Friday, August 28, 2009

Attention to Detail

(News-Herald, August 27) I love the stone skipping contest. It makes for such a finely focused afternoon (particularly in better-organized years like this one). I’ve judged the event basically since its Franklin inception, and I often hear the same question—how do you count all those little skips?

The big complicated answer is something about the audible tips, the little splashes, the rhythm, the patterns of ripples, but the short answer is simple: you pay attention. From a distance, a row of stone skips may just look like a line of splashy water. Everything looks different close up.

The common, simple image of a river is that it’s flat and flows steadily downstream. But even a kayak duffer like me quickly sees that’s not so. I’ve spent many hours out on the river this summer, and it is a beautiful place. But what looks like a large, flat rolling ribbon from a distance is considerably more complicated close up.

Sometimes the river really is a flat ribbon. But in some places it suddenly plunges into a deep hole or over a submerged stone step. There are places where ridges split the river lengthways and the water flows sideways, spilling over a lip almost too slight to measure. The river will stand with lake-like stillness until it drops, suddenly, and the water springs to life. It can race, cut through itself, even swirl in little pockets that hit the kayak as if it had landed on top of a big spinning ball.

Where French Creek and the Allegheny come together there’s always something interesting going on. Sometimes the river runs a bit higher than the creek, and the creek’s waters pile up against it. More often the river runs a bit lower, and you can see the slightest of mini-waterfalls at the creek’s mouth. As flat as we expect water to be, a river is filled with dips and rises and steps and hills.

Ditto for the bike trail. Certainly no one would mistake the bike trail for one of those alpine peaks in the Tour de France, but pedal up and down enough times with your gear cranked up to somewhere between “Wow—we’re zipping along now” and “Wow—I’m definitely getting older” and you can see (and feel) the trail dip and climb.

The same phenomenon is evident through many parts of life. It is probably the mark of true love for something to see all the little details and variations.

If you don’t like polka music, pretty much every polka sounds like every other polka. But polka fans know the differences, can hear nuances and changes and distinctions and can tell the difference between Polish and Slovenian polkas.

All parents who hate their children’s music are certain it all sounds exactly the same, even though the children who love the music are quite sure it doesn’t.

Pursuing and mastering a passionate interest often involves learning to see the small distinctions, the little details, and understand them. It’s the way a sports fan learns pages and pages of trivia. (I am proud to say that I am not a fair-weather fan of the Penguins; I maintained a steadfast indifference to hockey through the entire Stanley Cup proceedings.) Those who love the game can go on at great length about the details, specifics, techniques, strategies, and finer points (I know—I heard them all everywhere I went). But to me, hockey just looks like a bunch of guys on skates batting a puck around.

If you hate small towns, they’re all the same. If you hate cities, one urban mess is just like every other. Refusing to see those distinctions is how many people keep something at arm’s length and avoid developing interest or understanding. If you don’t let yourself really look at it, you can avoid learning to love it. Sometimes being forced to come up close to something is how you learn to love and appreciate it in the first place.

It is one of the benefits of staying in one place for many years. A good, long hard look shows you the patterns, the shapes, the intricate little details that are woven together. Sometimes it takes many years, many views to have that moment of discovery, the uncovering of unexpected beauty.

In a world where we demand that everything be scrubbed down to quick simple microbursts of experience, it’s no wonder that so little satisfies us. That scrubbing removes everything rich and interesting, the details that move the spirit and awaken the heart.

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