I returned to Calvin and Hobbes after I became a father and marveled at my growing list of similarities to Calvin’s dad. I share his permanent slouch, a predisposition toward eye-rolling exasperation, and deadpan skepticism. I also live in his world, the birch-filled landscape of Ohio’s Chagrin Valley, where Bill Watterson grew up and got his inspiration. Lay the comic’s panels over my life and I’m not sure I’d notice. The contours are the same.
Out my window I can see my own Calvin, a thin, shirtless 6-year-old, dragging a stuffed rabbit named NaNa through the leaves and into the woods. He runs circles around the massive tulip trees, making whooshing noises, a Stupendous Man zooming his way through a charmed suburban life.
Professional choices aside — I’m not a patent attorney — there’s really only one way I differ from Calvin’s unnamed dad: I don’t bullshit my kid. Calvin’s dad’s misdirections are a running joke in the comics. He explains that the world wasn’t colorized until the 1930s, that the sun sets near in Flagstaff, Arizona, and that small men work inside ATM machines. And the answers either send Calvin into an existential funk or a glowing appreciation of his dad’s smarts.
I’ve received similar questions from my Calvin: Where did I come from? What makes a cloud? And, yes, I’ve been tempted to make up wild answers. In fact, I did once. But telling him God’s construction equipment moving the clouds was the cause of thunder just seemed to make his fear of the sound even worse.
Honestly, there’s no excuse for me to shrug my shoulders and make something up. I have all of the world’s knowledge at my fingertips. You want to know what a cloud is made of? Cool. I have a phone. The Google algorithm surfaces NASA’s “What are Clouds?” page and there you are. But, as tempting as it is to blame every social shift on the internet, it’s not just that. The giant TV in my family room coughs up endless educational children’s programs. It’s a preemptive strike, answers that arrive before questions.
Hell, if I can’t remember why the sky is blue, I ask my Calvin. He knows.
On a regular basis, thanks to his science show proclivities, my precocious kid confronts me with some strange fact: Ring-tailed lemurs have turf battles with stink. Cucumbers are a fruit. Siphonophores look like one animal but are actually a colony. After a few humiliating fact checks, I learned that he’s usually right. At this point, I would be at his mercy if he decided to weave his own line of bullshit.
Here’s a hard truth Calvin’s dad never had to face: My kid doesn’t need me for knowledge. In fact, he will likely spend most of his life knowing far more than I do. I live in an inversion of Watterson’s world and I’m not super pumped about being upside-down.
But at the same time, there is something magical about the universe my kid is discovering. Some mornings he’ll lay beside me as I sip my coffee and tell me all about his new scientific obsession. I’ll ask questions, he’ll answer, filling in the gaps with a fantasy. And in those moments I think of one of my favorite Calvin and Hobbes strips. One in which Calvin’s dad becomes more like me.
The strip opens as Calvin loses a helium balloon. Suddenly he is immune to gravity. Calvin grapples with being pulled from the face of the earth before suddenly be flung into the sky. But he is saved by grasping the tail of a passing plane.
In the last panel, we see the family around the dinner table. Calvin’s mom argues that she won’t sew velcro on all of his clothes, but Calvin’s dad is leaning on his hand with a big grin. “No, no. Let him finish,” he says. “This is very interesting.”
In this moment, Calvin’s dad recognizes himself in his son. The fact of gravity has become a ludicrous concept, spun off into a tale of the impossible. Imagination has infiltrated the truth and it’s something to take in with joy and curiosity. It’s the recognition between father and son, that sometimes a good story is better than the facts.
It’s just like those mornings with my son, where I recognize our shared curiosity and thirst for knowledge. Where I hear in his small voice the earnest need to understand the why of something. And then, in a moment, he’s spun off into the world again with his ever-present stuffed rabbit.
Our Calvin and Hobbes family life continues page after page. My wife comes down from bathtime soaking wet. A box becomes a time machine. A T-Rex roleplay leads to bite marks on my calf. But unlike Calvin’s dad, I’m not tied to dated notions that my kid needs me to explain the world. Because I have a Calvin who can explain it to me.
And I hope he never finishes telling me all he knows or doesn’t know about the world. It is very interesting.
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