Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Devil Is In the Detail...

When I was 14 years old I made the adolescent mistake of openly correcting my father on an inconsequential detail in a story he was telling a friend. It wasn’t an embarrassing correction but an unnecessary one at the time. Later that evening I was a little surprised when my father thanked me for the correction and he said he was proud that I paid so much attention to the detail in things. He went on to say that it was detail that elevated Knowledge to Understanding. Sensing I wasn’t grasping what he was telling me he went out into the garage and got a picture that hung over his work bench. It was a simple black and white picture of a butterfly sitting on a leaf.

“I keep this picture over my workbench to remind me about the importance of details.” he explained. He paused and waited for the question that he knew I would have to ask?

“Ok dad”, I said with a sigh, “how does a picture of a butterfly remind you of the importance of details?

“Well”, he said “you might understand it best if we play the same game my father and I did when he gave me this picture. When you convince me that you completely understand the contents of this picture to the exclusion of any further questioning about it, I will buy you a car so you can start learning to drive next year. You are a very smart young man and I’m sure you will make short work of the task.”

Because of the careful wording I was immediately suspicious there must be a trick to this but he hooked me with the thought of having my own car, a very important thing for a teenage boy. The game was afoot.

It was obvious that I would at least have to know what kind of butterfly it was and that was the focus of my initial research. The Encyclopedia Britannica (we had no computers back then) had pictures of butterflies but none that matched the wing markings in the black and white picture. A trip to the public library and questioning my science teacher yielded no immediate results but my teacher suggested I might want to take the picture and show it to one of the biology professors at the local college. A phone call and a bus ride later, Bingo! I quickly explained my dad’s game and the professor provided me a ton of information about the butterfly. I now knew the genus, species, the Latin name, the color, its habitat, life cycle…..I had detail out the wahzoo.

My dad had been gently taunting me all week by asking if we should be planning to go to the car dealership that weekend. Knowing the game would not be this easy I decided to present him with the information I had compiled just to see what direction it was going to take me. My dad made a big deal out the first presentation. He called my sister and mother into the room and announced that I had some important information to share.
When I finished spewing out my list of facts about the butterfly even I was disappointed that after all that work it took me less than two minutes to present everything I knew.

“I’m impressed, son”, he said nodding his head with approval; “it took me nearly a month to get that far when I played the game with my father.” After a bit of a pause, he asked a simple sounding question that ultimately demonstrated the scope of how far this game could go.

“You mentioned that the butterfly is yellow, why is it yellow?"

There were two more formal attempts at a new car that month and after each one dad would always have a simple question about the details I had presented. I quickly discovered that to even begin to answer the “why yellow?” question I would need an understanding of far more than just butterflies. Not only would I have to understand why a butterfly might be yellow, but also why yellow was yellow. Then, of course, there was the leaf. I stopped trying when I realized it was an unwinnable game. In true teenage fashion I used a Dynamo Label Maker to inscribe the picture as “The Great Butterfly Hoax” and hung it back up over my dad’s workbench.
Over the last forty years any reference to “The Great Butterfly Hoax” is still good for a laugh in my family and the picture still hangs over dad’s workbench.

My dad is 83 now and I write to him frequently from up here.
There was a snowy day last month when I was feeling kinda’ silly (cabin fever, no doubt) so I wrote him a long spoofy, quasi-intellectual sounding letter titled: “The Bio-Mechanics, Flight Dynamics and Spectral Deviations of the Yellow Butterfly” and asked if he thought I knew enough about the picture to get my new car. At the end of the letter I added a little postscript:
P.S. What question would you have asked me if I had said in that first presentation that it was simply a black and white picture of a leaf and a butterfly?

Eight days later I got his reply. I was expecting a new and equally spoofy, quasi-intellectual sounding “next question” but instead, in the middle of an 8 ½ x 11 inch piece of paper he wrote;

“With regard to the postscript in your last letter, there would have been no questions. You were the darn fool who said the black and white butterfly was yellow; I just wanted to know why.”

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