Stories About Stories

Some stories about stories, continuing from How Stories Change Things.

First, a story-story from history or two.

In 1900 the story of Thomas Jefferson was that he was a founder of our nation, a naturalist, and inventor, a President, and the author of some of the most stirring language about human equality ever penned in English.

In 2000 the story of Thomas Jefferson was that one of the hundred-odd slaves he owned, the young half-sister of his deceased wife, was his mistress, and bore him six children. That he did not emancipate any of them during his life.

Both of these stories are as "true" as stories ever get. They seem rather different. And they imply a third story that is far more complex and difficult than either of the two.

I hope you appreciate the significance of this third story: surely the how, when, where and to whom we tell it will dramatically affect whether the U.S. will ever succeed in addressing its modern and future race relations. (There are many thousands and thousands of such stories.)

Jump-cut: any fan of English history knows stories of the kings and queens. Brave deeds and foul, great battles, pageantry, majesty, romance, a panorama of high nobility, statesmanship, patriotism.

There is no story in the history of the English monarchy that could not be readily re-framed as the story of mobsters and their heirs wielding raw power and vying for the legitimacy that would clothe its violent, cunning, often psychopathic, murderous, intemperate behavior.

Jump again, to the trade: Alan Turing was an English mathematician who laid the foundation of all modern computing theory. The Church-Turing thesis, the impossibility of solving the halting problem, the cracking of enigma, the Turing test.

He was also (apparently non-practicing) homosexual. If you ask anyone other than his mother, he committed suicide via poisoned apple in anticipation that his (apparently non-practicing) homosexuality was about to be revealed.

Once upon a time, a beautiful princess, temporarily disavowed by her father, travelled the mansions of Europe with her two closest companions, an angry foul-mouthed dwarf and a tall absent-minded professor, both men far older than she.

Or we could tell it another way, Ada Lovelace, who first framed the idea of a machine whose behavior could be radically changed by altering only a small portion of it, it’s "instructions", in so doing essentially founded programming…

…her father, Lord Byron, the king of English poetry, forbade her from practicing math. She travelled all over Europe with Charles Lyell, a foundational figure in geology, and Charles Babbage, the co-conceiver of computers.

Wait, what about the trade now? Here’s one: I helped a team a few years back by helping them see that their story of "users constantly interrupting our work" could be re-framed as "our work doesn’t adequately tell our users how to use it".

Kent Beck’s "embrace change" is a complete re-telling of the story of programming in the 70’s and 80’s, which was a story about resisting and controlling change.

My own efforts at sharing TDD are about telling two stories, one of how its benefits are operational rather than artifactual, and one of how those benefits are measured directly in productivity rather than quality.

Those three stories from the trade today, well, they can and will all be contested. They are contested precisely because of their proposed or actual impact on the future.

I’ll close with a personal one. My best friend in the world is HK. I met her when I was 20 and she was 19. We were a couple for about 5 years, then just the closest of friends. She is one of the finest people I have ever known well, and I model myself after her every day.

Though we’re in some ways as alike as peas in the pod, in others we’re quite different. We’re both touchy, sensitive, demanding, articulate, stubborn, and tho deeply committed to decency & authenticity, frequently confused about how to achieve them.

Over forty years, our relationship has had its woes. Two especially rough periods of a couple years each, and many smaller ones, of days or weeks or months.

You could tell the story of any of these bumps in the road by describing what an stupid insensitive fool I was, or if you’re my partisan, vice-versa, or if you’re seeking distance, both.

Or there’s a third story, the story of the fact that through all of that, we are best friends. She knows every bad thing about me, and I about her. But, reader, whaddayagonnado? We love each other, and that’s that.

But there’s a fourth story, and that is the one that I’m thinking of most when I talk about sharing and re-sharing stories to find a story to tell that is one we want to live in.

Every time our twisted life-stems pulled apart, they eventually knit back together. And they did this, every time, because we found a way to take our separate stories, separate and different and even antagonistic, and re-tell them as one story.

I found a way to tell my story that she could hear. She found a way to tell hers that I could hear. Sometimes I told hers for her, or she for me. And we took all those stories and we turned them into one story.

Again, and I swear to God I’m done with this topic for the day. I believe the way forward is to tell and re-tell, to hear and re-hear, the stories of who we were, who we are, and who we want to be.

Cheers, then, and have a great story-laden Tuesday!


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