A Jack of All Trades

Who Says Jack Can't be a Master?

I mentioned at the end of my first newsletter that I might write this week about the oh-so-clever phrase my piano teacher used to throw at me — A Jack of all trades is a master of none. In essence, I gave myself an assignment, so this week, I have been doing what all good students do, a small bit of research on the web and a decent amount of scattered thinking on the topic. But no serious writing until the deadline.

Lest you judge me too harshly as a procrastinator, I did intend all along to write this over the weekend. I would have liked to have had a bit more clarity at this point, though. I find I have multiple directions I could go and too many connections I want to make for a newsletter called The Not Too Long and Short of It, which means that this topic is deserving of a series of short vignettes. And I just gave myself another assignment.

The foremost connection in my mind today as I sit down with my handy dandy laptop, Della, was made on a trip back to 1988. I don’t know when I would have gotten around to visiting this scene if my son had not embarked on a massive and much-appreciated project—digitizing and cataloging all of our family videos. So many memories stored away in boxes, some of which we have watched and others I don’t think I even knew existed.

This particular video was taken when aforementioned son was just about three months old and my paternal grandparents had flown out to DC to visit our new little family of three. On the night before they were to return home, my husband formally interviewed them, something he had the foresight to do with all of our living grandparents, with a little balking on each of their parts. That foresight paid off. At the time, I couldn’t imagine them ever not being around. Now that they are gone, and I am getting much closer to their 1988 age, I am grateful to be able to listen to their story from a different perspective, seeing more clearly who they were and how they thought about life.

My grandfather was a most definite Jack of all trades. Bogie, as we called him, could fix pretty much anything that needed fixin’. He was not an anomaly. Neither was Jack, back in the days when the term was used as a compliment and referred to a man who had the ability to perform multiple tasks in a competent manner. Both Bogie and Jack were men of their times and developed needed skills, sometimes out of necessity, but often out of economy and efficiency. I mean, why would you call a plumber if you could fix the toilet yourself? I can think of a lot of reasons, but that is not the way Bogie thought.

Born in 1912, a child of Danish immigrants, Gilbert Frode Christoffersen was raised in rural Nebraska and spent most of his adulthood on a farm about 12.5 miles as the sober crow flies (got that one from my dad) outside a small town called Hay Springs, where he and Virginia Nancy Bowman, a Jill of all trades herself, raised my dad … and chickens and pigs and corn and beans and all manner of other plants and animals.

Bogie and Grandma Journer, so dubbed by their grandchildren, were not unlike most others of their time. They were children during World War I, grew up in the roaring twenties, made ends meet, and kept the farm running during the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and World War II. Whether they thought about being masters of anything during those days, I’m not sure; there was too much to do to focus 6-8 hours a day on perfecting any one skill. Although I would dare to call Grandma Journer a master baker. I am still baking her Amish sugar cookies every Christmas (I would bake them year round, but they are just too good), and she made the best cinnamon raisin bread.

Bogie, on the other hand, didn’t care if something was done perfectly or not. If it needed to be fixed, you just used what you had and fixed it. In my family, if Bogie fixed something, maybe not exactly like a professional might do it, we would say it was bogie’d. To this day, when I visit my parents’ home in Kansas City, I have to remember that the knobs in the hall bathroom shower work opposite of normal. Dad and Mom saved a lot of money by not calling a plumber on that job, and having it bogie’d the way it is brings back priceless memories of the one who rigged it.

For as long as he was able, Bogie kept fixing things. In 1993, our family of now five made the journey from DC to Hay Springs for a small family reunion. Not surprisingly, the single toilet in the small farmhouse was not prepared for such a large crowd. (It was a good thing the old outhouse was still standing.) It didn’t take long before several of the stronger members of the bunch started digging a deep trench in an effort to uncover the problem with the septic system. I include Bogie in that group. At 80 years of age, he jumped down into the trench and started digging with the youngest of them. In the end, they had to call in a specialist, but I bet Bogie would have kept trying to fix the whole thing himself if some of those youngsters hadn’t suggested a modern solution.

There is something appealing to me about the way Bogie and Grandma Journer lived their rich and full lives, surrounded by family and friends out in the sandhills of western Nebraska, not needing YouTube to learn a new skill or social media to keep up with friends. Some may call them self-sufficient, which in a sense would be accurate, but it was not an isolated self-sufficiency. They gleaned their knowledge and skills in community with those around them. They learned what they needed to learn and they did what they needed to do. And they knew how to have fun when the work was done.

I am not trying to romanticize the past; I know that is not how Bogie and Grandma Journer viewed their lives, nor do I really want to live that way today. The times were different, and I’m pretty sure that if they had been plopped down into our world, they would have been just like most of us. Grandma Journer may have filmed a celebrity baking show from her kitchen, and Bogie would probably have been looking at YouTube videos on how to fix the refrigerator. Virginia, with all of her new-found fame and cash, may have even said, “Gil, let’s just buy a new one.” But she probably would have let him tinker with it a while first.

And this is not me making a major statement; I am a big proponent of balance and nuance, and I’m not sure what statement I would actually make. I am just pondering whether just maybe we’ve gone a little overboard with the mastery idea in our modern culture and the expectations we put on ourselves, our children, and those around us. Was there really a need to add the phrase master of none to the respectable Jack of all trades? Could it be that both or even a mixture of the two are equally admirable possibilities and that all of us, both generalists and specialists, to use modern terms, have lost a little of what it means to live balanced and contented lives? Hmmm … so much more could be said, but for now, this is the not too long and short of it.

Except for this closing:

Bogie and Grandma Journer went on to live another 18 years, having celebrated their 71st wedding anniversary in 2006. During that visit in 1988, they were 75 years old and healthy, but as usual, Bogie, who was a ponderer himself, was already looking back over the years of his life.

“I’ve lived a good life,” he said at the end of the interview, turning to glance over his shoulder at Grandma Journer, who he still said was the most beautiful woman in the world. “I have; I don’t know about her,” he added with a hint of a smile.

Grandma Journer didn’t hesitate a moment. “Oh, I’ve lived a wonderful life!” she exclaimed, giggling in that contagious girlish way of hers.

That sounds like mastery to me.

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