there are a lot of things we feel we know, but i'm so often reminded that feeling we know something, and having really learned it to really *know* it are two completely different things. (how often have you done something you know you knew better than to?) and this is a long one, so feel free to skip it if you are short on time...
my father used to insist that i didn't know the meaning of a word unless i could recite a succinct (and correct) definition of it. (and "like, you know.." couldn't be any part of such). i knew i had learned something when we finally met in a showdown world championship game of dictionary among the family, and i for the first time got the better of him.
have you ever played? players take turns looking up any word they please out of the dictionary, and then reading it to the rest of the players who write down their best guess (or knowledge) of the definition on slips of paper, which are then passed to the dictionary holder to read to the group along with one holding the actual definition. you got a point for being right about which was the right one, of course, but, more importantly, you got also got points for every other player who voted for your guess as the real definition instead as well. my father was a tough opponent. i know of few people with a larger vocabulary, or better knowledge of the dictionary than he. but we were neck and neck down to the final round, and the outcome hung on the answer to one of the most inscrutable and impossible-to-know words my sister had ever dug out of the funk and wagnalls. we were, as my sister was good enough to plan, both wrong with our guesses. but in my pseudo-definition, i chose to mimic funk (or would it be wagnalls) by declaring the word as indicative of a species of mammal indigenous to the australian continent. (the key word being "indigenous" as i shall next tell you).
i wasn't all that old at the time, maybe eleven or twelve, and to give at least some credit to my father, it was not necessary that a boy of my limited age and schooling would be or could be throwing a word like "indigenous" around in its proper meaning and context. so he voted for my scam definition, and so also i won the game, despite his initial incredulity that it had to be the right definition, containing as it did the word "indigenous", or his secondary incredulity about my having written the pseudo-definition, containing as it did the word "indigenous". so in response to my self-satisfactorial triumph, he sent one of his signature balloon-moment-popping conversational darts as he so often did, having learned the technique so well from his mother, and her from her forebears before her, challenging me to define "indigenous" to prove something. (what, i have no idea...)
anyway, i didn't hesitate:
indigenous. adjective. "native to a particular region or country".
i had, in fact, while developing my strategy to use the word in my guess in order to win, already known that i would be tested to define it. so i practiced. "native to a particular region or country". over and over again in my mind, so i could recite it at its appropriate time without failure or hesitation.
of course, rote memory can also be used to offset and thus mask a profound absence of knowing something, as i employed once in the early days of relational databases when i was conscripted to serve in a high-visibility, high-risk, high-likelihood-of-failure consulting engagement, because all of the extremely-few actually-knowledgeable people in the company were unavailable and thus unable to be thrown into the breach. i had ten minutes with one of the smartest men i've ever known to glean whatever could be gleaned before riding into the proverbial valley. (tennyson rocks). i was a finance guy. i had very little database knowledge or training. i was out of my depth. or not. gene gave me the magic words, and (i'm sure there was a german somewhere in his background) he waited patiently until i had them right and rote. "i have specific knowledge of the size, type, composition and frequency of the data, and how they are used". (you knew i was going to love it upon immediate recognition of the use of correct syntax related to the latin plural "data", which is to say, data indeed ARE used, not is--that would be datum--and don't let anybody tell you differently). which is to say, "no, i don't know crap about the relational database itself, or how it works, mr database administrator, but you don't know crap about what's in it, and that's why you need me". yup. (and, to my credit, nobody indeed knew more about what what in it than i, which quickly endeared me to my hirers and forgave everything i never knew about normalization, indexing, and the inefficiency of a full table scan, but when you know the structure of the output, in this case the accounting audit report, you do indeed know the reason why the otherwise inexplicable compromise might be advised, and then, as now, and as always, the government bureaucracy gets fed before everyone else so that's the name of that tune).
which brings us, of course, back to what i'm often on about, music, though not to the end of all this, not yet.
so i'm learning to play a song this week that i would have told you for sure i knew before i started to play it. but--and here's the joyful part--i didn't. not really. oh, i thought i knew, just like someone might think they know the meaning of some ten dollar word like "indigenous" without being fully prepared to recite its succinct definition upon request. but i didn't really know.
and so, by virtue of pounding out each chord, change and fill, i discover as i imagine do all engaged musicians when they become intimately familiar with a piece, a subtlety i never quite noticed before. a chord played perfectly straight by the guitar, harmonized just as perfectly with the vocal progression, yet accompanied by a bass note step that halves the gap and thus defies the formed basis of the melody and harmony, and perfectly dislocates its balance, and provides not, i'm sure, coincidentally, the pure essence of its most powerful emotion. i had always wondered why that moment had always drawn me so... and so this week i have discovered a little bit more of the magic.
which, full circle, brings me to an electronic discussion that began my day about the necessary credit given to science for restoring eyesight via stem cells, vs blind faith in "miracles" hokum preferred by the less scientifically inclined, to which i couldn't help but observe that it is nevertheless still possible, nee *necessary*, to see the miracle in it even so. (and why god-squadders are just as blind to this i cannot for the life of me say). it's miraculous we have "learned" to restore eyesight in this way, but i still see the rote nature of what we can find to do relative to the full beauty and inscrutability of the cosmos.
brian may, once guitar player for the rock and roll band, queen, now astrophysicist, (no joke--he's got the phd and all the papers, not to mention the full-time job), was once asked the "god" question by an interviewer, and he replied by observing that an insect's perspective on a piece of paper it might be crossing is as aware of the rest of our world as we must be about our universe, and that it's quite silly to imagine we really know anything final or even substantive about it at all. i like that answer.
and, as arthur c. clarke once said, "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic".
so, when we get there to learn the next thing that we will undoubtedly eventually learn, and we see the next thing we will be able to see, i sincerely hope we don't continue to make the ultimate human mistake which is to repeatedly conclude that THIS TIME we have finally thus and for all reached the end of the age of our faith, and our music, and our magic.
there will be many who recognize the impressive medical accomplishment necessary to be involved to heal carter, and at least as many if not more who will still know the miracle of faith that accompanies it. anyone who thinks they "know" which is which and which is "real" simply can't, though for sure anyone who thinks they "know" it exclusively had to be one or the other has got to be, for my money, more wrong than either could possibly be.
that much i know.