Cheers to the small stuff: Sweating the details may lead to a clear big picture

My fixation’s typical of writers. We scrutinize stuff, big or small.Michael Brrows - PexelsMy fixation’s typical of writers. We scrutinize stuff, big or small.

I like to sweat the small stuff.

I like to sniff it, pinch it, and nibble it. I like to toss it in the air and watch it flutter or fly, soar or plummet, scatter or linger.

This time of year, people like to step back and see the big picture. But it’s made of countless pixels. Bubbles in brooks. Flickers in ashes. Sparkles in mica.

Here in the Forest City, let’s try to see both the forest and the trees. That maple with dripping sap. That cottonwood with shimmering leaves. That sassafras with four kinds of leaves: ovals, mittens with left thumbs, mittens with right thumbs, and mittens with both.

When people scoff at small stuff, they usually mean negative stuff. They’re complaining about a complaint. Especially if it’s about them.

But let small stuff slide, and it might lead to bigger stuff. Think of fine print. Crossed fingers. Stains on an intern’s dress. Empty folders at a resort.

Decades ago, I sat down with some high school writers and talked up the power of specifics After a while, I asked for a few specifics about me. The students shifted and coughed. I pressed.

Finally, one of them said, “You seem very energetic.”

“Sure,” I replied, “but how can you tell?”

“Your back hasn’t touched the back of your chair.”

Another student said, “You seem uncomfortable with your tie.”

“First time I’ve worn one in months. How’d you know?”

“You keep sticking the little end in the big end.”

And here I am years later, still working the little end of things.

Small stuff might seem even smaller during a pandemic. But viruses are small, and so are antibodies.

Small stuff might seem particularly small during a time of big divisions. But an election has hinged on chads. And racial identify hinges on less than one-thousandth of our DNA.

An old saying holds that there’s just an 18-inch difference between a pat on the back and a smack in the butt. These days, we also know that a rise of just two degrees in average temperatures has melted glaciers, intensified storms, and wiped out species.

We’re wired to see specifics as parts of patterns, and patterns can be useful to a point. They help us play the odds in cards, stocks, and more. But some patterns are illusions. We see wisps of clouds as pillows, poodles, or saviors. And some patterns are stereotypes. We see hoodies and sagging pants as signs of race, age, and character.

It's easy to generalize (as I guess I’m doing right now). Common billboards tout abstractions like “compassion” and “sportsmanship.” Preachers and self-help gurus offer bromides. Philosophers offer abstractions. Physicists seek a theory of everything. Psychologists reveal common drives. But we satisfy those drives with very different things, from stamps to sonatas to, in my case, specifics.

My fixation comes partly from an undiagnosed but clear degree of Asperger’s syndrome. We with the syndrome tend to focus on parts more than wholes. And we tend to resist peer pressure. Urged to see the big picture, we might just squint.

My fixation also comes from the energy that those high schoolers noticed. I like sweating the small stuff because I like both stuff and sweating. I’m more into doing than being—and doing means delving into details.

And my fixation’s typical of writers. We scrutinize stuff, big or small. I’ve written about snow fleas, dung beetles, coin sorters, euphemisms, dysphemism, and many other kinds of minutiae.

We try to show, not tell, and staging a show takes costumes, sets, and lines. Shakespeare said that a poet “gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name”—in other words, specifics.

We report details past. Some people call them baggage. We think of them as luggage. Yesterday’s safety pin can save today’s suitcase.

We report details present. We chronicle every up and down in the standings and the polls. These ticks often even out over time but sometimes herald trends.

We report details future, from showtimes to budget lines. Truisms will supposedly stay true awhile, but the details will keep changing and mattering.

In a feature last year on Anita Gardner, interim councilwoman for Cleveland’s Ward 4, I tried not to generalize about the ward’s poverty and grit. Instead, I reported that she gave wipes every morning to a hooker. And that her predecessor, Ken Johnson, now appealing corruption convictions, used to let constituents do their wash at the Kenneth L. Johnson Recreation Center.

(Gardner also found a murder victim’s cremains in a rosebush, but I guess that’s not small stuff).

Okay, sometimes I’ve overdone small stuff. I wrote the definitive article about Cleveland’s system of house numbers. It’s simple, really: As you leave the downtown lakefront in any direction, odd numbers rise on your left and evens on your right. Except, of course, for special addresses like the Cavaliers’ 1 Center Court. And, when you get to Cleveland Heights… well, let’s just say that the article, like our streets, was a bit hard to navigate.

But, when I’ve handled small stuff better, I’ve boosted my skills and confidence for bigger stuff.

A therapist helped me solve a small problem of time management before tackling the tougher challenges of relationships.

Few things might seem as trivial as the oft-debated choice of which way to hang a roll of toilet paper. I was raised to hang the dangling side toward the wall and kept doing so for years out of habit. One day, about to start a new phase of life, I noticed myself fumbling for the next sheet. So, I flipped the roll around and gained more hope for my future than from any bromide about growth.

Grant Segall
Grant Segall

About the Author: Grant Segall

Grant Segall is a national-prizewinning reporter named this year as Ohio’s best freelancer. He wrote "John D. Rockefeller: Anointed with Oil" (Oxford University Press, 2001). Much additional information for this article comes from David Nasaw’s “Andrew Carnegie,” Ron Chernow’s “Titan,” Chernow’s “House of Morgan,” and his American Heritage article on U.S. Steel’s creation.