When we were teenagers Andrea and I spent an awkward day at the State Fair together. We wandered around aimlessly discussing important topics that were of mutual concern, such as how our peers were ridiculous and we were afraid of the future. We, however, avoided any of the fun food that was embarrassing to eat, and didn’t even look at the rides which might force us to show hard to explain emotions in front of each other. It was one of our better dates, honestly.
While we were there we happened upon an exhibit in the science building that I found very intriguing. I somehow managed to talk her into trying it out with me. The experiment required two people to sit at a table facing each other separated by a screen that was something like a one-way mirror. A knob on one side of the table would then control the opacity of the mirror and blend the image of the two people together. The result was a face, visible to both people, that was their own reflection merged with that of the other person.
Andrea was apprehensive, but I was able to drag her over and force her down into the chair just long enough to twist the knob and see what a combination of the two of us would look like.
The moment Andrea saw this Frankenstein combination of our faces she literally kicked over her chair and ran out the door. I chased after her, completely confused, apologizing at the top of my lungs (Although I had no idea what I had even done wrong. I was good husband material even back then.). She retreated down the midway, and I sprinted after her through crowds of people that watched us shove our way past. Then the crowds turned to their own dates and lamented about how ridiculous their peers were and how they were afraid of the future.
Andrea never told me what had gone wrong, so it was several years later that I finally delved deep enough into Andrea’s psyche to find that the Melding Mirror had churned up one of her deepest fears: the fear of having ugly children. This strange machine had given her a view to into a possible future, and what she saw was a blurry young teenager with Andrea’s long hair and my big nose and dark eyebrows, and this image had sent her fleeing in terror.
It was one of Andrea’s greatest reliefs when Clara was born and it turned out that she was actually not a hideous caricature combination of all of our worst traits. Apparently, Andrea and I could somehow create beautiful children. Who knew?
But there are darker waters at work in the world. And there is more to a child than simply being the physical combination of their mother and father’s facial structure. While Andrea was relieved, holding this perfect little baby in her arms, I was placing my ear to its chest and listening to the gentle tick-tock of its internal mechanisms, freshly wound, all of the little girl’s inner belts and pulleys whirring away as her eyes darted around the world. There were mysteries still hidden within, and colors yet to be mixed. Sure, the child was beautiful, but what about her mind? What shade would this, and other future children see when they looked at the world with one eye given to them by their literal fact loving mother, and the other gifted to them from their father who sees everything as an absurd metaphor for something else entirely? Surely this was the collision we should have feared the most, all along. And we are only just now discovering how far the shards of glass have been flung in this high-speed impact of conflicting minds.
For instance, this year Andrea has enrolled the children into a home-school co-op. In addition to their regular learning of math and reading around the kitchen table, the children spend one day a week in a classroom learning about science and history with a group of other children. They sing songs and tell stories and do little experiments together. I’ve been amazed by the fantastic number of pure facts that are being crammed into their little minds. I sit down to read them a book in the evening and they enthusiastically tell me the whole timeline of human history, without ever breathing. Every significant event that has ever happened in the world, all in a single quivering breath.
The other day, in the checkout line, something triggered a thought in Clara’s mental chamber and she suddenly blurted out that “Balboa crossed Central America to the Pacific!” I was startled by this possessed revelation and quickly performed a search on my phone. Sure enough, what she was telling me was true. I congratulated her on her strong memory, but I then had to correct her and explain that what I had in fact been talking about, before she interrupted me with this fact bomb, was not Balboa the great explorer, but rather Bazooka Joe the great Bubble Gum. And Bazooka Joe is something I feel is far more important for her to know about than Balboa. I explained about the magic of gum that was wrapped in comic books, and we talked about other amazing things that could be wrapped in even more amazing things. A world of Candy Turducken possibilities. But, I could tell. She was talking about bubble gum, but her mind was still thinking about Balboa. No doubt, our conversation only served to muddy the waters of pure facts that are so quickly filling up her mind. Was it Bazooka Joe that crossed Central America to the Pacific? I can hardly remember.
I considered this as we walked to our car. Were Andrea and I already overriding each other’s efforts to form our children’s minds? Were we creating little thinkers that will be constantly at odds with themselves, with one foot planted in the real world of facts, and the other across the chasm in the world of fantasy? Would they eventually fall into this dark chasm as the divide grows wider with age?
I was still pondering these things in our basement the other day when two young girls came twirling into the room singing one of their songs from school. The song was about Rome and something called the Pax Romana. I have looked this up as well. It’s apparently the term for a peaceful period in the nation of Rome. The girls were so happy, I almost felt bad stopping them.
“Girls,” I said softly, “I think you are confused. Those are not the correct words to that song.”
The girls rolled their eyes at me. Of course, they were the correct words. I was just old and my mind was dry and slow; I had forgotten what their fresh young minds now knew.
“No.” I said sadly. “In this case. I am correct. You are wrong.”
They looked at each other and sighed.
“Please,” I said finally, “tell me, without singing, the name of the Emperor of Rome during the time of the Pax Romana.”
They told me without hesitation.
“Yes. That is as I feared. You see, the Emperor of Rome was named Caesar Augustus.”
They blinked at me.
“Just that,” I said. “Caesar Augustus. Period. Not Caesar Augustus Gloop.”
I waited for them to understand.
“Guys,” I continued. “Caesar Augustus, was the Emperor of Rome. Augustus Gloop was the fat kid that got sucked up the pipe in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” We had just finished reading this book a few weeks before.
Clara looked confused. “The boy that loved chocolate and fell into the river?” she asked.
“Yes!” I nodded.
“He was the Emperor of Rome?”
“Y-“ I stammered, “No!” I threw my hands in the air. “He was just… He was just a large German boy!” My mind swirled with how insulted Caesar Augustus would have been to be associated with this Germanic Barbarian child. “Caesar Augustus and Augustus Gloop. They are two different people.” I tried to get the information out as quickly and clearly as possible, to alleviate the damage. “Caesar Augustus, Emperor of Rome. Augustus Gloop, a made-up character in a book that gets sucked up a pipe in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory!” Even I was starting to get mixed up a bit.
The two of them laughed, “Oh! Caesar Augustus Gloop!” they sang and then continued twirling away, their minds like great wet wads of shredded text book paper, balled up and reformed into papier-maché caricatures. Mathematics, a jumble of symbols and shapes incoherently designed to look like a dancing zebra. Science, a leaning tower of pie charts and diagrams, with the important parts covered by glued on shells and pieces of bark. World History, torn and illegible, crumbled up and stuffed together in the shape of a fat German boy. Andrea’s long hair, and my big nose and dark eyebrows, blurring together to form beautiful yet eternally confused and confusing children.