Tag Archives: music

I Love People Who Improve

One day, years ago, I saw a friend outside a function room in a hotel, trying to master bar chords on his guitar for a song he had been working on. I’m not sure if he got them figured out that day, but he has since mastered them thoroughly. He is now in great demand at music festivals.

Years ago, a friend of mine was studying art in high school. Many of her paintings were reproductions of record album covers. Now she teaches art, has had her paintings in gallery shows, and takes commissions for her artwork. She has experimented with different styles, and also has dabbled in quilting and jewelry making.

One of the things that I love about these people is that they took something they loved and got better at it. They put in the time. They made the most of their pursuits. They got better at them.

Too many people take up artistic or other pursuits and, if they’re not good at them immediately, give up. Closets everywhere are littered with sheet music, sketchpads, needlepoint paraphernalia, bolts of fabric, unused crochet hooks, skis and tennis racquets and bongo drums – remnants of their hopes and abandoned attempts. These are not failures, strictly, as their creators never really gave them a chance. They are relics of people who simply didn’t improve.

On my computer are files that record my attempts to get better at writing. There are poems that I submitted to contests. Stories that didn’t make the cut. Writing samples that were not selected for bigger assignments. But I like to think that my writing is getting better. One of my stories got an honorable mention. I have finished a novel.

True, the novel needs a rewrite, or at least the first four chapters do. I need to improve if I am to take my writing any further. And this I will try to do. I simply made the mistake of not realizing that I had more work to do to improve. It was not until I realized this that I had the impetus to improve.

It’s a fact that not everyone has the talent – the raw ability – to play the guitar well, to create paintings that people want to buy, to write a novel that sells. But there are things they can do to improve at their craft, to make a hobby more fulfilling or even a business. They can take lessons, for example. They can learn from the masters. At first a person may be copying someone else’s style. (That’s the way the Old Masters learned to paint. Some of them became so good at it that professionals have a hard time telling the difference. Then the fledgling painters left the nest and took their own commissions, developed their own styles.)

And I admire that tenacity in creative people, whether they be crafters or aspiring pros. It’s a daunting thing, and an audacious one, to think you can improve. There may be a natural limit to how much a person can improve, but even to try is a worthy thing. The pros have something in common with those who never make it. They all started from zero. Even the people who abandon their pursuit may have improved – just not enough or fast enough to satisfy themselves and their expectations.

One of my writer friends conducts seminars called “Leap and the Net Will Appear.” I’m not sure that I totally believe that.

But one of my favorite sayings is, “If you’re going to strike out, strike out swinging.” Who knows, after some coaching and practice, you may be hitting the ball out of the park. Or maybe my friend is right, and the net will appear.

The Noble Armadillo

A new friend asked me the other day if there’s anything I collect. Not many of my collections have been very successful. Back when I was able to travel overseas, I was working on a Beers of the World t-shirt collection. Now I can’t fit into any of them or acquire more. (Yes, you can get anything on the Internet, but I had to be where they actually sold the beer for it to count.)

Another failed collection started when a boyfriend decided that I would start collecting heart-shaped boxes, made from various materials. I know it was just so he would automatically have a go-to present whenever a gift-giving occasion came up. That collection lasted about as long as the boyfriend.

What I collect now are armadillos. I started this back in the 70s and now have armadillos made from a variety of materials: wood, stone, aventurine, concrete. Plush armadillo toys. Crocheted armadillos. Armadillo pins and earrings.

The prize of my collection is an armadillo purse. Her name is Erma. She makes me easy to identify (“My wife is joining me here. She’ll be the one with the armadillo purse.”) and is a great conversation starter (“Is that real?” “Where did you get that?” “Where I come from we call that “possum on the half-shell.'”).

(Brief digression: My mother found her in a catalog. I don’t know which one.)

At this point, you may be asking, “Why armadillos? They aren’t native to Ohio. People don’t keep them as pets. As a cat owner, why don’t you collect cat items?” (I do.)

Armadillos are fascinating creatures. You may not know this, but armadillos are one of the few animals besides humans that can catch leprosy because their body temperature is so low, so they are used in leprosy research. I can thank an armadillo that my childhood leprosy now hardly bothers me at all.

(Bazinga! I made that part up – the part about having had leprosy. The research part is true.)

But I digress. Again.

There are two main reasons that the armadillo is my SA (significant animal). The first is musical.

Back in the 70s, there was a subgenre of country music variously called progressive country, outlaw country, or redneck rock. Artists such as Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, David Allen Coe, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Waylon Jennings, and others broke from the Nashville music scene and started making records that featured their own bands instead of studio musicians, rock and folk influences, gritty or provocative lyrics, and so on. I was a big fan of this music and still am. (Now it goes by some other name – Americana, maybe, though I think of it as retro-alt-country.)

So where do the armadillos come in? The place that attracted and supported and freed these musicians was Texas, where armadillos abound. One of the main clubs was the Armadillo World Headquarters. That theme song for Austin City Limits is popularly known as “I Wanna Go Home With the Armadillo,” though its real name is “London Homesick Blues.” Austin and the musicians adopted the armadillo as their symbol.

And so did I.

The other reason I identify so strongly with the armadillo is that it has such unique defense mechanisms. The first is to roll up in its protective armored shell, like a pillbug. The other is to jump straight up in the air about two and a half feet.

The pillbug thing works pretty well and they probably ought to stick to that. But the jumping strategy has one major flaw.

The main menace the armadillo faces is the automobile. Their leap puts them right at car bumper height. Splat. Roadkill.

And I identify with that.

Over the years I have tried or developed various coping and defense mechanism that resembled the armadillos’, and worked about as well. Using the pillbug technique, I would retreat into a shell and let the world pass me by. Which it did, but I never got to see much of it.

When I decided to abandon that strategy, to engage with the world, I encountered lots of scary things. And how I dealt with them always seemed to end with a big, messy splat.

And that’s why I keep Erma and the armadillo collection around – to remind me of the music that still sustains me, and to remind me that what I think are ways to dodge anxiety and fear and danger just might turn out to be counterproductive.