Confessions of a Dilettante

OK, it’s true—I’ve never sustained interest in anything very long, never, in fact, long enough to become expert at it. Moderately good, maybe, but not expert. My father was like that; he called himself a dilettante, jack of all trades, master of none. But I think he stayed with his better than I have done.

My father’s lasting interests were fishing, boats, flying, deer and bird hunting, and, in a general way, creating things with tools. Intelligent and well educated as he was, he was not an intellectual, and consequently even his lasting interests passed out of his reach in his later and last years.

When I was in fifth grade, my parents signed me up for a basic target riflery course at a range in town. I did well at it and continued. At my prep school, I won trophies and was captain of the Rifle Team. In college, I was on the Rifle Team my first three years, and captain of the team the third, as a junior. Then I quit shooting at the end of that year, no longer interested.

What followed? The violin, in the early ‘80s, but that was not so much a loss of interest as recognition that it was too much for me. I took lessons on my own, after trying to get my four-year-old son to start early, but without structure or external incentive, I didn’t reach the point of catching on. I gave it a good try, but I had no talent for it. My father had the same experience in his forties with the guitar, even though he was quite musical and sang beautifully.

Also in the ‘80s, I bought a BMW motorcycle. I loved it. It was central to my life and activities for two years, and then—poof!—I was no longer interested. I was shocked; I waited for my interest to come back, but it didn’t. I sold it. I notice in thinking about it that my father had commented to me, many years before, what a fine machine a BMW motorcycle was. There is almost a pattern here.

But no—my father had nothing to do with my subsequent major interests: bonsai, beekeeping, and cabin-building.

Bonsai and beekeeping, particularly, each in turn, totally took me over. With bonsai, I was obsessive, couldn’t read enough, see enough lectures and demonstrations, practically killed my first trees with attention—over-pruning and wiring and fertilizing. I joined the Bonsai Society, became an officer, put trees in shows. Bonsai lasted for years; we brought them all to Portland, and I still have many of them. But I’m ready to let go of them now. They are nice objects; some of them are good, but I don’t want to take care of them.

The same sequence happened with beekeeping. I was fascinated for several years, and enjoyed it greatly, stings and all, but then my interest waned. I continued with it for a couple years more, for the pleasure of the activity with my beekeeping partner, but I was quite ready, even glad, to let it go when she needed to for other reasons.

I must include building my cabin in this list. It is an exception in a way, in that it is still a satisfying source of pleasure. But it quenched my interest in the process of building it, though now the finished product is a beloved possession.

Where am I going with this? That is the question. To be without interests is to be ready to die, and that is why my waning interests puzzle and trouble me.