Action Is Hope

Magical words from Ray Bradbury (Paris Review interview)

I don’t believe in optimism. I believe in optimal behavior. That’s a different thing. If you behave every day of your life to the top of your genetics, what can you do? Test it. Find out. You don’t know—you haven’t done it yet. You must live life at the top of your voice! At the top of your lungs shout and listen to the echoes….

Action is hope. At the end of each day, when you’ve done your work, you lie there and think, Well, I’ll be damned, I did this today. It doesn’t matter how good it is, or how bad—you did it. At the end of the week you’ll have a certain amount of accumulation. At the end of a year, you look back and say, I’ll be damned, it’s been a good year.

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Decision Making

Are you looking for the road less-travelled?


As I’ve chipped away at the Family on Bikes story (a paragraph or two over Saturday morning coffee, a stolen few minutes between advertising case studies at work) one word is always on my mind: choice.

The Vogel’s story is, at root, a story about making decisions. About waking up to the fact that if you don’t call the shots in your life someone else will because someone has to. (Shots get called. That’s how it works.) Talking to Nancy has made me aware of the gap between how we perceive decision making and how we do it. I suspect we give ourselves more credit for autonomy than we actually deserve. We think we’re free-wheeling, decision making machines. But how many of our choices are honest? How often do we stop and reflect on what we really want as opposed to simply reacting to what we think is expected of us?

Nancy bumped up against this when John suggested hitting the road with Daryl and Davy. Her knee-jerk “that’s not what parents do” seemed like a decision until she thought about it, mulled it over, and realised it was just a reaction. Parsing her response helped her choose based what she really valued versus what she thought she was supposed to value.

That is real decision making and it is absolutely a discipline. To make good decisions we have to reclaim our instinctive selfishness. Children, and adults who have a healthy level of self-interest, make decisions based on what makes them happy, satisfies their physical needs, and makes them feel loved and secure. Education warps this innate good sense by teaching that there are more important things than love, health, and self-determination. Money is accepted as a definition of “success” and culturally-constructed notions of what people “should” do are given priority. “Normal” takes over from natural as a guiding principle. The process is insidious. Most people are barely conscious of having sacrificed their freedom to simple convention. Nancy discovered she was not immune. “Quitting your job and putting your kids on a bicycle just wasn’t done. I had no role model,” she says. “Nothing out there that was telling me this was okay, this was do-able. It was an internal struggle.”

The struggle is essential and inevitable. It forces you to decide what you value, which may not be as obvious as it sounds. Fantasising about hitch-hiking across Mongolia is one thing but if you can’t imagine life without HD TV and an espresso machine you need to reconsider. Making good decisions means being honest about what you want, not what you think you should want, or what someone else expects you to want.


Further reading

Decisions
Self-Education
Self-Determination

Family on Bikes – Choose and Act

The continuing adventures of the Family on Bikes. For the story so far read Week 1 – One Revolution at a Time, Week 2 – Sticking Together? and Week 3 – Decisions, decisions and Week 4 – Semi-Charmed Life and Week 5 – On The Road and Week 6 – Leaps of Faith

The paradox of any huge goal is that the best way to achieve it is to forget about the big picture and concentrate on the next step. Otherwise, you risk getting frozen in the Klieg light of your own ambition. Kids are lucky: they don’t have the same hang-ups. When the Vogels set off on their year-long jaunt through the States Davy and Daryl were only eight years old, and content to follow their parents’ agenda. By the time they set off down the Pan American Highway the boys were in double digits and enthusiastic, seasoned travellers, yet untroubled by creeping adult concerns. They were old enough to understand that 17,000 miles is a tremendous distance; astute enough to trace the winding ribbon of road across two hemispheres; experienced enough to expect hills, rain, cold, heat and aching muscles but young enough to live in the moment. To this day, they don’t see what the big deal is about their journey. “To them, it’s just something they did,” Nancy remarks. Set against the scale of the wilderness and the uncertainties of the road Davy and Daryl’s unself-conscious pragmatism was a blessing, a continuous reminder to take the journey one revolution at a time.

 

It helped on days when they faced towering mountain ranges, like the 10,000-foot peaks that shot out of the earth in Colombia like impenetrable green walls; or when they encountered blustering wind; or bears. “I told you about the bear, right? No?” Nancy chuckles and settles into story-telling mode. It was in Canada. They were moseying along, minding their own business. She and Daryl stopped for a breather while John and Davy went on. A dark, low-slung figure caught her eye. The form was familiar from a thousand pictures. “You’re supposed to back away from bears, but that’s kind of hard to do on a bike.” The critter ambled towards them, trailing a moustache of half-chewed grass. Voice low, Nancy told Daryl to pull away slowly, hoping it wouldn’t provoke a chase. A split second later, four legs sprang into action. Time compressed into the stroke of a pedal. Bears can up to 30 miles per hour but, Nancy notes, sufficiently motivated cyclists go even faster.

 

There is a smile in Nancy’s voice as she tells the story that belies some serious thinking. Once the adrenaline rush passed she asked the questions any good parent would: Am I doing the right thing? Is the goal big and important enough to justify the risks? What are my responsibilities? Conventional wisdom would have suggested a swift end to the journey. What kind of mother gambles on turning her child into a bear’s dinner? But Nancy hasn’t spent years asking questions for nothing. The mere act of setting out on the journey demanded a commitment to weigh situations on merit rather than out of habit and to banish automatic judgements. “The vast majority of people aren’t making conscious choices,” Nancy says. Most don’t need to. They have bosses, teachers, husbands, wives, children, parents, preachers, mortgage payments, and television to tell them where they have to be, what they have to do, and how they should live. On the Pan Am highway the Vogles’ only obligation was to each other and their goal. Nobody was there to tell them “go here”, “do this” or “stop now”. Freedom comes with the simple imperative to choose.

How to Work Well

John Ruskin, self-portrait

There are few things more delightful than being guided from one good book to another. In The Craftsman author Richard Sennett quotes extensively from 19th-century English artist, critic, and social philosopher John Ruskin. Curious, I downloaded Ruskin’s Two Paths (free on Kindle) which is the source of this beautiful advice:

Above all, see that your work is easily and happily done, else it will never make anybody else happy; but while you thus give the rein to all your impulses, see that those impulses be headed and centred by one noble impulse; and let that be Love – triple love – for the art which you practice, the creation in which you move, and the creatures to whom you minister.

Happy Birthday Henry David Thoreau


Today would be the great Henry David Thoreau’s 195th birthday. Luckily, he is immortal. Sitting at my desk in a basement, I read this and want to laugh and cry at once:

I am reminded that the mechanics and shopkeepers stay in their shops not only all the forenoon, but all the afternoon too, sitting with crossed legs, so many of them—as if the legs were made to sit upon, and not to stand or walk upon—I think that they deserve some credit for not having all committed suicide long ago. … I confess that I am astonished at the power of endurance, to say nothing of the moral insensibility, of my neighbors who confine themselves to shops and offices the whole day for weeks and months, aye, and years almost together.

Related:
The Book
Creativity
Freedom

Free Writing Advice

Baffled by words? Confused by consonants? Come to my free writing advice session at the InSpiral Cafe in Camden Town (map) this coming Saturday, 14 July, between 14.00-16.00.

Get help with your CV, proposal, report, essay, project, poem, or even a letter! Totally free of charge.

Patti Smith Cardiff Coal Exchange

Photo: Sarah Campbell

They say you shouldn’t meet your heroes. Given how hard I worship Patti Smith this means I probably shouldn’t even be in the same room with her. The thought sticks in my head like gum on the sole of an expensive shoe as my best friend and I scuttle through raindrops into Cardiff’s Coal Exchange. The lights are low and security minimal. An unobtrusive table covered in tee-shirts suffices for merchandising. “When is the support act on?” my friend asks. Security shakes his head: no support act. My heart hippity-hops. I hate the farce of standing around while two guys in black take an hour to plug in the headliner’s guitar. Tonight is already exceeding expectations.

The stage is small, low, close; we could hop over and perch on the edge. No fanfare, no lights-up-lights-down, just a sudden soft landing of feet onstage. Patti smiles at our delayed whoops of recognition. She opens her mouth and the world breaks open. There is no discernible relationship between that slight torso, overhung with an Electric Lady Studios tee-shirt and a too-big black blazer (red marker pen hooked in the left pocket, as if she’d just been labelling boxes) and the voice that envelops the air. It’s like being run over by a Rolls-Royce.

I’m dancing barefoot
Heading for a spin
Some strange music draws me in

“The look on your face,” my friend says (later). I wonder if the look matched my thought: that I am finally looking at a flesh-and-blood human after a lifetime of watching holograms.

She extends her arms in blessing, evocation, incantation. Girl is washed up on Redondo beach by the waves her throat makes. The mike is a token gesture; a puff of smoke to screen the dark art of her voice. There is a peace sign inked on the left knee of her jeans, like kids did back in high school. It matches the girlishness of her grin. “I went looking for a Welsh rarebit today,” she tells us, “rarebit” drawling out like rabbit in flat American vowels. A man in the crowd calls out an offer – he makes a great Welsh rarebit. She chuckles, flashing un-American teeth: “I’ll see you after the show.”

I want to freeze every instant, turn each note to ice then taste it melt. Lenny Kaye, her musical compatriot for over 40 years, is tucked in the corner, making magic with his guitar. The rest of the band moves in orbit; Patti is the centre of the universe. Dedicating a song to the people of Japan Patti says gently: “We’ve been very cruel to Mother Nature and she can be very cruel back… we honour you, Mother.” It should be a platitude, but it isn’t.

None of the words tumbling through my head are strong enough to hold up to her light: sincerity, energy, androgyny, and the one that comes closest yet falls most infuriatingly short: integrity. Patti Smith is the most complete human being I have ever seen. This is not performance, it is revelation.

She tells a little story about her friend, Johnny, before playing (for the first time, live) his birthday song: ‘Nine.’ “We were sitting at the bar and I said, ‘You’re a pretty handsome guy.’” she recounts. “I’d never noticed before because he’s so radiant that even if he were the ugliest man on earth he’d still be beautiful.” If anyone else told this story I’d think: “Lucky cow, hanging out with Johnny Depp” but I’m thinking: “Lucky son of a bitch, Patti Smith wrote a song for you!” Together, they must gleam like stars.

She is the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. Her face should be carved in granite, Rushmore-size. I strain to memorise the slant of her cheekbones, the swoop of her nose, the triumphal lines that mark her as an elder. “I have Welsh, English and Irish blood,” she says. Someone boos the word “English” and she scolds: “What do you want me to do? I can’t divide myself.”

If only time would slow down. She dedicates a sweet, sad song to Amy Winehouse; whisks us to CBGBs with ‘We Three’; then lulls us with the affectionate rollick of ‘April Fool’. Between gripping my friend’s hand and shrieking myself hoarse I try to grab as many details as I can: the black and silver ring on the middle finger of her right hand; the band on her wedding finger; a charm bracelet on her left wrist; the unbuttoned cuffs of her jacket; the jeans stuffed carelessly into cheap-looking gilt biker boots. Her cloud of brownish-grey hair carelessly plaited at the ends.

Then, sudden as she soft-footed on, Patti slips off stage. The band continues. She’s right there – a handful of feet away, next to the mixing desk. She looks over, smiles and waves. Jaw slack, I wave back, willing, praying, desperate to transmit some of my love and awe. You’re more than a hero. Faces around me begin to take note and bodies eddy towards the slender barrier. She blows a pair of kisses then drifts back to perch onstage between the monitors, heels swinging like a kid on the edge of a dock, un-self-consciously singing along as her band mates whirl through snippets of old standards.

Everything is easy. When she’s ready, Patti gets up and sings again, as natural as a cat rising from a patch of sun and stretching. She joins the band in a fierce guitar jam, notes racing, her free breasts moving beneath that baggy tee. I am transfixed. It is almost unbearable.

Desire is hunger is the fire I breathe.

A man with a pink-and-purple Mohawk grabs his partner and they dance as we throw our voices back to her because the night belongs to lovers. I’m sweating; hot and cold as my last first kiss. When the opening chords of ‘Gloria’ reverberate my heart melts into my stomach and fizzes like popping candy. G-l-o-r-i-a she spells and we’re spellbound. My sins my own/they belong to me.

I refuse to contemplate the end. A girl in a black spaghetti-strap vest with cropped blonde hair dances beside me, golden arms twirling in tribute. The band slips quietly offstage. We stomp, whistle, and holler; please come back, please.

Patti shed the blazer a long time ago, stopped once to wipe her mouth on her tee-shirt. She is at once huge, luminous, a warrior king/queen (beyond sex, beyond gender, beyond binary) and a slip of a woman, sinewy, and not young. Anticipation clenches my heart like a fist. “You don’t need their shit!” Patti cries, raising her arms (prophet, priestess, the voice of one crying in the wilderness) “Be free!” The air crackles and atoms smash as the band launches into the driving riff of ‘Rock’n’Roll Nigger’. The blonde and I scream like schoolgirls. Baby got a hand; got a finger on the trigger. Baby, baby, baby is a rock-and-roll nigger. My blood rushes like it’s late for an appointment.

We wobble out: dazed, high, jelly-legged and dry-mouthed. The engine of compulsion is revving: I must write, have to. But anything I muster will be inadequate to the point of dishonesty. There is so much I want to say: thank you Patti, I love you, hallelujah, how?, you’re beautiful, you’re an artist, you’re a blessing. Thank you.

She is benediction

Related Posts:
Best Songs: Top 10 ‘Signature’ Songs
Patti Smith Woolgathering
Patti Smith Banga