You don’t have to be a parent to know that children of a certain age are fond of asking crazy questions. The most common, of course, is the generic “why?”, but at least there’s always an answer for that one (even if it takes you a little while to think of that answer). Tougher still are the curveballs of all varieties: the absurd ( “Why can’t I be a potato when I grow up?”); the darling (“Can we just all live in this house together, even after I’m a grown-up and an old lady?); and the devastating (“What if we don’t all stay together after we die? What if I die first?”).
One thing you don’t really count on, though, are really good questions with cut-and-dried answers — that you just don’t know. There’s nothing like an inquisitive five-year-old to show you what an effeminate pansy you are.
Case in point: We’re driving to school this morning, and our route takes us through a town with handful of trailer parks visible from the road. A new arrival is sitting at the entrance to the park, still on a flatbed. Ezra is intrigued.
“How’d they put the wheels on those houses, Dad?”
Well, I say — they just came with wheels on them.
“Can we put wheels on our house?” This is day 2 of this wheeled-house conversation. A house-car hybrid is something he could really get into.
We can’t put wheels on our house, I say. Even if we could, I wouldn’t know how to go about such a thing.
And then Mia pipes in. “Daddy, how are tires made?” Just like that. “How are tires made?”
And I realize, that a) there is definitely a right answer to this, and b) I’m not sure I know it.
Now, usually I’m not shy about saying “I don’t know” when I don’t know something, but for some reason that wasn’t an option this morning. I felt like this is something I should know, being an adult and, more specifically, a man who drives a car with four extremely overpriced tires on it.
And before I can even think about it, I blurt out an explanation: “Well, they melt down the rubber,” I say, “until it’s a liquid. Then they pour it into the mold of a tire, and then when it cools, you have tires.”
The moment I finish speaking, I realize I have no idea whether this is actually true or not. There was a vision of that whole process in my brain somewhere, and it was ready to come out — but I have no idea how it got there. I know for certain that I have not witnessed this process firsthand, and I don’t remember ever reading about it or seeing it on TV. No expert has ever personally explained the tire-making process to me, either.
This worries me, because the above-mentioned methods are the only ways I really ever acquire any knowledge at all. If I didn’t learn it one of those ways, my brain may have just invented that explanation on the fly so I wouldn’t feel like such an impotent dimwit on matters of manliness like tires and cars and horsepower and other things that leave your hands so dirty that normal soap takes a backseat to gasoline or turpentine when it comes time to clean up and go home.
Now the story is starting to seem even more ridiculous. Can you even melt rubber down to a liquid? I’ve never seen this happen. What does the pre-melted rubber look like, then? And where does it even come from? I know there was that song when I was a kid that went “Ooops! There goes another rubber tree plant!”, but rubber doesn’t really come from a tree, does it? That was just a stupid kids song, right?
Shit. I now realize that I have no idea how tires are made. I’m going to look it up on the Internet right now…..
….. OK, I’m back, and it turns out my creeping suspicion was correct: Basically, I had no idea what I was talking about. What I unwittingly taught my daughter this morning was that tires are made in a big waffle iron, basically — you pour tire juice in it, heat it up, and out comes a tire.
I am a moron.
Tire-making is surprisingly complex — well, surprising to me, anyway, the guy who thought tires were basically just big waffles underneath your car. Apparently, there’s more than just rubber involved — there’s steel (as in, steel-belted radials. Damnit! I knew that!), carbon, silica, sulphur, and all kinds of synhetic chemicals, polymers and other junk that I don’t feel like copying from Wikipedia.
It could’ve been worse, I guess. She could’ve asked me how babies were made.
At least I would’ve known the answer.