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February, 2003

Detail Matters

by Valerie

Look at the big picture. Don't sweat the small stuff. You can't see the forest for the trees. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

There seems to be a tendency in our culture to downplay small things, minutia, details. It's derogatory to think of something as trivial or to call somebody nitpicky. Big things are grand, majestic, and great. Of course, we are referring to relative size here. In the vastness of the known universe, we humans are definitely insignificant motes on the face of a miniscule planet in a tiny galaxy called the Milky Way. But there are things even smaller than us. Lots of them. In fact, our whole environment is chock full of tiny details. Although we measure our lives in years, we live them in days, hours, minutes and seconds.

Valerie and Vicky participating in a park-sponsored drawing
program, Cape Hatteras National Seashore, August, 1972

Every so often, I have a sudden revelation about things, something I never thought about before. These are not earth-shattering or remarkable ideas, just new ones to me. This one is as insignificant as most: I just recently noticed my lifelong tendency to prefer small things. I've always liked driving a small car. I enjoy my little kayak far more than any larger boat. My pet dogs have all been small breeds. I read far more short stories than novels. I even find playing clarinet and flute much more suited to my taste than the larger saxophone and bass clarinet. Because I am amused by my insights, I obviously enjoy diminutive ideas.

The more I thought about it, the more small tendencies I found. My best and most rewarding photography involves extreme close-ups of very small things. I find delight in collecting stamps. My drawings are full of minute detail. Among all our gardens, my favorite is the little cactus bed, with its dozens of miniature plants. I don't like the huge IMAX theater screens. Even as a child, I took great interest in tiny stones, feathers, seashells, and insects.

If things were all of the same size, they would still retain their intrinsic qualities, but the variety that we experience would diminish. I've noticed that one of the delights associated with our computer is the discovery of miniature versions of real world things. The tiny animations that decorate our web pages are at the opposite end of the spectrum that extends to full-length Disney animated films. The midi music clips that permeate games and other programs are miles away from an opera. Icons (small images just 32 by 32 pixels in size) are the ultimate in miniature art, bearing almost no resemblance to the vast murals that decorate buildings. The large are not better than the small, they are just different, and we are the beneficiaries of this variety as we have all that scope to enjoy.

When viewing large things, like gorgeous vistas, sunsets, stately buildings, enormous trees, or the starry sky, my attention wanders from the emotional impression of it all to the various details of which it is composed. Listening to a Mahler symphony is a remarkable experience, but it still unfolds in one exquisitely crafted little melody after another. The Chicago skyline looks like a long string of jewels, but each skyscraper is a unique piece of architecture. A field full of flowers might take one's breath away, but the individual blossoms contain whole worlds awaiting exploration.

beach detail
I've often heard people say "If I analyze it too closely, it will detract from the experience." They might be referring to art, music, nature, or a delicious meal. It doesn't work that way for me. The more I understand something, in as many ways as possible, the greater my appreciation can be, adding even more layers to already complex things. Just because I know the formal structure, orchestration techniques and historical context of a piece of chamber music, it doesn't mean that I still don't get goose pimples and a deep feeling of joy from hearing it. Understanding the brushwork, color palette, and underlying composition of a great painting doesn't diminish the lump in the throat or the tears of appreciation. And a walk in the woods is much more personally absorbing simply because I know the names and relationships of many of the creatures and plants I encounter.

In true fractal manner, all types of things exist in a full complement of sizes, from the atomic bits and pieces of our existence to the most enormous objects we can imagine. For my own little slice of the universe, I think I'll continue to savor the small stuff, because it IS all small stuff.

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