I have a theory about doing something before you know why, or more importantly, before you know what it is called. It involves minutiae—a Latin word for little details that are presumably trivial, which we define as something having little importance. But my theory assumes that these minutiae are really not that trivial at all. To explain the theory, I have to apply another interesting word—interdisciplinary—meaning, something that involves two or more academic, scientific, or artistic disciplines, or fields. Put another way, it’s more than using a metaphor or an analogy to illustrate or describe something. To apply interdisciplinary method, you actually think about one thing in terms of another. What follows is a long story that demonstrates the technique behind the theory of minutiae.
Let’s say that to explain my take on the real importance of trivial details (minutiae), I will use the metaphor that has as its subject, atoms, which are the tiny building blocks of everything in our world. Elements are the kinds of atoms that we have, like carbon, or hydrogen, or oxygen. These atoms, then, such as carbon, hydrogen, or oxygen, bind together to form molecules. So one hydrogen atom can bond with another hydrogen atom and produce a molecule of hydrogen. If an oxygen atom binds to the two hydrogen atoms (a hydrogen molecule), it becomes a molecule of water, or H2O. Still with me? My theory about minutiae, those seemingly trivial details I mentioned above, is that they are like the bonds between atoms and molecules. Instead of reasoning that you did something—let’s call it A, and then another thing right after it—we’ll call that B, and another and another (you get the idea), we often draw a conclusion about a chain of events we think of as cause and effect. Now, sometimes this is useful. For example, you step on a banana peel, and slip and fall. You reason—correctly, that because you stepped on the banana peel, you slipped and fell. Cause and effect, with a dash of stupidity. But this can be a misleading strategy. Let’s say that you called in sick to work because you just didn’t feel like going. After lying to your boss on the phone, invoking a weak and raspy voice, you later decide to have a banana, and you are so distracted by your cleverness at having deceived the boss, that you carelessly drop the banana peel, while thinking you tossed it into the sink, but it only landed on the edge of the counter, from which it fell mischievously to the floor. Minutes later, as you make plans to spend the day in sheer pleasure, you step on the aforementioned banana peel, and slip into a painful, embarrassing fall. You might think for an instant that because you lied, the banana was payback. Put another way, the lie was the cause of the fall, or, the fall was the effect of the lying, which was the cause. You might call it karma, where what goes around comes around, good or bad, as an inevitable result of your own action. But in philosophy (and physics, too, I think), it is a fallacy (anerror in logical reasoning). That is to say, just because there is a correlation between events, doesn’t necessarily mean that it is a true case of cause and effect. Oh, boy, this is harder to explain than I thought. Just work with me.
My point is that we tend to summarize things we do, and focus on the perceived causes, or the equally perceived effects. What we overlook is what binds the one to the other. And to return to my opening point, I call these bonds, minutiae. I dragged you through my cumbersome digression of atoms and molecules so that I could use the metaphor to describe my theory. Hello?
Now that you have the relevant terms, let me describe my theory by dragging you further on through a personal anecdote, boring, but true.
There was a lamp at my mom’s cottage by the lake. I noticed it one weekend in the summer when I was unloading supplies on the counter, and opening a bottle of wine (minutiae). I admired it for its shape, which was a tapered, vertical cylinder; the top was rounded, and narrower than the base. The tapered, vertical cylinder was clear plastic, and fluted besides. That is to say, it had vertical ridges from the tapered top, to where the clear, fluted, cylinder sat in the broader black base. I know you must be wondering what’s to admire here, so I’ll tell you now. Inside the clear fluted plastic cylinder was a fabulous scene of a yellow moon and stars, and sun—the kind with rays spiking outward and a face. The sun and the moon and the stars, all a mature shade of yellow, were contrasted against another scene (also cylindrical) of two flat circles, populated with various astrological symbols and constellations. These flat circles in turn were surrounded by blue seas, which had other figures that could have been reflections of the celestial counter-parts in the flat circles. But the really keen part of the lamp is that the picture of the sun and the moon and the stars, revolved anti-clockwise inside the plastic, fluted, tapered, cylindrical lens, while the zodiacal circles revolved clockwise, when the lamp was plugged in. The movement of the separate, cylindrical, panoramas was all the more dynamic for the light bulb burning behind the pictures—inside the lamp.
I know you are thinking this is all minutiae.
Where did the lamp come from, I asked my mother, as I rushed over to marvel at the optical effects of the counter-revolving images through the fluted plastic lens. It was Alex’s (my niece), she explained, who got it from Cristina (my daughter-in-law), for her birthday, but she didn’t want it anymore because it makes a noise.
Then I noticed the noise. It was a slow, low, churning sound, but it was all I could think about afterwards, rather, it was all I could hear, afterwards. And when I wasn’t hearing it, I was anticipating hearing it (minutiae, minutiae, minutiae).
I returned to my wine and my mom said, with unbridled enthusiasm, take it. Take it home, because you like it. I know I suffer from the same condition my mother does: someone admires something, and you want them to have it, which makes the whole subject of compliments very dangerous. For example, mom makes some Hungarian chicken, and you taste it, and say “wow, this is really good (because it is). So she will say, here, eat some more. Here, take it home, why don’t you. She will even forego her portion, which is tiny at best, just to give you something you like.
Suffice to say I took the lamp.
Happily I plugged it in at home and delighted at the soft blue and mature yellow glow cycling off the fluted plastic lens, though the growling noise got worse, no doubt, from keeping it constantly plugged in. So I decided to move it a bit further from earshot, but when I plugged it in anew, the gol-rammed thing stopped turning altogether. No churning sound, no growling, no nothing. Shall we say then, that because I moved it, it stopped working? Think about the banana peel…
I have a condition which does not allow me to leave broken things unexplored and unrepaired. The series of events from the cottage and acquisition of the lamp to its untimely, but not entirely unexpected demise, can easily be classified as minutiae, and by extension, the veritable bonds that hold various atoms together as molecules. In other words, I would have to disassemble the lamp and try to fix it. It came apart easily enough to reveal a set of seven little plastic gears or different sizes, whose tiny, and I mean tiny plastic teeth fit together in a splendid ensemble. The problem was, as I surmised, the spindle from the equally tiny motor had a plastic collar that was cracked, which prevented the spindle from seating properly into the center of the gears. If I were to say that I couldn’t even properly see the tiny crack in the tiny collar that needed mending, I would be exaggerating.
The new problem was that my fingers were too big, and the tiny plastic collar too frayed to simply mate and glue. So I foraged through my junk drawer in the kitchen and found a tiny piece of gasket (a thin piece of cork that acts as a seal on a machine, such as a pump, or a carburetor). I fashioned a circle of sorts, hot-glued it to the tiny plastic collar, and then poked a hole so as to slip the spindle from the tiny motor through it. Feels like a lot of minutiae, even for me.
But here is the moment of illumination. For two hours I concentrated on nothing else but the menial task of repairing the rotating panorama on the lamp, which otherwise, still functioned as a lamp on account of the working bulb. I was so pleased that once reassembled, not only did the lamp perform effortlessly, but it also lost its growl. On the heels of such a magnificent accomplishment, I decided to do some work on an icon I had started on my window, feeling as uplifted as I was, but had to bring up my paint box from the basement. Just as I snatched the box from its place, I discovered a drill that had been missing for seven months. Really.
What all of this means is that the minutiae—the broken gears—turned out to be the cause to free my mind of non-productive mental activities, which in turn, directly led to the recovery of my drill. Put another way, the general problem was solved using an interdisciplinary method (knowledge of machine and engine repair), literally making a part I couldn’t have bought for all the tea in China, which gave me back the working lamp and my missing drill besides. SO I solved two problems for the price of one, contemplated the zen of gears that though tiny and made of cheap plastic, moved the sun and the moon and the stars.