Confessions of a Serial Dabbler

Plates in the air, projects in process, hot messes on burners front and back — these seem to be the hallmarks of the creative life. The process of bringing something out of nothing involves a lot of uncertainty, so people who are good at it tend to crave chaos, steer clear of sharp corners and straight lines, and seek the liberating air of disorganization.

Then there are the single-minded and focused, who seem to arrow through life in a swath of concentrated purpose. They let nothing deter them from excellence in one activity, or perhaps a narrow scope of endeavor.

Does each secretly want to be the other? Maybe.

TV director James Burrows in his element.

National Public Radio recently aired an intriguing profile of James Burrows, the television director who revolutionized situational comedies with his work on Cheers, Taxi, Will & Grace and a great many other memorable shows. His record of directing pilots that go on to become hits – even cultural touchstones — is singular. He stuck with TV even when he could have moved easily into feature films. Burrows is the Van Gogh of his profession — a painter, not a painter-sculptor-poet. But rather than give up his ear, Burrows fine-tuned it — and his eye — success after success. His peers say that Burrows has no peers.

Listening to Burrows, who like many successful people is quiet and reserved in interviews, gives one the feeling of being at a cocktail party and mentally looking ahead on the talk-to list. He doesn’t sound like he’s going to be interesting. In fact, he sounds like your accountant on a milquetoast rant about home-office tax deduction regulations.

And yet it was hard for me to not want to be like him. For I am not.

My friends, I am a dabbler. There is no other word for it. And while it may not be completely pejorative, the word “dabbler” conjures up a deficit of seriousness that leaves an unwelcome mental aftertaste. People don’t always take you seriously when you try a lot of things, but aren’t expert in any of them.

I recognized myself immediately in the book Mastery. Author George Leonard drew a clear distinction between expertise and the staying power needed to achieve it on one hand, and the dilettantism (read: impatience) of the dabbler on the other. He even made his point graphically. While the dabbler’s interest and enthusiasm are high early, they drop off in a depressing cliff soon after starting. The master, however, accepts small gains separated by long plateaus during which it may seem he will never improve. But he plods on, working and waiting.

I work for a Japanese company whose culture demands patience and a healthy dose of self-negation. Gravitas and dedication are crucial. So you’d think the route of mastery would come come naturally to me.

And still, I can’t help myself. Well, I can, but I don’t want to. Fact is, I like to do a lot of things. Read. Write. Even draw a little. Take photographs. Cook. Sing. Play golf. Play baseball. Do yoga. Run. Kayak. Fish. Sleep. (When?)

“But that’s one the best things about you!” said a particularly supportive friend recently. “You’re brave enough to try things and not worry about falling on your face.”

He’s right. Within reasonable limits, I don’t fear embarrassment. A strange mixture of courage and fear impels me to do things that seem outlandish to some people. At age 46, I decided that it would be better for me to play baseball myself than to force Little League dreams on my son. I worked with a coach, got in shape, fought advancing age and the accursed difficulty of hitting (if you think it was tough when you were a kid, try picking it up after a 35-year layoff), and secured a spot on a team in a 38-and-over league.

Back innuh day.

And then there was the reaction of friends. “You’re NOT doin’ that,” one neighbor said. “No way.” At the time, I was setting posts for a net batting cage in my back yard. He was not helping; he refused. “You’ll blow out a knee. Or your back. C’mon.” I ignored him. (He later joined the same team.)

That was the courage part. The fear element was more like an uneasiness. I have always found the next bend in the road to be as magnetic as a beautiful woman. I must know what is around it. I fear not finding out. This quirk has served me well in accumulating memorable travel experiences; I have glanced into some very non-touristy corners of the world from Scotland to Seoul to Shikoku Island. It has also bought me some interminable flights and long walks back along routes that turned out to be dead ends.

No worries. I wouldn’t have it any other way, especially as age makes these things physically harder. So I played baseball until the prospect of injury and the drain on family time grew too great. I never became very good, although I made some good plays. Would I change anything? No. There are a few pitches I’d like to see again, sure. But otherwise, no.

I dabbled in baseball as a player, and I am the better for it. I proved to myself I could do it, at least some of it. With any luck my son saw me persevere and will use the lesson himself some day.

Some of the things I have dabbled in, I have become pretty good at. I’m a good writer. That’s one area of my life where, although constructive criticism is always welcome, my self-esteem is absolutely bulletproof. I refuse to believe anyone who says I’m not a good writer. I have tried; it’s just not a defensible conclusion.

Then there’s cooking, where I am fearless if not solidly expert. I’m not likely to stack a scallop on a sweet potato pancake on a little pool of raspberry-Key lime-basil reduction in a way that would make a New York City foodie swoon. But give me five ingredients and a kitchen and I will please you. The other night, I improvised lobster-cake appetizers with chopped scallions and cumin that had guests smiling and asking for recipes.

My unreasonable heart, which refuses to give in to my logical mind, fuels a great deal of my dabbling. I have a good singing voice, and after a colleague reminded me of this during a recent karaoke evening in Japan, I decided to cultivate the gift a bit more carefully. I started taking voice lessons again after 30-some years. Classical voice lessons. I want to sing opera. (Click here to read why.)

The impudent heart is to blame here. It looks at, say, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, the incomparable Siberian baritone, and says, “He’s human. You’re human. Same vocal equipment. You can do that.” And before my logical mind can bullet-point the reasons why Hvorostovsky is infinitely more gifted, my heart is off like a shot, making plans for me to be the next great Verdi baritone at the Metropolitan Opera. My mind gives up and tags along.

And of course, my mind is right. But any effort I make to improve my voice and musicianship, even if it gets me not a kilometer closer to my idol’s prowess, is time well spent. The joy of making music, and the possibility of performing one day (even in a small-company opera chorus), make the elaborate dabble worthwhile. And 51 years of accumulated maturity make it easier. My voice teacher, accustomed to teaching precocious and emotionally ebullient teenagers, knows she can try anything on me (including frank denigrations of my efforts) and I will not dissolve into tears. I will plod on.

Ah! Did you hear that? I will plod on. Maybe there is a way to combine the gifts of the master with the enthusiasm of the dabbler. I have not given up every other hobby and whim to become the best opera singer I can be. But I have decided to stick with it as much as personal economy, my golf game, and the search for the perfect blueberry pancake will allow. Maybe a little longer, even.

So I will never be the James Burrows type of excellent. But all in all, I am happy as a dabbler. Truth is, the dabbler, the constant searcher around the next bend, gets to a vital age. It’s the age where he or she realizes that the constant need for variety, newness, challenge and exhilaration require giving up the chance at kudos for sticking with one realm of expertise. It’s about accepting oneself and making the most of it. It could be a good book, or a blog.

Hm. I might dabble in that. — Adam Barr

Copyright 2012 Adam Barr

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