Q: How can you tell if a diamond is real or fake? (Nicholos Greene, Grade 5)
Take a nice, long considering stare at the fella who bought it for you. Is he clean-shaven? Does he have on nice slacks? Go with your gut.
If only this had come 40 years earlier and someone had given my mother the same advice.
Q: Why do boomerangs come back when you throw them? (Beth Soucy-Pallokat, Grade 8)
In my experience, they don’t. On my 13th birthday (when I was about your age!), my dad gave me one, made with his own two hands, so he said. He felt bad, I guess, since he missed my birthday the year before, being in prison for holding up a liquor store with a banana in his coat. He made a big hullabaloo about his present this time, claiming 10 hours spent fashioning it from a scrap of firewood. No matter how hard we tried, though, we couldn’t make it do right. His glorified stick just kept wobble-lobbing through the air, veering off into trees and Dad’s car, as if to insist it would do what it pleased instead of the designed intention. So I couldn’t get it to work, and neither could my father, who became more and more compensatory about the whole thing the longer we were out there, and finally I threw a huff fit and snapped the stick over my leg and left Dad standing there with it, which I realize now must have been the point at which he decided missing birthdays was the better choice, since from that point on he never came around again.
Q: Who invented math? (West Middle School Science Club, Binghamton, NY)
I had an uncle once—Dad’s little brother, Hale—who claimed that he did, that he’d been plopped down here in time by a demon who wanted to disrupt the universe. The Great Screaming Halt, as he called it, was to occur on November 6, 1988, when a giant slide of glass would float out of the black of the universe and slide as a lens in front of the sun, frying us all. I loved Hale. He’d show up drunk at our house in the middle of the night with all kinds of equations and symbols written on his face and arms, information he said he couldn’t afford to lose. Then he and Dad would start arguing about it, Dad being an enthusiastic Christian who believed that the world was going to end not by Hale’s abominations but by the ones the Bible tells: fire, plagues, Jesus from the sky, and whatnot. Every time, they’d end up drunk, falling over the floor on each other while I sat and watched, not scared so much as trying to figure out who I wanted to win: Dad or Hale? If they were still going at it when Mom got home, she’d make me go lock myself in the bathroom until the scene broke up (Hale was dangerous, she said; he’d strangled a man); but by then Hale had already made an impression on me. I started trying to come up with my own ideas like Uncle Hale’s, based on hours of research and study of numbers barfed out in error by our dot-matrix printer, the static on the TV, what have you. Before Hale died he made real sure that he’d planted his seed inside me—sequestered me with the passion, if you know what I mean, and, really, I point to him as the reason I got interested in school and therefore why I’m sitting here enlightening you and the world’s children on the mysteries of science.
Q: How does burning gasoline make a car move? (Takoma Park Middle School, Takoma Park, MD)
I surely don’t want you to believe it’s always like this, but sometimes it’s not the gas at all and just the desire of the person inside the car that makes it vroom. When my father took off, putting the pedal to the metal in his ‘72 Buick, he didn’t have a cent, but somehow he found his way across the country in that car, so draw your own conclusions. Mom and I were left with no wheels thenceforth, so, in the months after, she had to walk three miles to work, or else call someone to pick her up, which in most cases was Uncle Hale. Soon, despite her warnings to me, she was having him over even when it wasn’t for a car ride. Hale started hanging around the house more after that, until finally he moved in. Nights on the sofa first, then into Dad’s side of the bed, eating his grits and slurping the coffee in the morning, calling Mom Jeanie (her middle name) like Dad had, and then even wearing his clothes. Mom seemed to have decided to love him for lack of anything else. She kept him on even when he started taking his ideas out on me: measuring my reactions to heat, pressure; using my skin to write down what he couldn’t fit on his own. Though it hurt, I still thank him for the birth of my thirst. I’m no ingrate.
Q: Is AIDS the only incurable disease? (Saturday Academy, Ithaca, NY)
I’d like to think so, dears. I really would. I’d like to say, “Yes, don’t listen to the Uncle Hales out there—learn to imagine the world as big and bright and golden and full of nothing that can stop you.”
But, honestly, I can’t. It wouldn’t be right. So I’m just going to lay it out there. And, believe me, this is only a thumbnail. A little taste.
What we’ve got is: diabetes, chlamydia, Ebola, cancer, schizophrenia, leukemia, autism, bad taste, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, infertility, Hurler’s syndrome, Hunter’s syndrome, Goldberg’s syndrome, Sly’s syndrome, ADD, COPD, MS, pseudomyxoma, Krabbe’s disease, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, Alzheimer’s, chronic fatigue syndrome, cystic fibrosis, asthma, bipolar disorder, killer flu. And additionally: nepotism, bad breeding, stupidity, blindness, deafness, war, open-mouthed popcorn chewing in quiet movies, traffic, jealousy, aging, dying, death. And oh yes, genital herpes. Good luck.