Let me tell you right off the bat what “why” machines are. Actually not what but who. Why machines are little people as in children. In my case, I have specific children in mind: two of my grandkids. Now, all of my grandkids ask “why,” but two in particular have elevated the question from curiosity to ontology, a form of being. Simply put, they are why, and they never stop asking the question.
Why do I bring this up? If you have children, grandchildren, godchildren, have seen children, or can spell the word, you know they are filled with questions. Their little minds take in information from the world around them like crustaceans scraping the sea floor for morsels of food. I use that metaphor, because sometimes I think of children as crabs scurrying along, ready to pinch anything that crosses their path. Maybe that’s just my grandchildren. They delight in having me chase them through the house as the “monster.” I sympathize with Dr. Frankenstein’s creature.
The two in question (we’ll name them after the minions Kevin and Edith), are part of a set of triplets, which includes another girl. The triplets are four years old, and the two girls look similar enough to be fraternal twins. They have dark hair and eyes, hazel and brown. Their brother is blue eyed and blond haired. He could be the adopted kid of the trio, which, of course, he isn’t, but it may explain the difference between him as a “why” machine and his sister. They both pummel me with “why” questions as if I were in a batting cage, but their internal processes appear to be different. I’m not sure that matters much trying to watch a movie with them. For I am as easily pummeled by one as the other.
Hazel-eyed Edith, often wearing a costume dress with Elsa from Frozen on it, asks why, listens to my answer, reflects on it, and then asks a follow-up question that seeks further information until the answer she gets finally relates to her lived experience, which, at four years old isn’t much, but it’s something. This cycle repeats itself, sometimes indefinitely. We expect her to become a mathematician or costume designer, possibly both.
Kevin fidgets in his worn Spiderman costume, sometimes with the full head mask on, and shoots why questions at me as if at a firing range. He doesn’t appear to reflect on the answers but accumulates the information and slows down only when he approaches what often feels like the end of a questionnaire. Then he turns the questionnaire over and starts at the top again. Rat-a-tat-tat.
That’s probably unfair. I know he thinks about the information I give him, but his questions have more to do with cause and effect than reflection, which is to say more scientific, less philosophical. For instance, why do they wear dark pants on Star Trek? he asks. Because that’s the uniform. What’s a uniform? It’s a costume for work. Why do some people wear blue shirts and others red? The red ones are the police. Why? It’s in the script.
You can see two things here: (1) I’ve got them following Star Trek, the original series, to the bewilderment of their mother, and (2) I’ve learned how to flip the switch off in the batting cage. As a side note, I didn’t have the heart to show them pictures of the current Captain Kirk boarding the Blue Origin space flight. Hopefully, he won’t spin that into another one-man show on Broadway.
You may think I am being cruel to my grandson, but I prefer to think of it as helping him develop a sense of humor so that years from now he will tell dad jokes (see “Don’t Call Me Shirley”). I may not be around to see it, but I take profound joy knowing that one day he will continue the tradition. He might even offer a ridiculous answer when his own son pelts him with why.
And, of course, there’s the great philosophical question that Kevin and Edith are circling around and will get to if they pursue their why questions long enough, hard enough. To wit, something or somebody had to have started the ball rolling in the first place. Maybe then they’ll come to understand the real answer to why.
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