An Eye Toward Details In Everyday Living

A number of people in my family have sharp eyes for detail. My mother, who both paints and keeps an immaculate house, can see textures in a landscape or stains on clothing that I'm somehow blind to. My wife spots architectural oddities that escape my senses. My eight-year-old son knows the logos and distinctive grill shapes of every big rig on the highway. I just know they're trucks.

When one of these detail-hounds amazes me by pointing out something unseen by me, my memory sometimes slides back to a fellow journalist I knew years ago. He was the essence of a detail person. You might call him a ``detailist,'' an expert at noting variation and nuance.

His work was the close examination of endless news and feature copy, followed by microscopic scrutiny of waves of proof pages. The job might have led some people to despair, others to profound boredom. But my friend relished it. Finding an error - in newsroom parlance, making a ``good catch'' or picking a ``nit'' with a writer or editor - were exhilarations that made the vertiginous voyage through a sea of type rewarding.

His work burnished the product, gave it a shine. The same attention to ``finish'' can be seen in a well-made car, where it's the small things like a cleverly placed holder for toll coins that might sway a buyer. Or in a painting where the shingles on a roof or the feathering of a tree's limbs are given just the needed emphasis. Or even in a bathroom where the guest towels hang straight and there's not a hint of toothpaste spatterings on the mirror.

Inattention to detail - from uncaught errors in print to silverware in the wrong place - is a sign of sloppiness, laziness, an indifference to excellence. But before speeding too quickly along that road to judgment, two messy detours await:

First, admit it, attention to detail and inattention live side by side in most of us. People who ferret out misplaced commas or decimals - or crumbs on place mats or off-center pictures - may also pile dirty socks in another corner of their lives. Not only that, but one person's untidiness can be another's prideful detail. Your teenage children may like the look of that poorly made bed. You know, it's them.

Second, we have to face the likelihood that radical detailists, who apply studied finickiness to every part of life, almost constantly find themselves aghast at less perfect fellow beings. They are hourly confronted by unmade beds and unpicked nits. Dust left behind the radiator or milk left unrefrigerated could be grounds for wrecking a relationship. In other words, attention to detail, unmixed with a little tolerance, can be the path away from order, not toward it.

At this point, I should probably state my firm opposition to unmade beds, misspelled words, and stains on neckties. Yet I've sometimes found myself associated with all of these.

What it may all come down to is a choice of which details - of the thousands that fill everyone's lives - to zero in on. That choice can be made carefully or carelessly. It may glom on to the tangible, the right-at-hand, and neglect those most intimate details of all - the thoughts we choose to think. But just recognizing that the choice is there, I think, makes something of a detailist of each of us.

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