Sunday, January 11, 2009

Stone Soup and Other Facts

My dad always said that truth was always more interesting than any made up story, but for humor, sometimes it doesn’t hurt to embellish or stretch the truth a bit. The first time I heard the story of stone soup, I wondered if anyone would ever really be able to get someone to believe in a “magic stone.” Well, obviously some people will believe in almost anything if it sounds as if they might get something more than they are willing to put into a deal—does the name Madoff (as in made off with a fortune) sound familiar?

Photoshop has definitely proved that pictures DO lie—or at least that they can be made to lie. And sometimes we simply can’t believe what we see because whatever it is remains outside the scope of our understanding. And sometimes the entire picture is necessary for the truth to be obvious. We might see someone run out of a bank in a hurry carrying a bag or something. Our minds may interpret that in various ways, but lately mine would go toward the “bank robber” scenario. And it might not pay a person to park in a neighborhood for any length of time without at least some kind of identification on the vehicle. People have learned to be suspicious for good reasons.

Now numbers DO lie, but it takes an interpreter to MAKE them lie. Proving ideas with numbers becomes more suspect when we consider the reasons offered for the proof. Look at the numbers for unemployment. It will change again tomorrow or the next day, but the point is not how much it is changing but who the numbers actually represent. How many unemployed or underemployed are actually about at rope’s end and have no hopes of finding ANY employment? How many who have gone through the process of seeking unemployment benefits have run out of options? Are they still in the count of unemployed? Are these people simply invisible because they are no longer numbers to be counted?

Now the stone soup story is a good story to teach a moral, and many a good teacher has turned it into a lesson for his or her class. And our dog barking at the strange apparatus that turned out to be an ironing board just gave Fang an opportunity to mention that HE wasn’t sure he had seen it before either. Hmm.

Some things are funny. Some are not. Counting people and adding up facts may change many ideas in the days to come. Oh, we get our share of numbers every day—this state has the highest teen pregnancy rate; that state has the highest unemployment rate; this state has the highest tax rate; that state has the highest rate of illegal immigrants. We have become number-saturated Americans. Do other countries count the water levels of lakes? How can we know when numbers really matter?

Unless we tell stories that make connections with numbers and images, our minds simply run right on by the facts represented by all these counts. Numbers are like the stone in stone soup. We need a pot, some water, some seasoning, a few potatoes, carrots, and whatever the neighbors can bring before we can produce something of benefit to all. Bring on the pot—soup pot, that is!

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