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 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.