It’s the questions that will make you the most nuts. The why’s and the how come’s and the what if’s. The hypotheticals and the rhetoricals. The questions at just the wrong time, because can’t they see you’re juggling one pot on the stove that’s about to boil over with another that their 3-year old brother decided to pull out of the drawer and use as a drum, while trying to use your sock (still on your foot) to clean up the milk one of them just spilled?
There are a lot of things about kids that will do it to you, but it’s the questions that will make you the most nuts.
You want to be patient, to encourage their inquisitiveness, to be fully present with their curiosity. So can’t they just ask their questions when it’s convenient?
It was one of those moments when 8-year old Owen asked the question about keyboards. One of the wrong moments. I’d snapped at him with the standard “because that’s just the way they are.” Then followed it up with, “Why don’t you ask Siri?” Not my proudest dad moment. Don’t ask me, one of the most important people in your life. Go ask a faceless robot.
Later that night, with all three kids in bed and the house quiet, I remembered his question. And remembered my response. He’d gone to bed with that as one of our last interactions of the day. I wanted to fix it, to be able to have a real conversation with him first thing in the morning about the origins of QWERTY, so I turned to the place I turn to most in desperate situations like this. Google. Why are keyboards arranged the way they are? In seemingly random order. Why aren’t they alphabetical? Or even in reverse alphabetical order? Something other than QWERTY randomness, at least.
Google wasn’t frustrated by my questions. She (Google’s a she, right?) informed me that QWERTY has been with us since the 1870s. Not only were keyboards not attached to glowing screens in the 1870s, they weren’t even connected to any source of electrical power. The word “keyboard” itself didn’t exist — it was called a “typewriter,” and the keys were mechanically linked to actual physical letters. When pressed hard enough, the levers activated to press the physical letter through an ink ribbon, imprinting the letter onto a sheet of paper. Through several iterations, a Milwaukee newspaper editor named Christopher Sholes discovered that the QWERTY layout we still use today was optimal for preventing mechanical keys and ribbon from getting jammed. (Brief aside — yes, we have Milwaukee to thank for at least two things that should be obsolete — the QWERTY keyboard and Miller Lite.)
Full of pride, the wise dad, I explained this to Owen at breakfast the next morning, complete with pictures of that great relic of the past — the typewriter. I was surprised when, instead of heaping platitudes of dadness upon me, he looked at me as if I had two additional heads sprouting out of my shoulders. Stunned, he asked, “Why hasn’t anyone ever changed it?”
“I have no idea,” I sighed, and bit my tongue before I could add, “Go ask Siri.”
Why hasn’t anyone changed it? There are alternatives. Now that keystrokes fire electrons, unencumbered by tangling ribbons and mechanical levers, there are better, more effective keyboard layouts to get the electrons to turn into characters on the screen. No matter how fast you can type now, you could learn to type even faster with one of these more efficient keyboard layouts.
The simple answer is that habits are hard to break. We have a collective habit, and changing it would be really, really hard. Pack-a-day hard. 12-step recovery program hard. In a way, our habit has us stuck with QWERTY. At least until brain wave technology enables characters to show up on the screen just by us thinking about them. Assuming that innovation could get by the powerful QWERTY keyboard lobby. They apparently have a stranglehold on the industry.
We’re stuck with something because of 150-year old limitations — the limitations of mechanical keys and ink ribbons.
What else are we stuck with? Rather, what else are we sticking ourselves with? Are we stuck driving cars and trucks to get places because of all of these roads and highways? Are we stuck with fossil fuels (until there aren’t any more fossils) because we have to use all of the refineries and infrastructure? Are we stuck with too many things, because changing them would mean too much of that very thing — change?
Why hasn’t anybody changed it?
I remember asking these kinds of questions too. Looking at something that just didn’t quite make sense, and asking why it was the way it was. After you hear “because that’s just the way it is” enough times, you stop asking. God must want it that way. You lose the curiosity of childhood, the wonder and awe of a world that doesn’t quite make sense, your brain adapting to all of these new experiences, assimilating them into your understanding.
And maybe that’s why the questions make you the most nuts. Not because they’re asked at the wrong time. Not because there’s no good answer. But because you realize that you yourself have stopped asking them. Because you learned long ago to accept things the way that they are, because that’s just the way it is.
And that’s a tough realization.
A few days later, on the way to piano lessons, Owen asked another question. “Why do turn signals work the way they do?”
I held back the instinctive because that’s just the way they’re made, “I’m not sure. How else could they work?”
“Well, if you’re following the GPS then the car could just signal automatically. Or maybe you could just say ‘right turn’ and the signal would come on.”
Not bad, I thought. The kid has ideas. And even if I’ve lost the ability, or the curiosity, or the naivety to ask these kinds of questions, I can still listen to him when he asks them. And when I do that, I realize that maybe they’re not so nuts after all.