Friday, January 14, 2011


During the 20 or so years of my adult life, I have been accustomed to thinking of myself as an expert. Generally there has been very little evidence to support this stance, although I have made ambitious beginnings in a wide range of subjects. I believe my self-assessment comes in large part from periodically rubbing academic or professional elbows with people who either were at the time or who later became, through dint of perseverance and attention, experts.

For example, during high school I devoted myself almost exclusively to music and British literature. To this day I experience an agony of inarticulate familiarity when I listen to the radio: "Hey!" I'll cry to family members, "I've played this piece! We must have worked on this exact section about thirty times--it's really hard to play in tune!" What I won't be able to recall, however, is the name of the piece or who composed it. Likewise, I have a solid grounding in the classics of English literature, although after 20 years my actual knowledge of the contents of these classics has become very dim (Macbeth is about...a man who murders someone? With the help of his wife? Who gets blood on her hands and has a hard time washing it off? Out, out, damned spot!)

Or...during one very focused semester in college I read every historic document pertaining to the pre-20th century Ojibwa, or at least all the documents that had been published and then purchased by the Columbia University library system. I can't even remember what these documents are, just what they looked like and where, generally, they were found within the library.

Or...for several summers in my twenties I could name every bird that bred between 6,500 and 9,000 feet in the Colorado mountains, and identify them by song or call. I could also identify most of the plants.

Therefore, it has come as a rather rude surprise to reach age forty (or thereabouts) and be most accurately defined as a dilettante. I engage in most pursuits "sporadically, superficially, or frivolously;" I lack real commitment or knowledge of most subjects (and the subjects to which I am committed to are somewhat stunning in their triviality--the catalogs of which sidewalks in the neighborhood are most likely to be icy two weeks after a big snow; the state of my children's teeth; the proper usage of a comma according to the AP Style Guide).

Meanwhile, while I have restlessly skipped from subject to subject, my former peers have doggedly persisted in acquiring the depth and breadth of knowledge I have always admired, often imitated, and never really achieved. Former classmates whom I used to (shamefully) consider lacking in ability, or application, or the sheer imaginative passion necessary to really dive into a subject and make it one's own have become, shockingly, experts. In my current job, as the editor of academic manuscripts for a technical journal, this fact makes itself known to me on a daily basis. My email inbox is filled with messages from men and women whose grasp of the technical requirements of separating gangue rock from valuable ore, or designing an underground ventilation system that is both efficient and effective, or quickly suppressing a spot fire on a conveyor belt system, is vastly superior to mine--and (here's the rub, because I can't say I lie awake nights regretting my inability to match the proper teeter bed hydroseparator to the specific rock type found in a particular seam) the larger physical, chemical, economic, geologic and even political context for any and all of these specialized endeavors. If you had asked me at age 22 if I had any interest in becoming a civil engineer I would have thrown back my head and laughed. Yet if you'd asked if I wanted to gain a thorough knowledge of the structural, social, scientific implications of building a bridge--and, further, to develop an acquaintance with all of the varied people involved in such a project, and an understanding of the specific political climate surrounding the endeavor--well, I would have said yes. Definitely yes, just as soon as I finish trying (and failing) to teach myself Navajo.

Here's the thing, though: do I care? Most of the time, not too awfully much, although that's usually the low-grade exhaustion talking (sure I'm bummed that I never got around to writing the Definitive Guide to Native American Linguistic Evolution--but hey, who's up for a nap?)

Sometimes, though, I grow melancholic. I'll read the obituary of someone who made it his well-appreciated but completely unpaid business to drive all over the state and catalog every single Paleoindian site in the Rocky Mountains, and I'll think that sounds so cooool. I'll read an article about someone who devoted ten years to discovering and eating the root crops of the world, or became the state's unofficial expert on bats, or who wrote a book on a subject I briefly took a shine to and read two or three books about, and I'll get mopey for days, thinking that should have been me.

Whom do you envy? ask career counseling experts. It's a swift way to figure out what you want in life, or what you think is missing.

Well. What "whom do you envy?" doesn't help you answer is the next question, which is, "what are you going to do about it?"

I really don't know. For now, nothing. Embrace my inner dilettante, I suppose, while trying to stay the course on the project I started about nine and a half years ago, which is raising two kids with a reasonable amount of stability and attention. And dream of a day when I can, and hopefully will, hop into my car and call in sick whenever I hear of a great new...something, somewhere in the state.

1 comment:

Kate/High Altitude Gardening said...

Great post. I go through this a lot. Sometimes I have a 'catch up' lunch with an old friend and walk away from that discussion thinking... geez, when did I become so dull? Or, shallow. I guess shallow is a better way for me to describe me because I tend to dabble. Most subject matter just can't hold my interest long enough for me to become an expert...

Okay, now you've got me all depressed. Just kidding. But I still might go visit the library today. I wonder if my card still works?