For All Nails #258: We're a Happy Family
by David Mix Barrington
John Barrington was a hungry man. It was nearly seven, he'd been back from Concord a full half an hour, and the table wasn't even set. What was going on? He didn't want to have to play the grumpy patriarch, but there was a limit--
Judy looked up from feeding baby Aoife. "We'll be another fifteen or twenty minutes, dear. Jennie 'phoned from Fuller, she had a late prayer meeting and she's taking the 6:40."
Which made West Dedham village at 7:08, John remembered. Five or ten minutes more to walk home from there, his stomach reminded him. He was tempted to sneak a morsel from the kitchen, but no, that wouldn't do. Dinner was important, and you kept it important by everyone starting at the same time. It had been Jennie's idea to ritualize dinner, of course, some notion from religion classes at Fuller. Well, it didn't do any harm to have some discipline.
Children needed discipline, he reflected. Not punishment, though that was sometimes needed, but discipline. That was a parent's job, to teach the child to work hard for what they wanted, to separate the important from the trivial. John Senior had always called this his duty to God and to his germ plasm, and he'd raised John Junior to be strong enough and good enough to raise four children of his own. To start raising them, John Junior corrected himself. You might say he'd finished raising David, who even at fifteen could make a decent living now at Leebild if John were to fall under the train tracks tomorrow. Jennie at thirteen was finally established at a good school, a school that could take care of her if necessary. But seven-year-old Peter and year-and-a-half-old Aoife were a long way from being ready to leave the nest. There was plenty more work to do.
Work that he needed a full stomach to accomplish, he reminded himself. At least they could have the table set when Jennie came in the door.
"Where's your brother?"
"He's up on the other 'phone talking to Vickie." It was clear what Peter thought of his older brother having a girlfriend. To John, of course, a live girlfriend was a welcome development, a big improvement from David's prior unhealthy obsession with those lady space pilots. The boy was learning important lessons, one could hope, and he'd been considerably less sullen lately to boot.
"Find him, and the two of you set the table before your sister gets home. It's late."
Were they learning the right lessons, to be ready to venture out into a cruel and dangerous world? A world where rebels brought buildings crashing to the ground in the middle of the supposedly safe, comfortable Northern Confederation? People tended to think of violent dissent in the CNA as a thing of the past, but John hadn't been surprised at all. Not with the mark of a millie's baton still visible through the thinning hair on his head, from a "non-violent" Peace and Justice demonstration in '68. His father John Senior, with his own limp from the '37 in Michigan City, had laughed at Mason's notion that the People could carry the day by peacefully manifesting their will in the streets. "God fights for those who fight for themselves," he'd say, like the good Christian Darwinist he was. "Or fight for their germ plasm."
Was God the Cosmic Referee of the Darwinists? Dick Mason's Turner of the Tables? Or the loving Father/Mother of Judy's church here? To tell the truth, he didn't believe in any of them, though that wasn't the sort of thing you let on. He'd managed to be supportive of the kids' going to church without having to participate himself, and everyone seemed satisfied with that. It was good for them, he thought, another kind of discipline that would serve them well. Even if it sometimes meant a late dinner.
"Hey, Dad!" David's voice interrupted his reverie.
"Mm?" David and Peter had finished setting the table, it seemed, and Judy was well into the process of cleaning up after Aoife's dinner.
"We solved that problem. About the single-exit instruction schemes."
"Mr. Lee was right. Anything you can do with an instruction scheme with branches and loops, you can do with single-exit branches and loops."
"Tell me more." David already sounded half the time like the maths professors back at Terminus S & E. FN1 He'd spent most of his spring break at Leebild testing instruction schemes, coming up with examples so every path through the instructions would be taken at least once and you would know that everything worked properly. The testers all knew that it was far easier to check out all those paths if whenever you went into a loop or a branch, there was only one place to come out.
"Well, Mr. Ben-Judah showed me how to set it up as an argument by infinite descent. If there's a scheme you can't rearrange, then there's a smallest one you can't rearrange, right? So if you've got the smallest one, you can assume that you can rearrange anything smaller. You just break it down by cases--"
"Wait a minute, does that mean you can actually build a translator to do it?"
"Well, theoretically yes, but practically no. You could build a re-entrant scheme, but it would have to re-enter once for every instruction in the scheme you were translating. The time might double every time you re-enter, so--"
"Better to write the thing single-exit in the first place."
"Exactly. But at least now you know there's nothing stopping you from doing that." FN2
Now you knew. John had always enjoyed mathematics, though he had never had much time to think about it for its own sake. And here was a real answer to a real question, from his own boy. And a good teacher, he remembered. At least all that tuition money to Roxbury Latin was paying for something--
Here was Jennie! A bit more bustle, and the Barringtons sat down to eat. But first the grace. They held hands in a circle and sat in silence for a moment, eyes closed. Finally Jennie began,
"Oh gracious Father and Mother God, we give thanks that we are together and safe under Your protection, we give thanks for Your bounty and for the labor that has brought Your bounty to us, and once again we pray in the words that Jesus taught us: Our Father and Mother, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name..."
Forward to FAN #259: You Don't Know Jackson.
Forward to 30 April 1975: When Love Comes to Town.
Forward to Calculating machines: The Power of Pointlists.
Forward to Barrington family: Uncommon Women.
Return to For All Nails.