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Small Worries

By trade I am a Manufacturing Engineer. In the particular industry I work in, that means I have to worry about very small things.

By small things, I mean small dimensions. Iíve spent a great deal of my career arguing and fretting over product tolerances and defects that were measured in a thousandth of an inch (1/1000"). For perspective, thatís about 1/3 the thickness of a human hair or sheet of paper. More recently, Iíve had to sink lower, into the micron range. Thatís 1 millionth of a meter, or about 40 millionths of an inch. This is really beginning to plague me, when I realize how far Iíve drifted from the seeing the larger things in life.

I have a recurring nightmare:  Iím at the entrance to the Pearly Gates, and St. Peter reads the Book of my Life. "Youíve spent far too much time worrying about small things", he says; "Permission to enter denied". Whereupon he holds up a placard with a bright red, downward pointing arrow. I always wake up in a cold sweat, with a racing heart.

Itís the common Western philosophy that if something goes wrong, itís never due to fate. Rather, itís from some personal failing, some inattention to detail that led to the problem. I think this probably originated from Protestant Christian doctrine, as ultimately expressed by the early 1900ís concept of Social Darwinism: If you screw up and fail, itís a sign that you havenít passed muster in Godís eyes; the people who donít screw up are blessed and are the Lordís favored ones. Well, I can grant that for big, obvious screw-ups. But when youíre dealing with 1/1000" Ė thatís a mighty tight margin for spiritual error. If I cut a board ľ" too short, then shame on me. If I cut it 1/1000" or even 40/1000000" too short, should I suffer the same perdition? Jeez, man, thatís a really stressful situation to have to live with, every day.

Thatís not so bad, if you can leave work behind you at the end of the day. But itís hard to shut it off. I sit here now and worry about small things around the house, too. I imagine the well pump, operating without fail for going on 12 years Ė what if that one grain of sand that just went into it is the one that will finally bind it up? Or the next grain, or the next? Our well water is extremely acidic, and because of that we had to replace our original house water heater after only 8 years. I close my eyes and envision the individual free H+ ions floating around in that tank, each launching its own little vicious attack on the fittings and anode bar. Which one will finally cause a breach? We have lots of cats running around here, with all manner of cat hairs and litter dust floating through the air. They float through the vents of our TV too, occasionally causing a terrifying POP! and a momentary blank screen when one lands across two conductors that it shouldnít have. Will the next floating hair fry the TV completely?

I worry about one tiny squirrel getting into the attic, chewing through one tiny electrical wire, resulting in a "total loss situation". I worry about one fireplace cinder too many, causing a flue fire and setting the roof ablaze. I worry that one of our GFI electrical outlets has a manufacturing defect that managed to sneak through QC inspection. I worry about lint catching fire in our clothes dryer, about the expensive wire-reinforced water hoses feeding our clothes washer capriciously bursting when weíre out of town, about one of the wall bracket welds holding up our 75-lb RTRtm stereo loudspeakers experiencing catastrophic metal fatigue just when Iím walking underneath it.

I worry about that one single cell somewhere in my body not dying like it should, but rather beginning to reproduce madly and unendingly. I worry that my epiglottis will decide to strut its stuff and snuff me in a final bout of sleep apnea tonight. I worry that a few bytes of malicious code in an unwanted web cookie will result in my life savings disappearing. I worry that the tiny o-ring seal in the hydraulic cylinder that operates the rudder in the airplane Iíll be boarding next week is about to give up the ghost.

And most of all, I worry about the million other small things to worry about, that I havenít even thought of yet.


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