512 Americans were killed so far this year as a result of police shootings. That seems like a small number doesn’t it? Considering there are 318.9 million of us living is this great big country. If you want hard numbers, that accounts for 0.00016% of us. That’s not a lot.
Let me ask you to consider, while you’re considering those cold, hard facts, this: Each of those 512 people had someone who missed them when they didn’t come home that night. Those were not numbers on a page, but warm, beating hearts stopped by bullets from department issued firearms.
This is the price we pay for maintaining a safe society. Police are hired to keep the peace. Cops have to do their jobs. Of course they do. I would never argue that point. But 512 lives lost? Shouldn’t zero be our goal? Is that in the mission statement of any police department? Or is it something nobody’s talking about because everybody’s okay with a few deaths if it means the rest of us feel safe. Only, I know a whole lot of us who don’t feel safe anymore, if they ever did.
Let me make a parallel, if you would. It’s going to hit a hot button, though, so be prepared. We have had one death related to the measles (according to the latest CDC stats) in the past decade+. Yet we call the decision by many parents not to vaccinate their children a dire societal failure. One person, in a whole twelve years. Sure, you could argue that it’s only because of the millions of children and adults who are vaccinated, but what about globally, where the vaccination rate is much lower? In the entire world, there were 114,900 measles related deaths in 2014 (most current WHO statistic). Comparing that to just 512, 114,900 that sounds like a lot, but that’s out of seven billion people. It comes to .000016%. That’s an extra zero in there compared to police shooting deaths, and that zero represents a whole lot of extra people.
This is not about vaccines, though. It’s not about whether you’re on the helpful vs. harmful end of the spectrum on the vaccination question. I honestly don’t care what you choose, it’s not my business. What this is about is what we find acceptable on a death certificate in the box marked cause.
Here’s the thing, if we call deaths caused by the measles an epidemic problem, why not death caused by our nationwide police forces? There are a lot more of them. I understand, you could well be thinking, the cops are just doing their job. I’ll give you that, but I’ll go one better. All those measles viruses are just doing their job, too. It’s not fair to target them and not the cops is it? So, what about this? How about we get our scientific community to start work on an empathy vaccine? We can institute a vaccination program for that one so everyone would be left with a super-healthy and active empathy brain center. That’s a mandatory program I could get behind!
…and so my arguments have devolved into ridiculousness. But please don’t take that for an indication this isn’t serious stuff. Our collective national police forces need improvement. They need to be studied for what is working, what’s not, and best practices to fix them. It must be scientific, but we MUST support the men and women in blue while they do their jobs. They’re human beings. They will always make mistakes. All we can ask, all we should ask, it that they are the right people for the job, are trained well, and are required to continue training throughout their careers. And let’s push for community policing. That, my friends, is our best option. It’s going to be a lot harder to shoot a man if you know his name and where his grandma lives.
To wrap this up I’m going to leave you with this. It’s a link to statistics collected by The Washington Post of fatalities caused by police officers nationwide. It’s not a judgment, it’s not an indictment, it’s just factual information about each event, where, why, and how it happened.
it’s important stuff and you should give it a click.
These shootings. This violence. How do we make it stop?
Every single time I hear a news story about a black man being shot by the police I am stunned. Like a jab to my solar plexus it pains me, it takes my breath away. I am left doubled over in fear, then shame, and with a sorrow that radiates through the whole of me.
Then, as though we’re living in some sick dystopian story, filmed in black and white and red, the media jumps in with gleeful headlines that may as well read, LET THE BLAME GAMES BEGIN!!! This violence and the the strife that comes with it means dollar signs to the media. And I am disgusted even more.
Our behavior – that of the black folks who get themselves shot, or the cops doing the shooting, or the gunmen demonstrating their sociopathic rage by targeting whatever group they hate most while armed to the teeth with firepower meant for the battlefield – none of that behavior can be explained in a 2.2 minute news segment. Never mind that, the media isn’t much interested in helping us gain a deeper understanding of the problems or the people involved. It doesn’t translate well to “the general public.” Nobody’s paying attention to the news ticker streaming across the bottom of the screen long enough to list the myriad reasons we’re in this mess.
But that’s what I keep thinking about. We’re focusing on the symptoms, not the cause. Progress can’t be made that way. How can we cure this cancer with an aspirin?
Alton Sterling was killed selling CDs in front of a convenience store. Let me step back from that, as consuming a picture as it is, and take a moment to ask a few questions. Why was he out there selling those CDs in the first place? Why are we not fighting harder to improve our economy? Why, in the United Goddamn States of America, does a grown man have to resort to selling CDs in front of a convenience store to put food in his belly? Why do we hate him because he lives in an impoverished community? Why do we fear him for it? Why is it so easy for him to carry a gun? Why does he only feel safe when he carries one? And why, oh why do so many Americans simultaneously use the color of his skin as a cause and a justification for his killing?
Five Dallas cops were picked off by a single gunman. Senselessly killed. It was blamed on Black Lives Matters, on every single person directly associated with the group and even those of us who support its necessity. But what about these questions: How did no one who knew that shooter not notice his hatred? Why was he not identified as on the very edge of insane behavior? Are we so self-centered, so afraid to butt in when we know someone is troubled, that we no longer feel the need to turn a man around? Instead we wait until after and point fingers. He should have found God. His family should have stepped in. He shouldn’t have had a gun like that. Maybe all of those things would have helped. But let me throw this out there: If it takes a village to raise a child, how is a person to go on without that same community support? WE failed that man. Our sense of community is broken and he is only a symptom of it.
And what about the cops doing that shooting? Which “that shooting?” Any of them.They take a human life and are put on administrative leave. Blue lives matter too, ya know. Oh, really? It never occurred to me that when a human life, a human heartbeat, is purposely stilled that I should have compassion. This part, to me, is incredibly frustrating. Of course all lives matter, but up until Trayvon Martin, America didn’t prioritize the life of every American. Up until that time we only prioritized the monied and the connected, the “respectable” folk. Which is to say we prioritized quality of life of White Americans. The rest be damned. So Black Lives Matters sprung up around the country to highlight that unfairness. The injustice of one group of people being held as more important than all others. The name of the group is not ONLY Black Lives Matters, so get off your high horse and use your brain for once, then take time out to show you have a heart.
But let me go back to the cops for a minute. Why are we hiring men and women who are so hungry to use lethal force? Why are they so distanced from the people in the communities they serve they’re so willing to pull a gun and shoot? What the hell ever happened to the motto To PROTECT and SERVE? Protect comes first. And as a cop, only protecting yourself is not what you signed up for.
Where is the training to manage a risky situation without a gun? Why is training not a bigger priority? As a nurse, I trained for three years to earn my RN. Every year after I was required to prove my skills were still accurate and to continue my training and education. Is that something police have to do? Because I definitely see a parallel here. Medical mistakes and negligence have been a priority topic in health care for a while now. The fewer mistakes, the better. Why are we not focusing our attention on police departments across the country in this same way?
Playing The Blame Game is much too fun. It’s much more engaging and makes better headlines. It gets our hearts pumping. But it’s so ugly. And that’s what saddens me the most. We Americans have become so ugly, so nasty. If our behavior had a smell, it would be worse than a ripe pig farm sitting in the middle of an industrial waste site. If it had a color it would be the color of evil, whatever that is to you. If it had a sound? Unfortunately it does have a sound. Gun shots. That’s the sound of our collective ugliness.
Now I need to collect myself and take a deep breath because here’s the thing. I wish I could end this with some witty something or other to give you hope. Honestly, I’m too disgusted and depressed for that. Instead, let me show you something I found in our front yard”
Here are two pictures of a Sunflower bloom. The first was taken three days ago, the second yesterday afternoon. Stop and think about that for a second… What a difference a couple days of bright, warm sunshine can make.
Go ahead, take that as a metaphor, if you like.
Americans make a big deal about independence. Of course we do, our founding document has the word right there in its title. But American feminists, even more so. Independence is this thing that we all seem to look on as the ultimate in personhood. But I question the wisdom of this idea of independence at all cost.
The day my mom had a stroke I learned what it’s like to be enfolded in the supportive embrace of one small part of the Black American community. Two of mom’s dearest, closest, best friends – Dee and Brenda – are of African descent. They both flew (metaphorically speaking) to the hospital as soon as they heard my mom was there. We three mostly just sat around and kept the patient company – the stroke left little damage other than a bit of trouble with word recall – and tried to convince her that an overnight stay was not a bad idea. That my mom is a stubborn lady goes without saying.
When visiting hours ended, Brenda and Dee suggested we go for dinner. That’s when the magic happened. These ladies are incredibly openhearted and we sat for a delicious and long dinner talking about my mom’s strength, my fears, all of our fears, all of our strengths, loving each other, helping each other… Not to mention the stories that were told around that table. I depended on those two ladies to make the situation okay, in my heart-space and in my brain-space, that night.
Black American women have an interesting relationship with dependence vs. independence, I think,* because poverty, or living on the bare edge of it, makes you dependent on help from friends and strangers sometimes just to put food in your mouth. That’s a mean place to be, given the wrong mindset. Black women, the one’s I’ve been fortunate enough to know, make helping each other such an essential, natural part of community and friendship, though, that it’s impossible to tease it apart from the rest. You may as well tell a woman to stop breathing. That I was privy to such natural help changed the day my mom had a stroke from incredibly scary to manageable.
Mothers and daughters have this indescribable something between them. When faced with the first real demonstration that one day that relationship will change forever, it’s a heavy thing to accept. I’m lucky I didn’t have to do it alone. I had these two very special ladies to help me.
That’s the first time I questioned my need for independence.
Here’s the thing: I looked it up and Merriam Webster told me that dependence is the state of relying on or being controlled by someone or something else. Here I’d been operating under the misconception that the very reliance associated with dependence goes hand in hand with control. Not so?
Since that time a few years ago, I’ve become financially dependent on my fiance. The thoughts of controlled by him pop up in my psyche every now and then, but I’m always able to talk myself down off that ledge. We have a partnership, he and I. [Insert cheeky remark about me being the brains and him the brawn] Honestly, though, we naturally separate when it comes to our priorities in the relationship: His biggest concerns are taking care of us physically, financially, while mine are taking care of us emotionally, mentally. Only one of those concerns requires money, and the job that brings it.
I have an ulterior motive, too, though. Because of Steve, I am able to stay at home, keep the dogs company, run household errands, and write. I have this unrelenting desire to write for a living. The issue with that is the for a living part takes a while to get going. It’s a slow process…
…But I am making progress. Maybe one day my earnings as a writer will exceed Steve’s earnings. It’s not probably in today’s readers market, but it’s not altogether impossible. Either way, our relationship works, just as it exists. Plus, we’ve weathered a couple of life-altering storms over the past five years. We adapt.
But what, again, about that dependence thing? I’m going to say it right here, right now. I am BOLDLY dependent on my man. Forever it’s been anti-feminist to be dependent on a man, right? That’s the only reason I have to add the boldly part. If I’m going to go against the grain, I damn well better be bold about it, right? Yes. That’s right.
To end this post, I’d like to dedicate it to those wonderful ladies: Dee Sewell and Brenda Whitehurst. Thank you both for bringing me through that night. Even more, thank you for showing me that bold has many faces. I am forever in your debt.
*I am a white woman, so I can only describe how I see the Black American community from the outside in. Please excuse whatever misinterpretations that might come from that fact. Feel free, though, to correct me in the comments if my ignorance is crude or leads to blatantly wrong assumptions. I only know what I know from my personal experiences.
Once I was in a delicious little town in Louisiana call LaFayette. The place was delicious because I adore green places; especially those with hanging mosses. The food was delicious because… Let’s just say if you’ve never eaten foods doused in creole sauce you’ve never really eaten. The people were also delicious in that they were kind and generous and oh, so laid back. Plus their accent made me wish I’d been born a Cajun lady instead of the Northeasterner that I am.
The best part about traveling is getting to know the cumulative quirks of the local culture and appreciating them for what they are: those little things that makes a place its own self. At that time I was traveling around the country teaching doctors to use an application called Dragon Medical to dictate medical notes into their patients’ health records. LaFayette is still the only place I ever trained where every single physician insisted on dictating the name of a sausage into their notes: Boudin.
Boudin is a cajun sausage which I’ve never seen outside of Louisiana. It’s so common down there I have no doubt there’s a McBoudin sandwich on every McDonald’s menu in the state. The name is pronounced Boo-DAN (the n being all but silent). Ha! The things I remember from my days as a trainer…
Anyway, one afternoon I went to a local sandwich shop to eat my lunch and learned they don’t have provolone cheese there. WHAT? I ordered swiss on my sandwich instead, then was shocked again when asked Do you want that all the way?
This was rather early on in my traveling trainer career, so I was a little embarrassed to admit I had no idea what the lady behind the counter meant. Right before she noticed the confused look on my face, I blurted out I don’t know what that means.
Where I come from, when we ask if someone wants a sandwich with all the fixings we say Do you want everything on that? In Louisiana it’s called All the way. I don’t like a bunch of stuff slipping and sliding out of my sandwiches, so I politely asked for just lettuce and mayo and hoped she hadn’t noticed me blushing.
The point of my story, which I may have hidden a little too well, is that while I don’t want my sandwich All The Way, that’s exactly how I intend to live my life. I try to make that my first thought every morning when I wake up. Why bother, otherwise?
It’s not like I don’t forget myself sometimes. Some days I wake up feeling blue, or lazy, or tired from too many hormones and not enough sleep, and I just can’t manage it. But most of the time? I intend to fill every single minute of every single day loving hard, imagining harder, thinking, writing, reading; breathing in every ounce of the life I deserve. I only get this one chance at it (maybe), so I don’t want to waste it.
Ding-ding-ding-ding!! Since you read all the way to the bottom, I think you deserve an extra special treat. I met Lady Tambourine on my most recent trip to Louisiana. She definitely knows a little bit about living All The WAY. What do you think?
Everybody seems to be doing the “list” thing these days. Buzzfeed started it; I think that’s how it went, anyway. But then everyone else followed suit. It’s quick and easy internet fodder, ammiright? And unfortunately, clever gets mistaken for talent online all day everyday. Don’t get me wrong, though. I’m not saying there aren’t some entertaining lists out there. I’m just saying I have a problem with the trend.
A list is a way to say something, but without putting a whole lot of heart in it (not to mention soul). That’s super sad. Me? I like to get at the heart of a thing.
Now, I’d be lying if I claimed I’ve never been entertained by a list like “10 Organ Recipients Who Took On The Traits Of Their Donors” or “21 Hilarious Tweets That Will Make You Question Everything.” However, I can honestly say I only go to sites with lists like that when I’m irretrievably bored.
This list thing that’s overtaken the interverse is also sad because, well? It seems so on-trend with the direction America is taking these days. They’re bundled up cheap thrills that keep us occupied from otherwise having any kind of productive, provocative or creative thoughts.
This morning I thought I’d try to dump that premise – the one that says we’re becoming less productive, provocative, and creative because things – on its head and ask: WHAT IF I write a story in list form? Hmmm, interesting… Besides, I’m always up for a challenge, so here, uhhh, for better or worse, is my first try at it.
(It’s certainly not the best story I’ve written, but I’d say it’s not completely smelly-bad for a first try.) What do you think?
I’ve been trying hard to let this writing thing I’m doing progress in the most organic of ways. But I get impatient sometimes…
It’s been a year and a half since I joined a weekly writers’ critique group. (Keep reading to the end for a sappy little tribute to this group and all the people in it!) This weekly deadline to produce something shareworthy has been a great motivator. So good, as a matter of fact, that if I go more than a week these days without writing something I feel the need to up the dosage on my antidepressant.
I read a quote somewhere that “It is by sitting down to write every morning that one becomes a writer.” Gerald Brenan wrote it. #goals
I don’t usually sit down to write first thing in the morning, but I do try to put pen to paper by eleven AM every day. It’s still morning, so I supposed I’m technically following Gerry’s instructions. This habit has grown my writing abilities in ways I couldn’t have imagined. Just writing every day. So simple.
Reading authors who write in similar ways as I do has been great, too. It’s helped me learn to take the ideas in my head and get them down on paper, but to do it in a way that my sentences are interesting and vary in length and structure. Reading well written stuff is like taking a creative writing class, if you pay attention to what you’re reading. It’s a lot cheaper, too. Plus, and maybe it’s just me or my penchant for letting things flow organically, but I’d rather learn by reading than have some hack, who happens to have some letters behind his/her name, corrupt my voice because I don’t follow the rules.
It’s breaking those rules that makes my writing interesting, sometimes. Like, the sometimes when I write a line with awkward syntax on purpose. Ew? You might think so, but there’s a reason I do it. Maybe I want you to think extra long on what the character is doing at that moment… 😉
So here I am, finally at a point where I feel like my writing is consistently good. Consistently heartfelt. Consistently has truth in it. Consistently gives voice to a character who wants to be heard. Yay me!
Now it’s time to get down with the business part of writing. I write because it satisfies my creative desires better than anything else does. Why write if nobody’s ever going to read it, though, right? Well, not really. I have pages and pages and files of stuff nobody will ever read. Stories and characters that I love, but aren’t prime time ready, so to speak. They were more practice stories than anything else.
Could I go back and edit to make them better? Change them so they might become worthy of publication? Sure. I could. But what if that changes those characters in some fundamental way? I might not want to do that. Besides, I think of it as similar to a baseball player practicing his swing. All those hours swinging, building that muscle memory so that he can bat a .300 season. That’s what those stories are for me. Precious because I fall in love with all of my characters, but more because it’s nice to look back and see how far I’ve come.
This business end, though. Yikes! It feels daunting. How do I build a following? How do I let readers know what I’ve written? How do I find readers who like to read the kind of stories I write? That’s where I am right now. This morning I found an article for how to grow my Twitter following. I’m about to hop over and read that right now.
Wish me luck in this new part of my writing endeavors. I’ve never been good at self-promotion, so along with the excitement I’m feeling, I’m also trying to make this feel like a normal thing to do: toot my own horn.
Now, about my writer’s group? AMAZING group of people. We encompass a huge variety of writing styles, genres, levels of creativity and experience, all in one back room at a pizza joint every Monday night. We have some amazing writers who I can’t wait to slap down a few bills to buy their books when they’re officially published. We also have some not so great, but trying really hard to get there, writers. I’m somewhere in the middle…
When I first started attending we were a weekly group of maybe ten, but sometimes as small as three, for a while. Now we’re consistently a group of over twenty writers meeting for pizza and reading, and sometimes yelling over what we’ve read. Always great advice, though. Always. I wouldn’t trade this group for any other. <3
Welp. You’ve made it all the way to the end! Maybe you’re interested in my most recent short story, Birthmarked. I wrote about it here. If so, drop a line in the comment section and I’ll send you a link!
I thought it might be time to add another post about my writing process. Not that anybody’s asked for it, but I think it’s interesting to know how other writers go about putting their stories down on paper. So, I figured someone else might be, too.
First things first: At this point I am totally hung up on short story writing. I like a story I can get down on paper (I write my first drafts in a handy-dandy composition book) in just one sitting; two if it’s on the longish side. I don’t have a great attention span, either, so short stories suit me that way, too. Mostly, though, I’m gonna blame it on my main characters. They never seem to need more than a couple of thousand words to tell their tales.
Which is probably the main point of this post in the first place. When I write a story, the days or hours before I sit down to it always go something like this: I’ll think of a really good opening line for a story. Maybe I’m in bed about to fall asleep, or in the shower, rinsing my hair. Once I read a non-fiction story and was so struck by an observation in it I immediately knew I had to use that line.
Having that opening line is crucial, for me, because it’s how I find my characters for the story. Who would say something like that? Why? Who would she say it to – another person, or maybe to herself?
Sometimes I have a vague idea of how the story will go, but usually not. Most days, I sit down and start writing and the character tells me what to write next. Not in a I hear voices in my head sort of way, though. The story just comes out of my pen.
My most recent story, about a fourteen year-old drug addict, happened this way. I knew she was a cocky kid named Darla when I sat down to write her story, but that’s about it. Turns out she has a big purple birthmark on the right side of her face and found herself in a rehab group for adults. Who knew?
Darla did. I learned it yesterday, and now you know it, too.
My question, at this point is: Are you interested in reading the story? I don’t like to technically publish my stories here because if I’m able to publish them anywhere for pay, it needs to be previously unpublished. However, if you’re interested in reading Darla’s story, leave a comment below. You’ll have to sign in with an email address, but then I can send you a link 🙂 Sweet!
Don’t get me wrong. I love to write, LOVE IT, but eventually I’d LOVE IT even better if I could make a living from it. While I’m working on that part, I sure would like your support and to start to grow a following. I’m not looking to get famous, really. I don’t think I’d like it, honestly. But a hardcore group of people who like reading my stuff as much as I like writing it? That would be awesome!
I’ve only been cheated on by one man in my lifetime. Once was enough; I’m sure anyone would agree. But the thing is, that experience gave me fodder, today, to write a character’s emotional response to the same situation. So, Thanks? I guess.
That’s what I do, as a writer. I take personal experience and reform it into something a little different, then I write. If there are no other fringe benefits of writing, that one’s enough. Reframing is a wonderful thing.
To be honest, though, I’m feeling especially sad, right now, re-feeling all those feelings. Sure, it’s been a long time since it happened. I’m a changed person now. No more forgiving than I was, let me just put that out there, but I’m not the same woman I was back then. The whole experience doesn’t matter so much these days, mostly because I no longer think of that person as a man. No real man cheats.
No real person cheats, man or woman. It’s cruel and it’s immature. It’s damaging in the absolute unfairest of ways. But don’t get it twisted: I do have an understanding of how and why someone could cheat. Of course I do. No one makes it to 50 without that, do they? Life is hard. It’s complicated and frustrating and confusing. But those together don’t give anyone a free pass to behave in such a way.
Still, without having that experience, I couldn’t have so easily conjured the sick feeling in the pit of my character’s stomach. I couldn’t have known the feeling of what is wrong with me? Or how did this happen? That feeling of an invisible weight between my shoulder blades that simultaneously made me want to break things and sleep for days. I couldn’t have written the scene I wrote so convincingly. For some odd reason, the word grateful comes to mind just now.
Yes, grateful. No matter what I see and experience in my lifetime, I am grateful. I have the talent to take what I learn and make it speak. I know that my writing will be richer, have a depth that it would never have without my pain and struggles. So, it’s not a bad thing, after all. They’re going to be there anyway (the dark days), why not use them?
Now, before I end this, I feel the need to add these two thoughts:
Finally, if you’d like to read the short story I referred to in this post, please leave a comment. I’ll send you a link!
The first gig Charlie Dennis ever played on stage was with a Texas Bluesman called Johnny Clyde Copeland. Charlie was 12 years-old at the time and from the way he tells the story, he stood at the back of the stage, playing his guitar as timid as could be. Sometime during the set, Johnny Clyde came back there and grabbed that guitar right out of his hands and says, “Boy, that is not how you play the gi’tar. This here! This is how you play it.” And he commenced to pounding on the strings like he meant every stroke of it. When I asked Charlie what that felt like, playing with somebody like that, so young. Charlie said it was great, but it was so embarrassing to have his guitar pulled out of his hands like that. It was a lesson he’d never forget.
Charlie laughs when he tells the story. Pretty much the same as he laughs when he tells any story about his life in music. Like even a bad day playing is better than a good day not. Besides, is there any better baptism to playing blues guitar than that? Johnny Clyde taught him to trust his guitar. Taught him how to trust himself playing it. What better lessons to learn when you’re only 12 years old? And Johnny did it all without words.
I’m learning to trust me and my guitar a little bit, too, now that I’ve been playing and learning for a few weeks. I’m finally at a point where I don’t have to stare at the strings while I’m playing to make sure they’re where I expect them to be. It’s a damn good feeling, to realize that my fingers know right where to meet them (at least some of the time). It gives me a kind of confidence I never had until now.
Isn’t that the thing with trust? Every single time we learn a lesson about it – whether it’s a new way we trust ourselves, or an old friend we learn to trust in a new way – that feeling can’t help but add to who we are. It adds to the confidence we have in ourselves but also our confidence about where we fit in the world.
There’s something else about Johnny Clyde Copeland; I didn’t think to ask what he meant when he told Charlie, “This is how you play.” Maybe it’s just me, but I wonder if he meant to teach little Charlie Dennis that if you’re gonna do a thing, then DO it. Don’t mess around, just go on. Then once it’s done, so what if it wasn’t quite right? It’s already over, and you always have next to time to do it better.
Maybe those are just my imaginings after watching Johnny play this song called, Flying High. But I wished I’d had a chance to ask him – If you’re gonna do a thing, just go on about it, right Johnny?
You might think that starting guitar lessons at age 50 is a little frivolous. Like, maybe I sound like someone who has way too much time on her hands. But you would be wrong.
I haven’t played a musical instrument since I was seven years-old. My instrument of choice was a violin back then. I wasn’t very good at it and I have no recollection as to why, at age seven, I chose to play the violin. It seems like an odd choice, but there it is. I suppose I’ve always been a little weird.
I can’t say that I missed playing an instrument all those years, but now that I have a new one in my hands every day? I’m loving the experience. And as I always do, I’m (re)learning a few life lessons that are good to remember.
Let me start out by saying, I met the man who’s teaching me to play guitar at a club here in Las Vegas called the E-String Bar and Grille. He plays there every Thursday night. The crowd is usually pretty thin, but any crowd would be after playing, like he did, to stadium crowds all over the world with B. B. King.
My teacher is Charlie (Tuna) Dennis, and he’s been playing guitar for almost 60 years. His pinkie finger knows more about playing blues guitar than some blues guitar players will learn in a lifetime. Let me tell you what, he’s got the callouses to prove it. Long story short, I’m pretty thrilled about learning from a master.
But back to those life lessons. It’s pretty interesting, how that part is happening, because it’s totally by accident. Whether Charlie spouts out an amazing one liner, or something occurs to me while I’m practicing every morning, the lessons come. I thought you might like to know them, too:
Lesson #1: The simple things in life are most difficult.
I started off my first lesson with thirty minutes of strumming the low E string. Just strumming it with my thumb. Trying to hit it consistently hard and in time with the tapping of Charlie’s shoe. It seems like a simple thing to do, but that’s the thing. Simple is usually the hardest way to do something; anything. That’s probably why we tend to complicate everything – to hide the flaws. And if you don’t believe that simple is hardest? Go get a piece of paper and a pencil out of the drawer, then try to draw a perfectly round circle. Go ahead, I’ll wait…….. (tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-). See? It’s really hard, right?
Lesson learned? Even though simple is hardest, it’s definitely worth the effort. There’s nothing more elegant and satisfying on a deep and soulful level.
Lesson #2: It’s all about the timing.
Timing in guitar playing isn’t just about striking the string with one hand. You also have to mash it down (Charlie’s term) with the other. If you mash the string down too early, you get this dull thud of a sound instead of the beautiful vibration you’re wanting out of the string. That sound feels embarrassing, or it does to me, anyway. Take your time, Charlie says, over and over. And I try hard not to rush, but that’s harder than it sounds, too. You got to get that timing right.
My fiance? I’ve known him since we were in junior high school together. We’re 50 now and finally our timing is right. It’s funny, though, when we talk about how things used to be, in the decades we spent apart. It’s downright jarring how different our lives were. And I always come back to the same thought – If we had been together years ago, we never would have made it as a couple. Our relationship would have ended in a big, dull thud. And just for the record, I’m incredibly glad that didn’t happen.
Lesson #3: Perfect comes later.
Or, at least, as perfect as you’re ever gonna get. Charlie sat listening to me strum out the notes to a very simple tune, meant to strengthen and coordinate my fingers properly, for a whole hour that first lesson. He never once got frustrated with me. Though, when he played alongside me, I heard just how clumsy I was. He kept saying Right or Perfect any time I would hit a single, nice-sounding note. Why is that? Because perfect never comes right away. Practicing over and over, that’s how you get to perfect.
This is a lesson I feel like we’re forgetting here in the 21st Century. We expect our politicians, our parents, our children, school students, doctors, engineers – we expect all of us to be perfect every single day, all the time. But we’ll never be that. We can only keep trying to reach closer and closer towards it. Baby steps, or giant leaps, or single guitar strokes at a time, one after the other, practiced every day.
Who wants to be perfect the first time anyway? I mean, sure, that would be much less frustrating, but eww. How boring! Imperfection is where innovation comes from. It’s where real meaning and beauty lies. Mistakes are the place where we can all come together and say, YES, I’ve been there. I feel your pain. And we could all do with a little compassion every now and again, now couldn’t we?
Lesson #4: There should always be more than one way to get where you’re going.
Charlie’s great for one-liners. During our first lesson, we were talking about how some musicians only know how to play by ear. You know the ones; they never learned how to read sheet music. Sure enough they’re talented – B.B. King played by ear, and so did Eddie Van Halen, right? But Charlie’s point was, if you can only play by ear, you only have one way to play. A song is like driving from Point A to Point B. If you can’t read a sheet of music, you only have one road to travel on. But if you can read music, well, you can go all different ways! Charlie says, Music is a roadmap. If you know how to read the map, then there are almost an infinite number of ways to get from one place to another, right?
The catch is, you gotta do your homework. You got to put in your time. You need to make a commitment. To learn. To do.
And to think! I learned all that in just my first week as a guitar player.
What’s coming next for me with these lessons? Who knows, except for sure some callouses on my fingertips, hours with Charlie Dennis and his patient encouragement, and hopefully one of these days I will strum that low E string and it’ll sound pretty good. To end this thing, though, this mini literary jaunt, I have just one more thing to add: Whatever it is that’s coming next, I’m ready for it!