Honestly Kid

by Daniel Damkoehler


2nd thoughts

Daunting Depths

pollock.fathom-fiveI’m in the midst of trying to learn and/or become proficient at over a dozen things these days: ukulele, Drupal, PHP, MySQL, Playwriting (yes, still), non-fiction writing, online writing, WordPress, CSS, XHTML, gardening, drawing, Italian, Spanish, French, Unix, healthy cooking, Tai Chi, being a good boyfriend, staying healthy…

Every one of these things, these fields of learning, has depth and every field’s depth grows daunting as I gaze into its heart. I know this has something to do with the way I’m wired. Other people don’t think twice about the vast multiplicity of ukulele chord charts, CSS3, or mastering more than one Unix text editor.

For me, every one of those things has a daunting amount of depth. I’m good at the survey level. I LOVE the survey level. The full fathom five of details gives me pause. The accessibility of all that I don’t know about everything and anything feels like some horrible curse of the information / Internet age.

Truth is, I wish the details gave everyone pause. Too often people mistake vast generalizations for well-founded truths, in fact, this country is rife with it these days. One of the things I think we’re supposed to learn in a good liberal arts education is that you don’t get to know everything, not even about one particular thing. Specialization is next to impossible and probably not desirable if you believe the scifi author Robert Heinlein:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

I don’t tend to agree on much with macho libertarian wingnuts, but I think the guy had a point on this score. Still, I look into the heart of each of these things I’m learning and I am daunted – in a good way maybe, but daunted all the same.

The Pollack at the top of this post is Full Fathom Five (1947; Oil on canvas with nails, tacks, buttons, coins, cigarettes, etc, 50 7/8 x 30 1/8 in). It’s the only thing I’ve ever seen that can give me that daunted feeling without making me feel anxious or bad about it, but then again, Abstract Expressionism is kind of my bag – if only I knew more about it…

3 Responses to “Daunting Depths”

  1. David » August 18th, 2009

    Specialization is the hobglobin of…..something or other.

    But in journalism and TV writing I have found sad truth is being a jack of all trades is not preferable. People want to be able to categorize you (“a music writer” “business expert” etc). Not to get too meta, but even blogs to some extent have to hew to a certain throughline y to get the most followers, no?

    To be over the place, you have to be a name-brand writer first. And you probably got to be a name-brand by doing one thing well.

    Even on Facebook I have found myself focusing on certain things — bad movie remakes and the Mets foibles — as opposed to spewing every opinion I have (I have stayed away from health care, mostly). Not sure why that is. Maybe because it’s a different level of “friend” that is monitoring me.

  2. Laura » August 18th, 2009

    I think knowing what you don’t know overwhelms you. In fact, you are one of the strongest people I know in recognizing that fact and finding the right solution, as you need it, when you need it and moving on.

  3. weston » August 19th, 2009

    nice post! generalization is much on my mind since my early 30s — when i realized i will never master anything and that really my desire to either learn something new everyday or build something new everyday. and it does happen one day at a time.