A Few Small Thoughts

 

I’ve been busy. A customer is building a specialized milling machine, and I’m writing the software to create the tool paths — the motions the machine will have to make — required to manufacture sets of a few hundred slightly different precision parts that have to fit together fairly precisely. I’ve never done something quite like this, and it’s taken several iterations to get the math right and the paths precise down to the “tenths” (engineer talk for 0.0001″) required by the machine, and to do so without devouring the spinning cutting bits.

I’m very happy with the results so far. I’ll be at it the rest of this week and then, I hope, back to life as usual.


But a couple of things have been on my mind lately, and I wanted to toss them out so I could stop thinking about them. They have to do with raising children in the digital age — something I was, thankfully, mostly spared by the isolated rural home-schooling lifestyle my kids “enjoyed” until their mother passed away and I had to seek a more conventional situation.

I was having a conversation with my oldest son today, it being his 35th birthday. He has three children of his own now, and we were discussing the challenges of monitoring internet access and regulating what kids see and experience. I pointed out that when I was a young man my parents knew essentially everyone with whom I had any kind of contact. Every one of them was a friend through church, school, family relationship, the immediate neighborhood, or my parents’ social set. There were no strangers in my life. (I was the oldest of seven, as well, so was pretty busy with immediate family.) Even television was limited to what appeared on a small screen in our living room, readily visible to parents whenever they happened to walk through and, in any case, limited to at most an hour or two a day.

Contrast that with today’s Tik-Tok and Instagram and YouTube, and the literally millions of people, millions of strangers, who can reach out and influence our children.

I don’t like it. I’ve never liked it. It’s why our children didn’t have internet, or television, on the farm in Missouri. But I allowed my three youngest to have smartphones after I put them in school here. I monitored them pretty closely but accepted that, despite my deep involvement with the little Catholic high school they attended, they’d nonetheless develop connections to people I didn’t know. It seemed a necessary concession to modernity.

A related thought occurred to me recently. I have to see an optometrist soon to satisfy the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles. The optometrist I’ll visit was a child when I moved away from here some 45 years ago, but that doesn’t change the fact that she’s a childhood friend and we still see each other as such: though we didn’t know each other all those intervening years, we enjoy the goodwill that childhood association brings. We’re connected by our shared history, and even by the knowledge of it, however brief it was.

A few scores of years ago, perhaps even in my own lifetime, it was likely true that most people’s friends were, with rare exception, friends from childhood. People who spent their lives in small communities, and who rarely relocated, naturally grew up knowing the people they knew in their youth, and that cohort made up many or most of their adult friends.

This matters. When you grow up with someone you understand their foibles, their weird ticks, their emotional instabilities — even their character flaws. We don’t have that comfort with, that acceptance of, the people we meet in adulthood. We extend a benefit of the doubt, an allowance, to people we have known since childhood; strangers on the internet enjoy no such grace. Perhaps that’s why we are so readily hostile in our virtual social lives.

Multiply that across an entire nation, and imagine how disconnected we have become — and how very different our concept of relationship may be from what it was sixty or eighty years ago.

I don’t like that, either, though I recognize its inevitability. And only a fool is angered by the weather.


Number four son, who shares a birthday with his oldest brother, rode into the driveway this weekend on his gleaming black motorcycle, something ungodly fast and completely in keeping with, well, with my boy. He looked good; if I were 26 and without children, I’d seriously think of taking up riding again. But I’m sixty and, while an empty-nester, endlessly concerned about the offspring — and a little more concerned about “recovery time” than I used to be.

Darling Daughter returns from her summer internship in Chicago on Friday — and is off to her final year of college on Tuesday. I’ll see her for a minute or two, I’m sure. It’ll be nice to have someone else in the house for the weekend. And, honestly, it’ll be nice to have it empty again.


It felt like Autumn this morning. I’m not quite ready.

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  1. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    For the engineers I’m familiar with, a tenth is a little over an inch.

    • #1
  2. Henry Racette Contributor
    Henry Racette
    @HenryRacette

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    For the engineers I’m familiar with, a tenth is a little over an inch.

    Randy, if they’re carpenters I can almost understand that. But engineers think in thousandths (in the U.S.), and I think almost all of them hear “a tenth” as 1/10,000th of an inch.

    In the U.K., as I understand it, it’s a tenth of a millimeter, which is about four thousandths of an inch — roughly the thickness of a sheet of paper — and too preposterously large a quantity to interest anyone in the world of computer numerically controlled machining.

    • #2
  3. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    The place I had in Phoenix before selling and then buying this place, I lived there for 12 years.  Most of the townhomes there were rentals, and neighbors’ kids were amazed to hear that I’d gone to school with the same kids for NINE YEARS – 1st through most of 9th grades – and even wound up at college with some of the same kids too.  It’s one part of the problems with being so much a nation of renters now.  That’s where I put the foundation of so many other problems too.

    • #3
  4. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    Henry Racette (View Comment):

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    For the engineers I’m familiar with, a tenth is a little over an inch.

    Randy, if they’re carpenters I can almost understand that. But engineers think in thousandths (in the U.S.), and I think almost all of them hear “a tenth” as 1/10,000th of an inch.

    In the U.K., as I understand it, it’s a tenth of a millimeter, which is about four thousandths of an inch — roughly the thickness of a sheet of paper — and too preposterously large a quantity to interest anyone in the world of computer numerically controlled machining.

    I’m thinking of civil engineers, the kind I work with.  To them, a tenth is a tenth of a foot.

    • #4
  5. Bob Thompson Member
    Bob Thompson
    @BobThompson

    As a child I found the world of relationships exactly as you describe. It is somewhat like the precision fit you must achieve in your engineering task. When it doesn’t fit there is usually trouble ahead. I had some learning experiences with this. All my friends are family and I don’t have close relationship with others mainly because of not having a window into who they really are.

    • #5
  6. David Foster Member
    David Foster
    @DavidFoster

    Sounds like a great project.  They’re building a single machine, for their own use, or is this is something they’re going to product and sell?

    From what I observe on FB, the nastiness isn’t limited to attacks on strangers.  While people are more likely to insult someone they don’t know…say, a friend of a friend…there are plenty of personal attacks on people who someone *does* know.  It seems that politics is eating everything.

    • #6
  7. D.A. Venters Member
    D.A. Venters
    @DAVenters

    Man, you know it’s great writing when the last line not only elegantly wraps up the essay, but also delivers an entire book’s worth of meaning in ten words.

    • #7
  8. Old Bathos Moderator
    Old Bathos
    @OldBathos

    I enjoyed that.  Thanks.

    Speaking of knowing everyone one’s kids know, my mother said she was always invited to every party by her girl chums because her father was known for strict standards so if he allowed his daughters (my mom was the youngest of six girls) to attend something then other parents assumed it was OK.  He was the litmus test for a lot of families.

    I first time I peeked at a Playboy magazine on the magazine rack at the local pharmacy, “Doc” told me to get away from there or he would tell my parents, no idle threat because he knew them.  (My father later asked Doc why he had that filth in the store.  He stopped selling it, admitting that other customers also thought it beneath him to do so.) 

    In the late 1950s, I could hop on my bike in the morning, maybe return for lunch but always home by dinner, and no one thought that to be a risky undertaking for a nine-year-old.  Maybe visit my grandmother a few blocks away, bug the seafood guy at the grocery store for whatever he might be throwing away to use for bait and fish in the canals (always had a knife and fishing tackle on the bike), or build a fort on an empty lot with friends–never a worry about stranger-danger.  I knew people in every direction and they knew me.  I had no idea how idyllic that was.

    • #8