Friday, November 05, 2010

Seeing Variety Where Others See None.

There is a desert dwelling community in India with forty different names for clouds. They are experts at gathering water and their interest in clouds, no doubt, stems from their need to know which ones will deliver rain versus those that just blow by. Like the Eskimo's snow, every culture seems to have a vocabulary to match it's passions. But seeing it from the outside usually produces the opposite effect. To someone who's never seen it, all snow looks like snow. I now realize that this happens in our daily lives more often than you'd think.

I took a class in ethnography when I was in college. The professor was an ethno-musicologist and had studied communities in Africa, New York and the jazz and blues communities of the Mississippi Delta. Prompted by a derogatory comment about the Laurence Welk Show (which was big at the time), he interviewed a number of people in the local Polish community about Polka music. When he interviewed people from the general population, he found that many people despised Laurence Welk and his music. "Every song sounds exactly the same" was the characteristic comment he received. However, when he interviewed the Welk fans he found the opposite sentiment. Where some heard a grating monotony, fans heard an infinite amount of variety. They knew there was a familiar pattern... the part that outsiders disliked. But once you got into the music, they felt each song was unique. Hard core fans appreciated the subtle differences in every polka he played.

What the polka community experienced applies to almost any sub-culture. One person's variety is another person's monotony. In college, I experienced the same phenomenon in trying to negotiate music interests with one of my room mates. He was into the Stones and Zeppelin, I was into Steely Dan. He despised Steely Dan. When I asked why he said, "It all sounds the same". What I saw then as just blind (or deaf) criticism I now see as the Laurence Welk phenomenon. Steely Dan has a distinctive sound. From an outsiders perspective it might all sound the same. But for an insider's perspective, I hear a wide range of songs framed by the common elements of Walter Becker's distinctive guitar and Donald Fagan's keyboard and smart vocals.

When I was in an NYC runners group for a few years, I was amazed at how much we could talk about our most recent run. To an outsider it was just a workout but to a runner there is an almost infinite level of detail to review. There is the technique one used on the slight incline versus on the flats and the steep uphills. There's the start of the sprint versus the push to the finish, passing another runner versus drafting, and the list goes on.

I've even noticed having these two impressions when viewing my own work. When I would work on my freehand maps, I would be intensely focused on the quality of my line. My line would waver as the hand tends to do. Sometimes I could even detect the echo of my heartbeat in the waver. So I would worry that the drawing was going to look sloppy. But over time I realized that people didn't feel that way. Thus is partly due to the fact that people like the "life" of a freehand line over a perfect one drawn by a ruler. But it also has to do with the fact that what I was seeing as big wiggles in my line disappeared when you looked at it from a normal viewing distance. It was almost like I had been viewing the map under a microscope.
I don't know what the greater meaning of all this is but it's clearly a part of human culture. Seeing the detail that outsiders miss helps cement the community. Focus sets the craftsman apart from the hobbyist and the fan from the casual observer.

No comments: