Five minutes out of the driveway, just about the time the car started warming up and my mug of coffee started cooling off-it started. Windshield wipers swished. Rain fell. Tires splashed. Then: “How long before we get there?”
Science is Wrong: Children Aren’t Blank Slates
I’ve historically accepted the theory that children are linguistically Tabula rasa when born. But as I grow older, I’m beginning to think there are some phrases that are hardwired into them. Phrases like, What’s for dinner? and, Can I watch a movie? and, Are we there yet? Other phrases are hardwired out of children. For example, I’ve never heard one of them ask unprovoked, “When can I go to bed?” or “May I have some more Brussels sprouts, please?” (Brussels sprouts: what are those things anyway?)
Einstein is Right: Children Can Be Annoying
Forget for a moment that temporal dimensionality is less than fully formed in the minds of these small human beings. Forget that Einstein is a name known only because of the “Baby Einstein” cartoons and soundtracks-and realize that Relativity something completely foreign. Those factors aside, there is a real and physical trigger in the minds of children that-like Pavlov’s dog-whenever an engine starts, awareness of time is heightened.
What’s more, the extent to which this awareness is heightened is directly proportional to the distance of the drive-and the rapidity of the hardwired phrases. I can usually predict the next time someone will ask, “How long before we get there?” based on the distance between exits.
So I sip my coffee and pretend I didn’t hear the question. But it’s too late-my mind has begun doing the math in a vain attempt to calculate exactly how long it will take us to traverse 440.6 miles at a variable speed of 20 to 70 miles an hour factoring the pace and intensity of the rain, the number of left-lane drivers, and all the slow-moving eighteen wheelers. And that, without the regular announcements-lacking any forewarning-“I have to pee right now!” A formula arises in the morning haze of my cognition: T=[P*D]+T(squared). Einstein was right. Time does slow down proportional to speed, and the speed of questions about arrival times. (Maybe that’s why Einstein put one of his own children up for adoption.)
Blame It On The Culture
I can’t blame my kids. It’s the culture. So far as I can tell, we’re the only country that tells distance in “time.” Go to Google Maps, type in two locations, ask for the distance and what do you get: a measurement of time. St. Louis, MO to Crossville, TN = 7 hours and 36 minutes. Even Google doesn’t care if I want the distance in measurements of distance. That’s a different formula, and it’s up to me to figure it out. Even restaurants don’t say, “You are number 371 in line.” They know I would leave, and so they pacify me by saying, “It will be about a 7 minute wait.”
Unfortunately, the time-begging is exacerbated by the bland landscape. There just isn’t much to look at between St. Louis and eastern Tennessee. Yes, there are a few familiar landmarks: the Cracker Barrel in Marion, IL; the gas-stop in Paducah, KY; and the “batman building” in Nashville, TN. Besides that-just a lot of woods and fields. I don’t mean to complain. The landscape is infinitely better than that of the Mississippi Delta where-traveling down Highway 61-a game of Eye-Spy lasts all of three rounds. The conversation goes like this:
Me: Hey guys. You should play Eye-Spy.
Child 1: I spy with my little eye, something green.
Child 2: The grass (or fields, or crops). My turn. I spy with my little eye something blue.
Child 3: The sky. I spy with my little eye something black.
Child 1: The road…(moment of silence). Hey daddy, how long before we get there?
Still, the Kentucky flatlands and Tennessee plains aren’t known for their variety of landscape. Heck-why else would Kentucky be known for its bluegrass if something else (anything else) were more abundant? So after I tell the kids to count trees and they reach 1000, the phrases begin again. Almost robot-like, they start coming: How long before we get there? How long before we get there? How long…long…stz…before we get…stz…stz…get…does not compute…how long…how long…how long…howhowhowhowhowhowhow…stzz…!”
When Intelligent Design Doesn’t Help, Improvise
Admittedly, I’ve tried snowballing them. “Do you know that to go from 30 to 60 reduces the time per mile by half, but to go from 60 to 90, the time is only reduced by a quarter?” They stare at me blankly in the mirror, blink, and then ask, “So how long before we get there?” I spy something black. Oh, wait. That’s the back of my rolled up eyeballs!!!
The traffic stops. From the top of one hill I can see the stopped cars stretching out several miles to the next hill. My coffee is all gone. From the backseat: “I have to pee….right now, right now, right….stz…nownownownownownownownow…stz!!!!”
No exits anywhere in sight. Nothing but my empty coffee cup. I pass it back with a grimace: “Now serving number 371.”