The Technium

Subterranean Tutoring

Tesladownunder Car Theft Protection 1000 Small

Why do this? Because we can!

No other reason needed for making something so audacious.

For more extreme nerdiness like this fuse-blowing, eyes-popping, brain-frying backyard craziness, check out this Australian mate’s website. Gigantic tesla coils are just the start of it. He’s got a dozen other outrageously neato basement experiments going.

Take a look at this guy sitting in the car. Imagine if he was your father. How cool would he be?

A lot of us geeky dads worry that our kids are not as geeky as we are. We unpack nifty kits which are never built.  We want our children to finish up that science fair project on-their-own. Or come out with us to the garage when we open the hood of the car. But they shrug. Even a rocket launch may not get them away from the computer.

Science fiction author Neal Stephenson once told me something memorable as we were hanging out in his back yard. He pointed to an unfinished kayak under a tarp. He said he was slowly working on it, in part to mentor his kids, even though they did no work on the boat, nor express the least bit of interest in this project. None-the-less he continued puttering on the undertaking while they were home. Stephenson said when he was a kid, his dad was constantly tinkering on some garage project or another, and despite Neal’s complete indifference for any of his dad’s enthusiasms at the time, he was influenced by this embedded tinkering. It was part of the family scene, part of his household, like mealtime style, or the pattern of interactions between siblings. Later on when Neal did attempt to make stuff on his own, the pattern was right at hand. It felt comfortable, easy. Without having to try very hard, he knew how to be a nerd.

So he continued the tradition in the faith that while his kids showed no outward enthusiasm for his weekend projects, and didn’t pick up a tool to help, they were being trained and coached in a subterranean way.

I noticed a similar subterranean influence at work during our travel with kids. Despite some fairly exotic travel every year, our young kids seem wholly unimpressed by these trips. Bali? It was about chicken poo. When our girls were 8 and 10, they accompanied me for 4 weeks in the very rugged hill country of the Kam region in Tibet, the mountain kingdoms near Lijiang, Yunnan, and in the fantastic karst formations near Guilin, China. For them the highlight of their month-long trip was the 2-story McDonalds in Chengdu we visited on the last day (which I have to admit was an experience). But it was all they would talk about for years afterward. Yet when they reached their teenage years and beyond, that particular trip kept surfacing as an immense influence on their lives.  The things they had witnessed first-hand years ago had become touchstones as they matured. Details I had no idea they had even noticed, were now central to their identity. Despite their silence they had not missed much.  It just took a while to comprehend it. You can’t really “remember” something until you make sense of it.

That’s why the call for a geeky dad is to do stuff — often  by ourselves — because we enjoy it. Even if the kids don’t join in. I may start something with my son in the hope he’ll get the bug, but I’ve learned to keep going even if he doesn’t. I make stuff because I love to, and because it is also subterranean tutoring. Kids don’t miss much. When tinkering is part of the household pattern, that pattern gets set in a unconscious level. When tools are ever present, there’s permission to make a mess. When parents are making, making is cool. Mistakes are common, no big deal, you fix them.  More than you’ll ever know, kids are watching. They don’t need to weld to get it.

Geekiness, amateur enthusiasm, do-it-yourself-ness, and a designer/engineer approach to life is a perspective that can be transmitted indirectly, invisibly, and silently.  Just have fun yourself.

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