Jack of All, Master of None

The other day, I pulled the ol’ banjo out of the closet for the first time in years.  Before I even opened the black hardshell case, I noticed that lack of use had left the surfaces of the metal clasps a dull, tarnished gray.  I knew instantly the sorry state of affairs that was waiting inside.

Sure enough, when I raised the lid, there it was, nestled in the plush, cobalt-blue lining of the case — a neglected 5-string Gibson Mastertone banjo, sporting lifeless strings, a stiff leather shoulder strap and heavy oxidation on its nickel-plated surfaces.

Now, I know that plenty of people out there in the world have acquired an instrument with the intention of taking lessons, practicing and learning how to play but never reached their goal.  They end up letting the instrument sit somewhere until they can “get back to it.”

Sure, there are lots of people who start lessons and then become discouraged, distracted or disinterested and put the instrument down, never to pick it up again.  Yup, there are probably a gajillion people like that.

But I’m not one of them.

I actually did learn how to play the 5-string bluegrass banjo.  I learned on my own from books and recordings.  I’d say I was progressing at an intermediate level when I stopped picking and grinning back in the mid-1980s.  Earl Scruggs, Peter Wernick, Tony Trischka and Steve Martin were my teachers.  Cripple Creek, the Ballad of Jed Clampett, Dueling Banjos, and of course, Foggy Mountain Breakdown were in my repertoire.

So why did I surrender a perfectly good banjo to the closet and basically let all that practice time, learning and skill go to waste?  The reason has to do with a pattern from my past, during the time before I realized who I was.  It has to do with being trans.

It’s not just banjo playing that I left behind.  The highway of my life is littered with abandoned pursuits and interests, like old cars left to rust along the side of the road.

I used to draw and paint, but the closest I come to that now is playing with Photoshop.

I was in a couple different bowling leagues.  I even have a ball with my name etched into it.  In my first league, I earned two awards:  one for “Worst Bowler” and another for “Most Improved.”  My skill increased from really crappy to just dead last.  Eventually I got better, and then I just quit.

Back in the day, I would duct tape a flashlight to the top of my bicycle helmet, put on knee pads and drop down into caves.  I never progressed to the dangerous water caves or the technically challenging caves that required climbing gear.  I only went spelunking in the holes in the ground that required twisting, turning and squeezing though tortuous pitches and clefts to pop out into larger passages and chambers.  And after a while, I even stopped doing that.

Photography was something I pursued as well but after making my own prints, I left the darkroom and just made snapshots.

I took up bicycle riding, with the helmet and shoes and gloves and spiffy bike, and I kept track of my mileage and measured my times.  After a few years of that I stopped riding and hauled my bike around each time I moved, until finally, I gave it to someone as payment of a loan.

I started working on cars when I was younger.  I’d be hanging out with the guys and would watch them do tune-ups and fix the brakes.  I thought, “Hell, I can do that,” and so I learned how. One day I pulled the V-8 out of my pick-up truck and tore it apart (but needed some help getting it back together).  I eventually started going to car shows and got into muscle cars.  I bought an old Chevy and fixed it up with the help of a friend, and then got a Dodge. They both sit in my garage — the Chev hasn’t been on the road in years and I rarely drive the Dodge.  Even though it’s show-worthy, I’ve never entered it into a competition.

I tried freelance writing for a few years, getting published in obscure little periodicals, then in magazines that were available by subscription. Eventually, I became the east coast writer for a couple little magazines about antiques (even though I neither owned any nor knew anything about them).  My goal was to get a piece published in one of the biggies that you can find on the magazine rack at the local drug store.  I met my goal with an adventure story that was published in a popular fishing magazine.  Once the editor accepted it, I never wrote freelance again.

I took up target shooting and then traded my .22 rifle for a guitar, which I sort of learned how to play, but then I put it in the closet with the banjo.

I hung out in pool halls and played 8-ball to the detriment of my college studies.  I played poker to the detriment of my graduate school studies.  I went fishing to the detriment of my postdoctoral studies.  I took up fencing to the detriment of my knees.

And each time I started a new hobby or pursued an interest, I would commit myself to it just to the point of becoming proficient and then I would just…  stop.

A number of times in my life, people who have known me have said, “You’re just a jack of all trades.”  I would reply, “I’m a jack of all but a master of none.”

When I was younger, I didn’t notice the pattern.  I thought I was just being, well…  young.  In my late 30s, however, I began to wonder why I couldn’t seem to stay with anything.

I made sense of it by telling myself that I repeatedly started new projects because I liked a challenge.  But eventually, I did notice.  As I got older and the list of discarded pursuits became longer, the way I questioned myself changed.

Why can’t I find something and do it until I’m really good at it?  Why can’t I stick with anything?”  I would mentally scroll through the litany of past pursuits and consider taking them up again, and I would even tell myself, “This summer, I will take the Dodge to a car show!”  Or, “Next weekend, I am going to dust off the fishing gear and get some bait in the water!”   But those things never happened.  I couldn’t seem to muster the motivation to go through with any of them.  Eventually, I began to wonder,

“What’s wrong with me?”

That answer finally came, but only after I came out to myself as trans.   Now it all seems so obvious.

I didn’t stay with any of those pursuits because I couldn’t feel any passion or sense of fulfillment over having accomplished them.  It’s not that the passion wasn’t there.  It’s that my over-protective subconscious wouldn’t dare to let me feel it.  Feelings and emotions were in a Pandora’s box that my subconscious brain had nailed shut for decades in a continuous act of self-preservation.  If my subconscious had allowed me to feel passion, then all of those other feelings would have been there as well, those feelings of being male in a female body.  Feelings of being someone on the inside who was different than the person everyone saw on the outside.  Those feelings were dangerous.

So I could only engage in pursuits on an intellectual level.  I think I was going from activity to activity, searching for something that would allow me to realize that spark of passion, that sense of accomplishment, that feeling of fulfillment, and it was always in vain.  I’d become proficient at something but when I didn’t feel the pride that came with it, I’d just let it drop.

Well, that was then, and this is now.

Now, I walk through the world as my true self and have managed to pry open that sealed box of emotions.  I am happy to report that I am connecting with my creativity and some of those long-discarded talents, interests and pursuits — my passions.

I have a new set of strings and bottle of metal polish for the banjo.  For about 18 months I enrolled in photography classes and I now spend time in the darkroom making my own photographs in both color and black & white.  And just this past Friday, I took the Dodge to a car show for the very first time.

If I keep this up, maybe after a little more time, people will say that I’m a jack of all and master of some.  No matter what, I feel …   fulfilled.


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20 Responses to Jack of All, Master of None

  1. j says:

    Well it made you a renaissance man. Lots of transpeople have interests spanning tech stuff and art stuff. And quite a few are ‘overachievers’. Maybe here’s why!
    The subconscious mind is everyones sentry. When I was a kid, I remember peering at my arms and seeing burn blisters all over. I had no idea how they happened. My mind shut out the horror of the actual getting burnt. To date I have no recollection. At the same time a stressed brain can let loose facts you’ve been supressing. I realised I was bi during my nervous breakdown. the flashbullb just went off in my brain. Thankfully I knew a lot of LGBT people, so it was actually a fun new thing about me… like getting a new ear piercing. I think my brain was trying to cheer me up by saying “yoohoo… something new about you…. you’re bi!!”. I owe it to you and the earlier generation that I dont think it is bad to be bi. You guys fought all the ‘wars’ so we younger ones could have an easier time. So Thanks. It was not easy forever though… I told my parents and there was the worst reaction. lol.

    • Sorry your folks were not understanding about your sexual orientation, J. I hope they came around eventually.

      Did they tell you how you became burned? Sounds like one of those stories when the child pulls a pot of hot water off the stop of the stove onto themselves or something like that.

      And congratulations on knowing your true self!

      • j says:

        I asked. They said they didn’t know. I thought it was better not to ask again. Maybe they didn’t want to scare me. It was Diwali…. the time kids play with firecrackers. But I was always monitored… so how it happened, I’ll never know. I don’t talk about being bi at home. It keeps the peace. I’m pretty peace loving.

      • A says:

        lol I am waiting for the day that I really think will come someday not too long from now, when one of my boys shuffles their feet at our dinnertable 30 minutes after we’re done having dinner.. “I’ve got something to tell you… (crickets) I think.. I might be straight ” XD

  2. jean c. says:

    ah, you can count me in the overachiever category: needing lots of attention, but darn sure that I didn’t want any of it to fall on my actual *self*. solution: “work hard to make beautiful things, hopefully someone will love them, maybe that love will transfer to me…”

    it was really important to read this post tonight…. feeling less alone in the world, slightly less overwhelmed by the complicated burden of figuring it all out…. thank you.

    • Hey Jean,
      You’re welcome.
      And yeah, I hear ya. I hope you feel better. I also hope you continue making those beautiful things. The world needs people with your talents.

    • j says:

      I’d say your presence here just added to the headcount of geniuses on this site! What a website! Those posters are to kill for! I work with designers. What you are doing, they can only dream of.

    • A says:

      Yes, I haven’t commented on it yet, and gave myself a couple of days instead but ATM I wonder if maybe we’re all doing this (in varying degree) I certainly recognise it but never really figured out the reason behind it.
      I am a strong believer of finding your answers within yourself, but here you’ve figured out something for me. Thank you. I hope having found your answer you can play your banjo. 🙂 maybe you’ll even post us a clip sometime 🙂
      anyway thanks

      • Hi A.,
        A clip! An interesting concept, which I have actually given some thought, but then figured it would be pretentious. Of course, I used to think writing a blog was pretentious, for me anyway. I certainly like to read other people’s blogs.
        Anyway, thank you for your comments, and you’re welcome. Stay tuned – there will be more.

  3. Josh says:

    I expect to hear that banjo next time I see you, that was always my favorite part of Steve Martin’s performances. I bought his latest CD in a presale. I know I still have one of his older CD’s in the truck, I think it’s Wild & Crazy Guy. Can’t resist King Tut 🙂
    & WOW, you took the Dodge out?! How did it run?

  4. gr_transguy says:

    Wow, you just described me in this post. Well, the first part at least. Still don’t know if I’ll ever find anything I’ll stick with. Once I’m into something for awhile, then it’s not as interesting anymore–at least not as interesting as some other thing that I haven’t gotten into yet. Whenever I get into something, then I’m very passionate about it–for a while, ’til I feel like I’ve got a good taste of it. Then it always seems to be time to move on to some new shiny object…

    On another note, I would like to see/hear a clip of your banjo-playing. It’s not at all pretentious if you’re posting it in response to requests from your readers 😉

    • At least you’re passionate about the pursuits when you’re engaged in them. I wasn’t passionate — I was just sort of going through the motions, so to speak. Now that I can feel the passion, we’ll see if I stick to anything. Maybe I’ll be like you and be in it for the interest and novelty and then go onto the next “new shiny object” (good analogy).

      A clip of my banjo playing… Well, we’ll see. Thank you for asking.

  5. Auntie M says:

    Yeah! I’m excited! You go guy!

  6. Helen says:

    You the man!

  7. Tim says:

    My head is spinning. Just yesterday I reminded myself not to reply to anything, for the exact reason of the nature of the jack of all master of none mindset, this to shall pass. I could write for hours on this, but I am going to try and keep it short. Like you I to had many interest, which I thought at the time were passions. Even the trade I spent the better part of 30 years in for the automotive industry was consider jack of all master of none. When I retired 4 years ago I thought to myself that I could finally spend the time I always wanted to on my “passions”. I set out on my mission and everything I thought I wanted to do seemed so pointless and for lack of a better word stupid. What I decided to do about it was go into a depression and start using drugs to self medicate without seeking professional help. I was like that for 3+ years and never did ask for help. I’m still not sure what finally made me decide to clean up, but I did it. This is where I came to a different conclusion than you. One of the questions was, why can’t I have the passion for something like Angus Young has for his guitar, to the point that he becomes possessed. My answer to that was were not all the same inside or I haven’t found the interest. The next question ( what is the pursuit of happiness) led immediately to the big question ( what is the purpose of life). I have always been a man of few words and I like to keep my answers as short as possible. I decided to look up quotes on the subject. It didn’t take long maybe an hour or two but there it was, the answer, “The purpose of life is a life of purpose” Robert Byrne. That did raise one more question, what is my purpose? That is where the jack of all master of none came into play again. I am not calling it my passion yet, but I love acquiring a little knowledge on a lot of different subjects. That is where I’m at right now with my quest, I decided to pursue this hunger. I also figured out that I had pleasure confused with happiness. I concluded that finding my purpose will bring the happiness and the pursuit most likely will not bring instant satisfaction or pleasure. I have no idea where this is going to take me, nor do I want to know. If I find myself enjoying it to much then I’m going down the wrong path. One more thing that all this made me realize was the importance of family. I hope that you have truly found your calling. That is all for now.

    • Thanks Tim. That’s pretty deep stuff you wrote there. For me, I haven’t found my “calling” as much as I’ve found MYSELF, my true self, who I am, and I am living an authentic life. That’s what was missing all those years. Fulfillment couldn’t come from activities before it came from living an authentic life. I hope your journey is fulfilling.

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