Art for Art’s Sake

“The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possible can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.”

Kurt Vonnegut, in his book A Man Without a Country

May we skip this month?

Spring is supposed to be the season of hope.

But May has been a real Mother of a month. And last year was a bear… heck, the pandemic was just the cherry on top of the crap sundae.

One of my best friends from college had a stroke a year ago. He’s made great progress since then, but he’s still not 100%.

The same day my buddy’s wife told me about his stroke, John Erhardt, a guitarist/pedal steel player in two bands whom I adore (Ass Ponys and Wussy), passed away at age 58 after battling mental health issues. Four days later, the 18-year-old son of a friend from my radio days passed away after battling depression and anxiety. And Scott Hutchison, lead singer/songwriter for the brilliant band Frightened Rabbit, took his own life on May 9th of 2018 after battling… you guessed it… depression and anxiety.

It seems a cruel twist of fate that May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Then again, maybe not. It’s an uncomfortable topic, but mental health challenges are a reality for millions of people.

The more we talk about it, the easier it is to break the stigma, and the easier it becomes for those in need to reach out.

A year-plus of pandemic isolation certainly doesn’t make it easier to deal with underlying mental health issues. But spring is a season of hope, right? So if you’ve got some hope to spare, please share it. And if things seem hopeless, please reach out.

(The National Alliance on Mental Illness is a wonderful resource for families.)

What are you looking for?

The worldwide web (remember when we called it that?) is wonderful for helping us connect. It also can be infinitely overwhelming and a colossal waste of time. It’s all in how you use it. Don’t just be a looker, be a learner.

“You can’t expect somebody to become a biologist by giving them access to the Harvard University biology library and saying, “Just look through it.” That will give them nothing. The internet is the same, except magnified enormously.

The person who wins the Nobel Prize in biology is not the person who read the most journal articles and took the most notes on them. It’s the person who knew what to look for. Cultivating that capacity to seek what’s significant, always willing to question whether you’re on the right track, that’s what education is going to be about, whether it’s using computers and internet, or pencil and paper and books.”

Noam Chomsky in The Purpose of Education

It’s not just the ol’ interwebs we’re talking about. It’s what we read, what we watch, what we listen to. It’s easy to stuff your senses with “stuff”… but the key is knowing how to sift. You can find whatever you’re looking for… so what are you looking for? This concept doesn’t just apply to learning; it applies to life in general.

Artwork by Austin Kleon

The Noam Chomsky quote came my way via the James Clear 3-2-1 newsletter. The Amy Krouse Rosenthal tweet was highlighted in Austin Kleon’s weekly newsletter. Both are worth your attention. And if you have yet to read Amy Krouse Rosenthal‘s books Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, seek them out.

Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.

Hey Bubba, I have a question for you: Who exactly is the “they” that gun nuts enthusiasts like you always refer to right after yet another senseless act of violence, one exacerbated by the presence of assault weapons and/or mentally unstable shooters? As in “every time one of these incidents happens, the first thing they want to do is take all our guns away.” It’s usually the second sentence out of your mouth. (The first one being “Now is not the time to politicize this.”)

For the record, I don’t want to take your guns away. Heck, I couldn’t even if I tried. There are more than 393 million guns in circulation in the United States — approximately 120.5 guns for every 100 people. I don’t think they’d all fit in the Rubbermaid storage bins in my basement. And it’s not like I could melt them all down and use the metal to repair the crumbling bridges in the U.S. (Or could I? It seems like a win-win….)

Sorry, I’ll stay on message. I don’t want to take your guns away. Got it? Good. Now let’s get in to the nitty gritty of this problem. You know, the issue that reared its ugly head in Indianapolis. Or was it Boulder? Or Atlanta? (It was all three, and dozens more, but you already knew that.)

If you think a handgun will help you protect yourself, sure, have one. Wait, what’s that you say? You need more than one? Oh, OK, but unless you’re some sort of Hindu goddess… or you’re especially dexterous with your feet… two should be sufficient, right? One for each hand?

And of course it goes without saying that you’ll be a responsible gun owner, right? So you’ll have no problem demonstrating that responsibility by taking a safety course, and purchasing your guns legally, right? And because you’re a sensible gun owner, you’ll want to make sure that gun owners don’t get a bad rep from a few “bad apples” who are mentally ill or have a history of violence, so you’d obviously be in favor of universal background checks and waiting periods. You’d also want to shut down gun shows, because buying a gun shouldn’t be easier than casting a vote in a democratic election. Right?

“It’s not a slippery slope if we don’t let it become one. Remember when they instituted the 55 mph speed limit? Yeah, we’re not all standing still on the freeway now, are we?”

The always-brilliant Rickey Dobbs in this great post about the gun issue on his Hitting the Trifecta blog.

By the way, people who report “firearm access” are at twice the risk of homicide and more than three times the risk of suicide compared to those who do not own or have access to firearms. (Source) So tell me, how are your handguns helping you “protect yourself”?

OK, let’s move on to hunting rifles. Sure, if you’re a “sportsman” then by all means have a hunting rifle too. Same deal, right? Safety course, legally purchased after background checks, ideally stored in a locked safe when you’re not out in the field going eye-to-eye and toe-to-toe with all manner of fierce animals.

So now we’re up to assault weapons. They were made for the battlefield, so I think they should be relegated to the battlefield. Want to shoot one? Join the National Guard. (After all, the Second Amendment that you hold so dear is really about arming folks who are willing to perform soldier-like duties , not everyday civilians. Look it up… I’ll wait.)

You know what, in the spirit of compromise (look that one up too, I’ll wait), how about this: if you get your jollies firing off six bullets per second and shooting 154 rounds in less than five minutes, then you can own an assault rifle. But you have to store it at a licensed indoor shooting range that’s locked up tighter than Fort Knox. You can swing by anytime and shoot “The Tick Licker”* but you can’t take it home. Or to the FedEx facility. Or to the grocery store. Or to the spa.

*That’s what ol’ Daniel Boone called his rifle… it was not a semi-automatic but somehow he managed.

By the way, if you think my reference to 154 rounds in less than five minutes was eerily specific, that’s because those numbers match the stats when a 20-year-old with significant mental health issues gunned down 20 first-graders and 6 school staffers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut back in 2012. Lest we forget.

What’s that? You find indoor shooting ranges to be too sterile? OK, taking a page from Jonathan Swift, I have A Modest Proposal of my own. Because gun violence is estimated to cost the U.S. $280 billion a year in hospital bills, physical therapy, trauma counseling, legal fees, prison costs and the loss of productivity, perhaps the vast majority of Americans (roughly 2 out of every 3 people) who favor greater restrictions on gun ownership can all chip in and purchase a plot of land in an isolated area in every state in the union. And you and your assault weapon pals can grab your guns (from the biometric gun safes on premises) and shoot them there — and only there — to your hearts’ content. Speaking of hearts and other vital organs, there will be a lot of lead flying through the air at these sylvan shooting sanctuaries. But hey, if you happen to get hit by a stray bullet or three, that’s just the price you pay for living in a free society… right?

(Please spend some time here. And then consider backing up your thoughts and prayers with some common sense action.)

The Write Stuff

Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, had to psyche himself up about writing .

“Writing isn’t so bad really when you get through the worry. Forget about the worry, just press on. Don’t be embarrassed about the bad bits. Don’t strain at them… Writing can be good. You attack it, don’t let it attack you. You can get pleasure out of it. You can certainly do very well for yourself with it!”

Douglas Adams

It’s great advice for any writer. This blog may be 99% “bad bits” but still we press on.

The note above and other Douglas Adams archival content will be published in a forthcoming book called 42. Read more in this article from The Guardian.

Finding the Beauty

It’s easier to feel positive, to feel optimistic, now that Spring has arrived.

But even in our darkest hours, the beauty of the world has always been there, as these two short audio clips from recording artists remind us.

Here’s Valerie June from the Broken Record podcast:

“Just being here on earth and the magic of us being here… this stuff is really a gift.”

And here’s Kelli Scarr on NPR’s All Songs Considered talking about the inspiration for her new song “Eve of Spring”

“In this historic period of loss and reflection, Spring arrives as a reminder that renewal is always available to us.”

Here’s Kelli Scarr’s song:

And here’s the entire Broken Record podcast episode featuring Valerie June talking about her new album The Moon And Stars: Prescriptions For Dreamers:

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