The Parable of The Failing Test
In which my logic falls like an anvil upon the hammer of reason.
Last night I had a dream, and it was beautiful. I dreamed about this very story. It went swimmingly, and my status in the world increased. You each saw me with new eyes, and I bent the light so that I seemed to stand a head taller than any man or woman in the room. I may have had different shoes on.
I said I dreamed about this story, but that is not quite right. Really I dreamed about the telling of this story, which is quite different from the story itself. The telling was so splendid; but the truth about stories is that the splendidness of their telling depends upon several things, among which, of course, is the story itself. And since my dream contained only the telling and not the story itself, it is not much use to us, except in this regard: that if the telling of this story is as splendid as the telling in my dream, I shall be quite satisfied. On the other hand, if the telling is unsatisfactory in terms of splendidness…well then I’ll change up the story until its splendidness rivals the dream. I shall tell stories until, like the Phoenix of legend, rising up out of the ashes of Arizona, I have learnt to bend the very light which ought to inform me faithfully of my standing among my peers. Of that you may be certain…or you may not. How should I know?
There is one thing about which we can all be certain: ambiguity collapses whether we see it happen or not. All the possibilities in the universe converge together into a quantum dance. Our function is to learn the dance. We may find its meter and never learn all its steps. Or we may stamp out a few steps and lose the rhythm forever.
And so we learn to dance by navigating carefully and with purpose. Crossing each river, we mark on the shore the place where we waded in, and looking back from the other side, we learn a little something about the speed of the current which carried us as we carried Prometheus’ flame aloft above the waters.
We also learn, ere long, that too much water, and too much current, and too many yaks snorting and cavorting by the water’s edge may spoil our measurements, and quench the flame of learning, and leave us with no lessons to share with our children –only soggy pants, and a vague sense of uneasy lightness. That lightened feeling is the rush of air upon the cheek which tells us that more possibilities have collapsed, or that perhaps we are rather closer to a yak than the yak would prefer.
And so we learn to pick our tributaries. Climbing up the valley slopes into the hinterlands of craftsmanship, we seek out the smaller creeks and cataracts, which if colder and noisier, are still easier to cross, and easier to re-cross, and easier to tell our fellows how they may cross…and recross. We trudge up to the places where the clouds bounce against the earth, those places which the lowlanders consign to the gods, and the creepy hermits, and to the hipsters and their demigods. If we get brambles in our hair and in our beards, can we be blamed if we assume the mein of a mystic hero? No, you see, I’m asking. I don’t know the answer.
See how I was caught up in the glinty gears of the metaphor, and lost sight, just for an instant, of the shore where this story began? And now I am quickly scanning for some yak that I recognize. No such luck. The one I marked before I set out, with black marker, square upon his bald shoulder –that one has overgrown his distinctiveness. Like Samson of old, his hairy aspect has returned, and with it his strength in overwhelming numbers. For now he looks like any other bison. And there are millions of them.
You don’t respect me yet; I may be certain of that, or I may not. That is for me to decide, but the fact remains, you haven’t quite decided about me. For you’re tweeting to your fellow songbirds how foolish I was to choose an arbitrary yak (who are so numerous, remember) instead of a more solitary animal, say, a bear, or a moose. What can I say to that? The yak was handy, and as free as the air we breathe. That is my only word of defense. A bear or a moose (and I do say “or” and not “and”, for I am quite sane and more than a bit wise about animal selection) –a bear or a moose would’ve been a fine choice. But honestly, I confess: given a choice between shaving a yak and fetching a bear, I am quite non-plussed about the whole thing. Ditto for the moose. And furthermore, oughtn’t I to shave the bear (or the moose) just to be quite certain? Zero, One or Any Number, I always say. There is more than one bear. There is more than one moose. There are manifestly more than yaks than we know what to do with. Strictly speaking, the cost-to-benefit ratio is the same, except the bear is less handy, and harder to shave. And I cannot imagine the process involved in shaving a moose.
See where the current has taken us? We have learned (or invented) so many steps, and yet the meter of this story has been swept away, like the scent of a predator who spies upon the herd. Let’s go back up stream and essay another crossing.
IN THIS STORY, you have a client, and she sits across from you, flanked by her courtiers. She is a Good Person; despite her mannerisms, she cares quite deeply about the Most Important Things in the world. But she is coy with you. She is shy, and so she does not wish to tell you (venerable Jedi though you be) of her great need for your help. Thus she is all solutions and no problem: so talkative about solutions is she that you may wonder why she even needs your help at all. She is mum about problems, or the problem; for how can you tell if there are zero, one or any number of problems? She and her court are so busy thinking about steps, that they have lost the meter of the dance.
And she is quite serious about the ratios of moose to other things, including but not limited to bears, yaks, rivers, dandelions, storytellers and the universe. She feels you ought to begin by building a large mock-up of each of the aforementioned items, carefully positioning each of them in the right spot relative to each the other. She will provide yarn and hat pins which will be used to describe lines between each item, and the yarn-line will represent at least one thing to each person who mentions or hears mention of such a yarn-line –depending on who is doing the mentioning, who is doing the listening, and depending on what is being discussed, and what’s at either end of the yarn line (e.g. moose and moose vs moose and bear vs moose and river or less importantly, any non-moose item vs another non-moose item).
Furthermore, differently colored yarn will signify the time frame in which the yarn line is to be discussed (as supply of both time and yarn allows). Blue yarn is for future discussions. Red yarn is for future discussions which ought to have already occurred. Rich, brown, moose-colored yarn can be discussed at any time at which the Client does not demurely look down and to the left and gently murmur, “Ahem, ahem.”
Gradually, as she talks, your heart descends gently from the clouds and softly bumps the green earth, and you suddenly realize that your client and all her retainers are now waiting for you to speak. Since you missed her question, you consult the question still ringing in your ears: What about all these steps I want you to take? Tell me not why, nor whether, but simply when you will take them, and when you will be done.
And now you have a choice to make. This is not a choice of the yak-bear-or-moose variety. It is simpler than that, and thus both harder to posit, and harder to answer. Since all possibilities are collapsing in this quantum dance, will you learn and design fabulous steps, or discover the meter?
If you choose to learn the Client’s steps, you’ll have such a grand time. Immediate repore is established when you compliment the Client’s fancy moves. You and your Client may shuffle together for quite a little while before the rhythm collapses onto the one place you should be standing –the one place your client needs you to be standing– but without the meter you will miss the spot, no matter how clever were the steps you took.
The alternative is more difficult, but you may be certain (and if you are not, take it from me, for I am certain) –you may be certain that the alternative is far better. You must first learn to listen for the meter of the dance. But that is not enough. You must also teach your client to listen –not to listen to you, but to listen with you. You and your client must listen carefully for the meter of the dance, no matter how foolish and simple the first steps may be. Listen! Then take a small step. Then listen again! If, in stepping, you lose your sense of rhythm, then listen until you hear it again.
Soon you’ll find the client is climbing upward with you, leaping the smaller streams, practicing the craft of careful measurement. Together you’ll learn to gaze deep into the eyes of each yak until you recognize them as easily as if they were your own children.
In crossing and re-crossing you and your Client learn the streams: these streams which feed the rivers, these rivers which feed the fish, and these fish which feed us all –including the bears, who (strangely and unerringly) join us upon the Banks of Opportunity as the Salmon of Reward leap upward from the Froth of Possibility, where the claw, the spear, the hook, the net and the club all converge upon the reality of a bountiful hunt. I still don’t know what the moose does about all this. It may be that the dance never leads us into the same steps with the moose. That would be ok if it worked out that way. We can always move a few hat pins.