orifices gaped wide as I realized there was no escaping an epic blowout.

rear view of baby's diaper

For those within the radius of total destruction, there is no point in running.

In horror I watched the goo rush up a gap in the back of the diaper. Like magma under volcanic pressure, it shot up the crevasse and spewed into the air. There was no hope for my clothes. I understood this and was resigned.

But we were sitting on the bare couch. I like my couch.

I’ve been peed on, spit on, puked on . . . but now that I’ve caught flying poop, I can truly say I’ve lived.

Get it before it stains the couch

Diving to catch a poop-fly before it falls in for a base shit.

I threw myself under the airborne globules and hugged my little poop grenade close, taking the brunt of his ick-splosion on my chest and lap. This wasn’t a little staining squirt. It was a flowing stream. I used the dry leg of my pants to sop the drenched leg so none would run onto the couch.

I was a human skid mark, but I saved the couch.

I rushed New Baby to the changing table, behind the couch. Laying him on the table inspired Buster to climb up the couch and offer assistance in pulling open the diaper tape. Since he could hardly touch this diaper without collecting a handful of carnage, I swatted Buster’s fingers away. With my other hand I unfastened the diaper and popped open the box of wipes.

The first wipe only spread the mess. I dropped it into the demolished diaper and blindly reached for another as I concentrated on keeping New Baby from wallowing in his own muck. My hand swept the space where the next wipe should protrude from the box, but came away with air. I swiped lower and hit the barren top of box. I plunged my finger into the box, and was rewarded by hard resistance from the bottom of the empty container.

Crisis situation


Holding New Baby by his ankles, and blowing puffs of air at Buster to dissuade him from lending a hand, I rooted around beneath the table and found a new package of wipes. Getting it open was a moment of parental genius sublime beyond description.

Absorbent reinforcements at hand, I finally made headway against this pooptastrophe.

By the book

. . . on Daddy.

Sensing an opportune moment, Big Brother approached with his favorite question. “Daddy, what can we play?”

I invited him to follow my eyes as they surveyed the crapressionist art that was my front. “How about we play Nobody Poops on Daddy for the Rest of the Day? Doesn’t that sound like fun?”

“That’s not a real game.”

He’s right. It’s not a real game. It’s merely a happy dream I visit when I’m feeling optimistic about the near future.