Four years ago I decided to take up the ukulele. I’m not sure if that was the year that everyone decided to take up the ukulele (I like to think that I am ahead of the zeitgeist), but it probably was the year everyone decided to take up the ukulele.
My goal was to contribute one song to our biannual pig roast, which had morphed into equal parts pig roast and music festival. And because a ukulele has just four strings and is available in fun colors, I chose it as my vehicle to sing my song.
I typed “ukulele lessons” into the YouTube search bar and spent the next several weeks with a 12-year-old from Hawaii who taught me, and thousands of other strangers who had found his link, a song. I tortured my family by playing this same song, “Hey Soul Sister” by Train, over and over.
As the pig roast got closer, I had to admit that I needed more help than the 12-year-old on YouTube could provide. In fact, when it was my turn to play my song, I needed the lyrics clipped to a music stand and typed out in a 36-point font.
I also needed a professional musician to hover next to me just in case I passed out and she needed to take over.
Turns out mastering one song while possessing no musical skills is hard.
My husband, who played several songs at the pig roast, took up the guitar in his early 20s and has tortured me over and over by playing the same tunes, all written between the years 1972 and 1979.
It wasn’t until he returned to graduate school that he expanded his song list and really learned to play his guitar. Stuck in front of his computer, sometimes for the entire weekend and every night after work, he would play his guitar to counterbalance the drudgery of homework and deadlines. The payoff was, yes, his degree, but even sweeter, at least for me, was his improved guitar skills.
Since my debut at our neighborhood pig roast, I’ve learned one more song. Two songs in four years does not make a master ukulele player, but I have discovered that playing the ukulele is an excellent way to pass the time between life’s obligations, even if I play poorly.
As with gardening, I’ve decided it’s about the process, not the mastering. When I first planted a garden, many moons ago, it was just another way to express myself.
Flowers in my front yard said to the world, “I’ve arrived.” I have a plot, and it’s not in the cemetery.
Planting flowers was the first step to a gardening addiction that has involved shoveling dirt, moving rocks, building fences and spending my precious Maine summer weekends weeding. Never, however, have I felt the need to master gardening.
My questions are: Why do people feel the need to master some things and not others? What is the distinction between doing something for the sake of doing it – gardening and playing the ukulele for me – and doing something to the point of mastery? And why do I care?
I care because there is a small amount of guilt infused in the activities I start but never master. Do I, after all, have the right to play a musical instrument if I play it like a beginner? Why do I let the weeds in my garden grow taller than the plants in my garden? Is laziness the only response?
Desperate for an answer, I took the question to the dinner table and discovered that the word “passion” was used more often to describe the activities that my two respondents wanted to master: dance for my daughter and the guitar for my husband.
Both husband and daughter suggested that perhaps mastery was unattainable, but worthy of pursuit. Both husband and daughter listed other activities they loved doing, but felt no pressure to master: singing for my daughter and carpentry for my husband.
So, where does this answer leave me? Is attempting to master a skill a requirement in life, or is there a place for those of us who are content trying something new for the pure enjoyment of trying something new?
I say, yes, there is a place for the lazy and unmotivated. We, after all, make the rest of you look good.
Jolene McGowan lives and works in Portland with her husband, daughter and dog and has no plans to leave, ever. She can be contacted at: