Since we first picked our knuckles up from the ground, lit a fire, and covered our nakedness, mankind has been grappling with the Big Questions. Pondering the meaning of life, the flow of time, and the movement of the sun and stars has resulted in brilliant moments of philosophy, creative works that stand the test of time, and great leaps in our scientific understanding. And yet, we don't have all the answers.
Despite thousands of years of philosophers, poets, and scientists putting their minds to the task, I still can't explain "tomorrow" to my kids.
"Is it tomorrow right now?"
"But yesterday you said that it will be tomorrow in the morning."
"Yes, and that was true yesterday, but this morning is today."
"When is it going to be tomorrow?"
"There is no tomorrow?"
"Oh, no, there is one, but when we get there it turns into today."
"I'm going to die before I ever get to tomorrow."
"ACK! Don't say that. Yes, well, I guess you will. We all will, but that doesn't mean we're dying today. Look, something shiny!"
Time is an all-consuming and entirely confusing concept to children. They hear us talk about it constantly so they want more than anything to master it. Don't we all?
"Is it once in a while yet?" my daughter wants to know.
"Is it once in a while yet? You said I can wear my flip-flops once in a while, so is it once in a while?"
I did tell her that. She can't walk in those things but she adores them. So I put her off with the classic, "Those are once in a while shoes." She figures it out though. "Oh! I know! I can wear them when we eat french fries, because that's a once in a while food!" Move over Immanuel Kant, we've got a new master of Reason.
They know that minutes can be long or short but haven't figured out how to control which type of minutes they experience. My, "OK, in a minute," response to a request for something invariably means the long kind, whereas, "Bedtime in five minutes," usually involves the short ones. I might have revelled in my power over Time once, a power not meant to be wielded by mortal men. I stretched and shortened minutes, bent hours and days to my will. And then Luke learned to tell time. Damn that school of his!
Children spend their days trying to understand the world around them. They come up with explanations for the weather, lunar cycles, why they can't see their eyes in their shadows, and how people in Antarctica cope with being upside down all the time. Bigger kids explain the mysteries of the universe to littler kids, making up for lapses in knowledge with profoundly unfounded confidence.
Now my daughter tells me that wishes she was a boy so the sun wouldn't always be in her eyes in the car on the way home from school. And I find myself explaining the Earth's rotation to someone who is not listening or getting it because her mind is full and otherwise occupied, figuring it all out.