Confessions of a dedicated dilettante

Sometimes I feel that my entire life has been an exercise in distraction. I long ago came to realize that I am a putterer, a grazer, a dilettante. I create the impression of getting a lot done by dabbling through my days: I read two pages of a book, write half a letter, paint a portion of the front porch, bake half a tin of muffins, teach a class, wash a window. Eventually, in the course of a week, the entire book is read, the letter becomes a masterpiece of six thoughtful pages, the porch is gloss gray, muffins sprout like spring mushrooms, my students learn some terminology, and the windows - one by one - become transparent. Onlookers gush, "How much you get done!" But I know better.

The truth is, I have a wandering eye. How I ever got through college, much less graduate school, I'll never know. I can still clearly recall, while pursuing my bachelor's in biology, going to the library to fetch a journal article. But once I entered the stacks, I found myself tempted by the titles that surrounded me: the history of the kings of Albania; a grammar of the Icelandic language; the sea nettles of Ireland; the book of Turkish bread; the science fiction of Edgar Allan Poe. And there I slumped, in the narrow aisle between the book stacks, reading, reading, reading (or rather, paging, paging, paging), suspended between fascination and guilt.

In my youngest days, my teachers said that I was bright, "even though," in the words of one, "he doesn't always seem to be paying attention." No truer words were ever spoken! I can remember, in first grade, counting ceiling tiles as the teacher administered a vocabulary lesson.

In third grade, I was asked to take the trash basket down to the incinerator room. Along the way I was upended by many wonders: a friend from another class, the sight of pigeons on a windowsill, and the desire to measure the length of the school in footsteps (and wondering if it was the same length walking backwards). By the time I returned to class, what should have been a five-minute jaunt had become an odyssey of 20. To top it all, I was holding the still-full wastebasket. My teacher, to say the least, was not pleased.

It's clear that in order to arrive at my current station in life I have had to occasionally bear down: to get my degrees, find my job, purchase a home, and adopt two foreign-born children. But those efforts were like the afterburners on jet fighters: brief, intense bursts of energy to get one to a goal in quick time.

I am a biologist, but I could never imagine huddling over a microscope for hours on end, day after day, analyzing the structure of the cell nucleus. Rather, I am the teacher who, when called to a student's scope, peers in, takes a genuine, intense interest, and exclaims, "Wow! You found a rotifer! Good for you." And then I move on. In short, I will never be the man who, in the imaginary words of my imagined biographer, "devoted his life single-mindedly to...." Well, you fill in the blank.

It is important that I explain one thing: I am neither frustrated nor disappointed by my disposition. My restless approach to life is actually rather pleasant. Let me illustrate how my yesterday ran:

I arose at 5:30, freshened up, and sat down to the newspaper, a yogurt, and a banana, while my sons slumbered peacefully upstairs. After my repast I wrote one paragraph of this essay. That took three minutes. Then I stretched.

Proceeding outside, I examined the buds on the river birch. Satisfied that they were swelling with vigor, I picked up my rake and cleared the leftover autumn leaves from under one of the three spruces on my property. Then I went back inside and wrote the second paragraph of this essay. Then came the salutation and first line of a personal letter, followed by a walk of one-half (i.e., not a full) mile.

When I returned home my 7-year-old was up. We read one chapter of "The Easter Bunny That Ate My Sister." Then my 18-year-old arose. We chatted, he headed off to school. The little one boarded the bus. I drove to work, taught for 50 minutes, explored the Web, ate lunch, talked with the janitor, filled one of my tires with air (although three of them needed it), and headed home. I read half my mail, cooked a simple supper, fed the boys, watched the opening 10 minutes of the evening news, and then sat by the river with the 7-year-old as he told me how he'd like to be a pirate.

As night drew on, I read my younger son to sleep, gave unsolicited commentary on the book my older son is reading ("A Farewell to Arms," by Hemingway), and read half a tale in "The Portable Conrad" while sipping tea. Then I turned in. As I drifted off I glanced out the window and saw a shooting star.

If this is not bliss, what is? One could do worse than be a dilettante.

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