Samuel was lying on the floor on his side, his head on his left arm, playing with two toy cars and singing one of my fiddle tunes. All I could make out was the meter of the tune. He had long since lost the melody, and his monotone, nasal la-la-la-ing altered only in dynamics. Louder when the tune pitched up, quieter when it pitched down. He had the rhythm of it, a somewhat unique meter, but having played it myself a half hour earlier, I recognized it. Normally, his singing is quite expressive for a three year old, but at that time it was not unlike that droning noise he makes when he is up past his bedtime.

He was tired and had been for a couple of hours, the result of a late night and a full day.  Too tired to safely climb onto a couch, much less any climbing apparatus. Two hours earlier, he had mounted a vertical, three rung ladder at a playground – a feat he is more than capable of when well-rested – and then his feet slipped off and he plunged to the ground, his chin whistling past the metal ladder rails, narrowly avoiding an unexpected and unbudgeted trip to the emergency room by a centimeter. He lay on the ground without moving, waiting for the adrenaline haze to clear. By the time I had raced to him, he realized nothing was hurt at all and wrestled himself out of my arms and was running off again. Nevertheless, I revoked his pilot license and grounded him off the monkey bars for the rest of the afternoon.

Now the long day and previous late night were catching up with him.

“Sam, let’s go brush your teeth and get you in the bath.”

Like a light switch, he was vertical, on his feet, jumping excitedly. “Yes! Yes! I want to bring my train. Can I have Thomas in the bath?”

“Yes, Sam, Thomas is a bath toy.”

“Oh good! I want to play with her. Papa, will you brush my teeth in the tub?”

“No problem. Go pee on the toilet first.”

“But I just peed AND pooped.”

“That was an hour ago, and every time you get in this warm tub without using the toilet first, you always pee, at least a little bit. And I just don’t think washing you with pee would be very smart.”

“Good idea, Papa!”

He did his business on the toilet and got in the tub. I handed him the rubber-ducky Thomas the Train, a two-inch-long, flexible, plastic, hollow Thomas with a hole in its smokestack. He immediately dunked it underwater and started to drive it around. I gently held Samuel”s head while I brushed his teeth and while Thomas idled, half-submerged, about his knees. When we were done, Samuel slid over on his belly and began to push Thomas slowly across the surface of the water.

“Look, Papa! She can drive underwater!”

“Very cool. Hey, Sam, I forgot. Why is this Thomas a girl?”

“Because my other Thomas is a boy.”

“Oh, right. I remember now.” The other Thomas being the wooden one in his track set, one of the few painted pieces that wasn’t replaced in the recent lead paint recall. I watched him play, trying to fill Thomas and a squirt the water out. “Can I try to fill him up for you? I mean, her?”

“Sure, Papa.”

I submerged Thomas underwater and squeezed. A stream of noisy bubbles jetted from the smokestack, and Samuel giggled.

“That’s funny, Papa. Do it again!”

I did it again. Several times in fact, because in order to get all the air out of Thomas, I had to tip him … I mean, her … upside-down underwater and move the air trapped in his … her … tender over to the smoke stack. But as I squeezed the air out, some of the trapped air floated back into the tender. Several attempts and much giggling later, Thomas was now saturated, water-logged, and no longer floating. I picked him … her … it … up and flipped … her upside down, and squeezed. A long satisfying jet of water came out, spraying the sides of the tub, the spigot, and Samuel himself.

“Stop, Papa!” he shrieked, laughing. “Let me do it!”

I hand him Thomas and he starts squirting water into the tub, very pleased and excited. Much experimentation with fluid dynamics, the mathematics of parabolas, and parental patience, but his high spirits were kept in check by his general fatigue. Finally he squirted Thomas upside-down, and a light of recognition appeared in his eyes.

“Papa! Look. Her smokestack is a penis and she’s peeing out of her penis!”


The other day, while having an afternoon snack, I overheard Rose, six years old, in the dining room ask Dawn where babies come from.

I heard the drawn-out “Weeellll…”

I thought, “Good question. I wonder what the answer will be.”

Did I hop in and participate? Did I rescue Dawn from this dilemma? Of course not. First of all, I was working in my office and under deadline. Secondly Rose is a girl and Dawn is a girl, and though the timing was early, it would have been Dawn”s job anyway. And finally, Dawn is a physical therapist, trained in a medical school, with a background in biology as well, whereas I am a mathematician by training. Who would you want to explain the facts of like to your child?

Whereas I would have changed color and given any number of slightly inaccurate answers, avoiding the main point at all costs, Dawn would give an answer so medically complete, so biologically accurate, and so scientifically technical that Rose would want to change the subject as quickly as possible. Clearly Dawn was the man for the job.

And a fantastic job she did, explaining human anatomical development with the concise and accurate oration of a consulting family physician with whom you have already used up twenty of his allotted, HMO-dictated fifteen minutes. But my prediction was wrong. Rose followed all of this with the infernal attention span of a Montessori child and asked, “OK. But what I want to know is, how does the sperm get in there?”

The blood was pounding so hard in my ears, I’m not sure I heard the answer clearly, but it was factually correct and appropriately dissimulating at the same time – a true masterpiece of parental tact and medical fact that somehow still preserved our daughter’s innocent understanding of the world.

Five minutes later, Rose was done eating and back to playing fairy games with her Polly Pockets. Dawn came into my room, her forehead glistening, her face flush, her mouth dry. I praised her performance, assured her that with no preparation she had done extraordinarily well, and said I had no criticism to offer whatsoever. Not that I would have been so stupid as to offer criticism at that particular juncture.

(end aside)

“Say that again, Sam?”

“Her smokestack is a penis and she’s peeing out of her penis!”

“Uh, Sam…”

OK, Papa, whoa. Think about what you are going to say, before you say it.

“Actually, Sam, boys have penises and girls have vaginas. So if your Thomas is a girl, she probably doesn’t have a penis.”

“Oh. OK.” This seemed to puzzle him, but only for a moment. “OK, this is her anus. She’s peeing out of her anus!”

Using that tone reserved by parents for when their children assert the ridiculous and you want to show that you are “in” with the joke (whether or not the child is “in” yet), I said “Sam, do you pee out of your anus?”

“Nooo!” he said, laughing at his own silliness.

“Nooo. You poop out of your anus, right?”

“Right, but … but … but, she’s peeing AND pooping out of her anus.”

“Um … ok, but…”

“No, no, no, wait. The smokestack … is her scrotum…”


“and she’s peeing and pooping into her scrotum!”

He looked so pleased with himself. For a moment I thought of Dawn, next door, reading a bedtime book to Rose, but even if she were available, I could not possibly have asked her for assistance.

“Uh, ok, Sam. Just … uh … just keep it inside the tub, ok?”

“OK, Papa.”