This brief tribute to poet and activist Audre Lord was originally published on Medium.
Audre Lorde blazed into my consciousness, a star whose light reached my world after she was dead. Only, she’s not dead. Lorde lives in her resounding words; lives in her multiple consciousnesses as a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet”; lives as an embodiment of unflinching personal and political courage.
My first approach to her was slant — the final line Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Acting French” in which he declared “Sometimes you do need the master’s tools to dismantle his house.” I scribbled it down, the pearl amidst the sludge of half-developed ideas.
Months later, when I realise he’d cribbed Lorde’s “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” I was ashamed of my ignorance, ashamed I had accidentally attributed to a man the words of a wiser and more powerful woman. I was angry, too. He should have acknowledged her, not assumed (or pretended to assume) that a white audience would recognise the words of a black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.
It’s the kind of slight (mine, his) that Lorde knew all too well. The kind of diminishing by accident or design that she wrote about with immaculate precision and righteous anger.
Lorde knew all about injustice but never let herself accept or become accustomed to it. This shines in her writing and the boldness of her life. She refused categories, as an artist or a human being. She married a (white) man, had two children, left her marriage and had a long-term partnership with a (white) woman. Her poetry can be excoriating, her prose comforting, her voice demanding.
What remains, along with her words, is the sense that she was a whole woman — undivided from herself, despite the complexities that other, less aware (less courageous?) people compartmentalize. Humming like a live wire through her work is this message: live your life, as yourself.
In her own words:
“Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference — those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older — know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with those others identified as outside the structures in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.” — “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House”
“A policeman who shot down a ten year old in Queens stood over the boy with his cop shoes in childish blood and a voice said “Die you little motherfucker” and there are tapes to prove it. At his trial this policeman said in his own defense “I didn’t notice the size nor nothing else only the color”. And there are tapes to prove that, too.
Today that 37 year old white man with 13 years of police forcing was set free by eleven white men who said they were satisfied justice had been done” – from “Power”
“The quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives has direct bearing upon the product which we live, and upon the changes we hope to bring about in those lives… As we learn to bear the intimacy of scrutiny and to flourish within it, as we learn to use the products of that scrutiny for power within our living, those fears which rule our lives and form our silences begin to lose their control over us.” — from Sister Outsider
“I have been woman for a long time beware my smile I am treacherous with old magic and the noon’s new fury with all your wide futures promised I am woman and not white.” – from “A Woman Speaks”
The night before our wedding my fiance and I sat bed with glasses of wine and I read aloud Joan Didion’s essay ‘Marrying Absurd’. I am always rapt by her diamond-cutter prose. Chris was not. He stared at me in the silence after the final sentences, wide eyes asking: What are you trying to say?
“Another round of pink champagne, this time not on the house, and the bride began to cry. ‘It was just as nice,’ she sobbed, ‘as I hoped and dreamed it would be.'”
His wide, wary eyes signaled perfect comprehension. He knew I was using Didion to ask the question I couldn’t. Are we doing the right thing?
On our first date we went to a Mexican restaurant with orange walls, purple tables, and a crowd of drunk Santas in running shoes. We both ordered vegan mole, looked at each other and said, “You too?” Two margaritas on the rocks, salt for me. My body was strange. No crackle-and-static of attraction but expansive euphoria, as if every electron in my blood had leapt an orbital, opening me from the inside out. I’d never seen such eyes: a coruscating handful of sapphire chips.
I lived in Spain at the time; he lived in Memphis. For the next few months we found ways to meet in London, Manchester, Brussels, and Rome. We hoarded time together, constructed intimacy from daubs of conversation and torrents of text. At the end of the year, inevitable as a rock rolling down a cliff, I moved to Memphis. One night we sat in bed, where we conduct most of our powwows. He was adding me to his car insurance. When it came to the Relationship blank he looked up: “Fiancee?”
Sure, I said, why not.
A couple of weeks later, for my birthday, we rented a cabin in Arkansas. It was too cold to sit on the porch swing and watch the stars blaze so we sat on padded vinyl dining room chairs to eat rice and beans washed down with red wine.
“Are we really going to get married?” I asked.
“Do you want to?”
Why marry? We don’t want children and I won’t take his name. Our bank accounts and tax returns will stay separate. We don’t believe in God, monogamy, or the sanctity of marriage.
Yet by our second date I wanted to marry him. Not just be with him. Not just be his girlfriend/partner/significant other. I wanted to be his wife, with all the weight that word carries; wanted him to be my husband. Not because those words are a talisman against conflict or even heartbreak – everyone knows they aren’t – but because marriage (however devalued, degraded, or deflated) is our culture’s apotheosis of commitment. Like the Supreme Court, it is fluid and fallible, but still the last word.
Wanting to be married, though, and marrying are as different as climbing the ladder to the high dive and jumping off.
Chris and I were in down town Las Vegas just after Christmas. We drove past wedding chapels that caught Didion’s gimlet eye fifty years ago, parked in a cavernous underground lot, surfaced at Best Buy and wove through steel drummers, midget Elvis impersonators, and bikini-clad girls dancing away the cold on Fremont East. “We could get married in Vegas,” we teased, testing each other. Instead, we found a Mexican bar and drank jalapeno margaritas. Not wanting to marry in Vegas had something to do with the vision of Joan dancing in my head. But she wasn’t writing about Las Vegas eo ipso. It was journalistic shorthand for dangerous impulsiveness, failure of decorum, fractured social mores.
Didion’s specific grievance with Las Vegas was that its wedding chapels were “merchandising ‘niceness,’ the facsimile of proper ritual, to children who do not know how else to find it… how to do it ‘right’.” Inverted commas notwithstanding, she suggests that parents, at least some parents, know how to do it right.
Believing that must help. Children of happy homes can borrow courage. Skin puckering in the chill, toes hooked on the beef-tongue surface of the diving board, they can at least look down on faces that made the leap and emerged smiling.
Those of us with no family account of goodness or goodwill stand alone. Poised on the proverbial edge, we can only count the mistakes, comic and awful. My mother hooked up with my (still married) father while pregnant with another man’s child. Chris’s mom married and divorced three times, one on either side of his dad. In fact, his parents’ marriage was annulled by Papal pronouncement which makes Chris, technically, a bastard. The second time around, his dad went for a straightforward decree from the State of Arkansas. My dad’s second divorce was in Alaska; the first who knows where.
Then there’s our previous marriages. Mine ended with a gentle parting from a friend who happened to be my husband. His came with the sting of surprise: an email with legal papers and a note to say his stuff was in storage.
Nine divorces altogether. Worn notes of anger, betrayal, and disappointment bundled and stashed like junk bonds. We’d be fools to not wonder if we’re being foolish.
Every card Didion played as a damning signifier of what it meant “to be married in Las Vegas, Clark County, Nevada” in 1967 – well – Memphis, Shelby County, Tennessee will see and raise in 2017. Like Vegas, Memphis “demands no premarital blood test nor waiting period before or after the issuance of a marriage license.” Unless the celebrant is 17 or under, in which case Shelby County imposes a three day wait. In other regards this Delta city is as careless in love as any neon-spangled desert oasis.
Want to cut down on the ten minutes it takes to apply in person? Fill in the online form then collect the license at the county clerk’s office.
Previous marriage, or a few? No problem. Choose a number between one and thirty-one on the drop-down menu. It will ask for the date of your divorce(s) but don’t worry if you don’t remember. Neither clerk nor judge will request any proof of dissolution.
Once you receive a license you have 30 days to marry.
Chris and I took forty-eight hours.
“Dressing rooms, Flowers, Rings, Announcements, Witnessess Available, and Ample Parking,” Didion writes. “All of these services, like most others in Las Vegas… are offered twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, presumably on the premise that marriage, like craps, is a game to be played when the table seems hot.”
We married at 12:30 on Thursday the 9th in Room 226 of Shelby County Courthouse. Before us went a group that fit Didion’s description of “actual wedding parties… The bride in a veil and white satin pumps.” What would she make of my well-worn silk dress, fishnet stockings and vintage heels? Chris’s charcoal Merino sweater and Doc Martin Chelsea boots?
The judge twinkled and swished in his black satin robe. Potted plants with thick stems and dark, glossy leaves lined the window, tinting the bright, thin February light semitropical green. Beyond, a wind-scrubbed blue sky. I held Chris’s hand, bracing myself for a spasm of doubt that never came. My spine stretched like a tether drawn tight between my buoyant heart and the anchor of his touch. Tears softened the blaze of his cobalt eyes.
My name echoed like foreignly in my ear as I repeated the vows, but my tongue didn’t fumble.
“Will you love, honor and cherish… till death do you part?”
Walking to the car I found a way to hold my handbag so the wind didn’t froth my skirt. There were still forty-five minutes on the meter. “We should do something,” my husband said. So we went to our favorite taco spot for Prosecco and black-eyed pea hummus with corn chips.
‘Marrying Absurd’ appears in Didion’s classic essay collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Its eponymous centerpiece opens with this report: “The center was not holding…. Adolescents drifted from city to torn city, sloughing off both the past and the future as snakes shed their skins, children who were never taught and would never now learn the games that had held society together.”
Chris was born in Arkadelphia and lived in Salt Lake City as a baby. He was raised in Little Rock, branched out to Baltimore, bought and sold houses in Moline, Charlotte and Memphis, all while travelling 200-plus days a year. I lived at dozens of addresses in four countries by the time I was thirty. We live out of suitcases and send mail “care/of”. Movement is a choice, a manifestation of our mistrust in the games that are supposed to hold society together. Marriage is not, appearances notwithstanding, a contradictory choice. We’ve studied and sifted the claims of religion, society, and status quo. We spent long, separate years learning who we are, what we want, and what we are prepared to do. So we can take from ritual as much as has meaning to us, and leave the rest without regret.
Marrying is absurd. So are all acts of courage. For those of us whose accumulated experience of marriage veers from farce to disaster, to marry is to stake a claim to our own lives. Marriage is precious to us because we know how easy it is to fail, to fall apart. For us, to marry is a refusal to be defined by the past. It is a pledge to believe the best of one another. To say we’ll try again, no matter. To love again, love better.
This short story appears in the Erotic Review, where you’ll have to go to read the saucy bits.
Abe remembered as he pulled into the rest area. Too late. Sixteen years of habit die slow. He rested his right palm on the frayed Navajo-style passenger seat-cover, feeling the faint prickle of Geordie’s short, coarse hair trapped in the rough weave. It felt like the spiky-soft tips of grass sprouting on the grave beneath the ash tree.
Killing the engine, Abe shut his eyes. Geordie always smelled like swamp water. For the first weeks Abe was convinced the pup snuck into things: drains, garbage cans, trash heaps. But patient stalking revealed no miscreance. The goofy mutt was just an eventual 97 pounds of slobbering, soft-hearted, small-bladdered stinker. Picked a winner, Hazel would tease.
He was though: loyal, tireless, curious, protective, the folds of his part-boxer, part-hound face arranged in a permanent tragicomic mask that could make Abe smile on the worst days. Of course, Hazel was the one who cared for Geordie weeks at a stretch. He wished he’d been there more.
Dusk was bleeding the day of its heat but remnants splashed Abe’s legs as he crossed to the cafe-slash-convenience store. He went to pee, more out of habit than necessity, then bought a bottle of Dr Pepper and a pack of beef jerky, not admitting to himself that would probably be dinner.
Gnawing a stick of dried meat, he paused short of his truck. Someone had pulled in at a 40 degree angle, the vintage blue Corolla’s bumper almost nuzzling his door. Faded Mississippi plates, long deep scratches above the rear wheel, a palm-sized patch of bare metal on the hatchback, no driver, a jumble of boxes and plastic crates stacked to the ceiling. Someone in a hurry all right. Abe could think of a few reasons why that might be, none of which he wanted to get involved with.
Hazel had laughed at his proclivity for rescuing things: Geordie, abandoned cats (usually pregnant), injured birds, hitch-hikers, drifters. But he was tired. He could climb in the passenger side and go.
Theseinterviews were conducted for and published on Frugal Portland in 2017.
We all want that fabulous Instagram photo. The snap that speaks volumes about our good taste and creative sensibility. Two of Portland’s most photogenic facets are the landscape and its diverse food scene. Because picture perfection requires more than luck, we asked two local photographers how to capture the best of Portland outdoors and dining.
FP: What’s your favorite thing about shooting landscapes?
JS: Taking landscape photos helps me to slow down and really see what’s in front of me. Sometimes I sit for quite a while pondering the landscape in front of me before I shoot. It’s a very meditative exercise.
FP: What is the best time of day or setting?
JS: I like low light, so mornings and evenings are best for me. If it’s cloudy, and especially if it’s foggy, I go into the forests. I love a good foggy forest so you’ll see a lot of those scenes in my work.
FP: What makes a great landscape photograph?
JS: Shoot what is pleasing to you, even if it doesn’t follow certain “rules”. Your own artistic touch or edit is what will set your photo apart. Be curious, not rigid, and most importantly, have fun.
FP: What’s one app or filter everyone should try?
JS: Snapseed is by far the one I use the most.
FP: What’s the secret to getting that perfect Instagram-blowing-up shot?
Taking photos of what you love, engaging with other accounts by leaving likes and meaningful comments, and engaging with your followers helps keep people interested. If you do what you love, you will get recognized for your work and opportunities will follow.
FP: What’s an iconic Portland scene or location you love to shoot?
JS: The Wildwood Trail in Forest Park any time it’s foggy. Get me up there in October during a heavy fog, when the autumn colors are peaking, and I’m in heaven!
Top tip: When shooting landscapes always take in the view from several angles and never forget extra batteries!
FP: What’s your favorite thing about shooting food?
AL: Food is a lot of fun to photograph because it’s full of different colors and textures and you have complete control over your composition. The subject always sits still and does as it’s told. Well, usually. Ice cream tends to melt even though I tell it not to.
FP: What’s the best time of day or setting?
AL: Beautiful soft light is best for food so think “side light” or “diffused light.” If you’re outside this means sunrise or sunset time. Those two times of the day will have nice side light with a softer warmer glow. If you’re inside, shoot your food by a window.
FP: What makes a great food photograph?
AL: It makes the viewer want to eat that dish right then and there. The goal is to make them salivate. A great image has interesting light, strong composition and accurate color. Filters and funky presets are fun but I don’t think they add to food images.
FP: What’s one app or filter everyone should try?
AL: Snapseed is my go to app for quick editing.
FP: What’s the secret to getting that perfect Instagram-blowing-up shot?
AL: I wish I knew! I have an image of some waffles that’s decent but nothing spectacular and it has the most “likes”. My guess is people really like waffles! So if it’s a cherished item, like pizza, and a cool image you’ll probably receive a lot of love.
FP: What’s an iconic Portland food, dish or restaurant you love to shoot?
AL: I have to give a shout out to one of my clients, Quaintrelle. Camille is the head bartender. Her cocktails are amazing and a lot of fun to photograph. Their food is wonderful too.
Top tip: When shooting food always choose the perfect angle and never post a photo that is out of focus.
This originally appeared on Medium. It’s a subject close to my heart.
There are two kinds of people who give advice to writers: those who want better writing, and those who want payment.
Teachers, from the unsung heroes singing the ABCs with snotty toddlers to college professors hacking through forests of sophomoric prose, are mostly the former.
Once you venture beyond formal education, though, the search for guidance can lead straight into the slough of despond where some self-proclaimed guru will offer you the keys to the kingdom, on an installment plan. There are also wonderful writing teachers who ought to be paid for their time and expertise.
These five questions will help you to avoid hyenas and find legitimate guides —
1. Do non-writers read their books?
This is important because, if you’re going to take writing advice from someone, it might as well be an actual writer. Not someone who has set him/herself up as an expert on the basis of figuring out MailChimp.
When a writer who is read and loved by millions, like Ray Bradbury, E.B. White or Stephen King dispenses writing advice, I’m happy to pay.
2. Do they tell you how much they earn?
The above mentioned writers never, to my knowledge, sent emails to their readers bragging about their income. If a so-called writing guru leads by telling you how much they earn, it’s a con.
Writers can and do earn great salaries as writers. But if a person’s primary income stream is other writers s/he is a huckster, not a writer.
3. Do they promise you a secret formula?
Writers are wishful thinkers, in the best possible way. We wish to understand, report, illuminate, entertain, and above all connect. This fundamental optimism keeps us at the keyboard. It also makes us susceptible to slicks who claim to have discovered a secret to striking rich as a writer.
This prospect is pure mirage — and enticing as an oasis.
If someone really had the secret to endless, effortless cash from freelance writing clients s/he would simply enjoy the income. If the technique were valid and replicable, teaching it would create competition.
4. Do they try to up-sell you?
A writer who earns a comfortable primary income from writing shouldn’t be hustling. I’ve encountered sales pitches ranging from $199 for an online journalism course to $10,000 for one year of “mentoring”.
The give away, whether at the low or high end of the price scale, is the guru’s insistence that this is great value. Two online courses for the price of one! Access to a “community” (as if there aren’t a gazillion free writers forums and Facebook groups)! Cheaper than college! Cheaper than a weekend in Vegas! Only 20 percent of your annual income!
The people most likely to be tempted by dubious expertise are those worst-placed to pay these rates, which makes fake gurus opportunistic dickwads.
5. Do they tell you it’s all in your head?
Without fail, every single fake writing guru will preach some version of “failure is a mindset”.
PayScale data show only 10 percent of all writers earn more than $83,000 per year, meaning even fewer earn above the much-hyped six figure mark.
Failing to earn scads of money as a writer is not a mindset — it’s a reality.
The only people who tell you it’s all in your head are the ones who are ass-covering for the inevitable moment when you realize that over-priced bottle of secret sauce isn’t going to make you a millionaire.
Where to find the real thing
Don’t despair of getting sound, disinterested writing guidance— and don’t pay through the nose for it.
Sites like Funds for Writers and Freedom with Writing are a great way to learn about contests, publishers and grants.If you want advice on the craft of writing, hit the library or bookshop.
My favorite books on writing include:
Zen and the Art of Writing — Ray Bradbury
Bird by Bird — Anne Lamott
Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind — Natalie Goldberg
On Writing Well — William Zinsser
Steering the Craft — Ursula K. LeGuin
For honest first person advice, join a writing group or workshop, or take a class. Some of the best, wisest writers I know work in community colleges or extension programs, for little reward and less recognition, because they want other people to experience the life-altering power of writing.
Seek the positive
Writing should be a source of joy, even if it’s a job.
A writer worth listening to embraces both its struggles and its delights.
“Writing is survival,” Bradbury wrote. “Any art, any good work, of course, is that. …We must take arms each and every day, perhaps knowing that the battle cannot be entirely won, but fight we must, if only a gentle bout. The smallest effort to win means, at the end of each day, a sort of victory.”
A feature written for Ibiza Voice in 2008, probably. Not one of my finest pieces of writing but Green Velvet is a godlike (and godly) genius. This is for him.
If here ever was a time and place dedicated to stamping out the vestiges of party culture it is 21st century USA. In a nation where you can’t drink till you’re 21, where bottled water is considered drug paraphernalia and where electronic music promoters can be indicted under the same laws as people who run crack houses there isn’t a hell of a lot of leeway for having fun.
Sure, there is Pacha and Cielo in New York City, Chicago’s Crobar & Vision… a handful of big name clubs pulling glamorous crowds and A-list DJs. But what about everywhere else? Despite the obstacles, there are still brave promoters and music freaks who occasionally pull off a coup like luring techno legend Green Velvet to a small-time rave in an industrial corner of Portland, Oregon (pop: 500,000; biggest musical exports: the Dandy Warhols and Beth Ditto). This coffee-fuelled hippie haven happens to be my hometown, and I wasn’t about to miss a chance to see what happens when techno stars meet barebones raving.
One thing to know about partying American-style is that you’ll rarely find good music in a legitimate club. You don’t dress up to go out on a Saturday night so much as layer up, because chances are you’ll wind up wandering through freezing cold railway stockyards (or forests, or fields) trying to find the sound system.
After a false start that takes us across the path of a slow-rolling freight train loaded with desert camouflaged military jeeps we finally find a corrugated steel warehouse with a flickering sign outside reading On Air. A pair of guys in black parkas – one fat and bearded, the other rangy and pony-tailed – wave us in and another lanky kid standing behind a folding wooden table takes our 20 bucks entry fee. Even in the ostensibly free atmosphere of a semi-legal rave there are rules in abundance. Half the barn-like space is cordoned off to form a bar (more plywood tables and a cheap metal rack full of spirits) – you have to show ID to get in here, and once “inside” you can’t smoke. You also can’t carry any alcohol back onto the dancefloor, meaning those of us relying on vodka to keep warm have to make repeated trips between the two. Here, having a huge parka comes in handy: I manage to sneak a dance with my drink nestled inside my oversized cuffs.
However, it isn’t the funny little restrictions that are the most striking. It’s the spirit. Never mind the local DJ is busy mangling ‘Heater’ (ironic tune choice, given the ambient temperature is about three degrees), or that the only toilets are a row of port-a-loos on a concrete slab out back; or even that half the crowd looks too young to drive and the other half looks old enough to know better… the atmosphere is crazy. On the dancefloor drug-skinny kids are breaking out elaborate “liquid” moves that went out of fashion in Europe a decade ago. Even if they knew, they wouldn’t care, because here there is still a sense that being a raver is something special, a mark of distinction. One boy in a trilby is soaking up attention, showing off moves he must have spent hours practicing. Around him, girls in tiny skirts and day-glo bangles are dancing with fierce concentration.
Half an hour earlier my friends and I looked around the warehouse and asked, “What the hell convinced Green Velvet to come out here ” Usually, he’s in a DJ booth dripping with the latest high-spec equipment, commanding the world’s best sound systems. Tonight, he’s on a make-shift stage DJing off two decks perched on one of those wire shelves they use as discount racks in supermarkets. But he’s a true professional and, more than that, a man on a mission. Soft-spoken Curtis Jones is a devout Christian who sees his DJing as an opportunity to spread love and positivity, and he’s throwing himself into this set with as much energy as if it were the main room of Space.
And the reaction? Well, it beats any crowd I’ve seen at Space…. There are only a couple of hundred kids here, but their energy is filling up the room. It doesn’t hurt that everyone seems seriously, loopily altered. Whatever they lack in legal access to alcohol they clearly make up for with fistfuls of narcotics. And it’s all treated in share-and-share alike fashion. Absolutely everyone will stop and say hello, offer you something if they have something (even if it’s just a smoke), or simply turn around and holler “you having fun?“
Sometimes this goes better than others. One kid, dancing next to me, turns around with a shit-eating grin and gives me the thumbs up. “Have you ever seen Green Velvet play before?” I shout over the music. He looks at me, eyes like saucers. “Are you speaking German ” he shouts back. When I burst out laughing he grins back, anxious to please. “Whatever you just said, that was cool,” he assures me.
It’s enough to make the most sober head feel twisted, and there aren’t many here. Tall, thin and cool in black leather and Matrix-esque shades, Green Velvet finally drops the tune that he wrote for kids like this: La La Land. He originally meant it as an anti-drugs message, but that seems to go right over the heads of everyone who is shouting out the chorus in un-ironic appreciation. It is a world away from sophisticated, commodified European party culture but looking around the room, it kind of makes sense.
Outside this cold, ramshackle building the train loaded down with military hardware is still rolling inexorably past. Outside a stupid, venal government is too busy scheming to kill other people’s citizens to bother feeding, educating or providing health care for its own. Outside times are tough and probably not about to get better in a hurry. But inside… well, it’s la la land. A place where freedom exists, music matters and people treat each other as potential friends, not potential enemies. Right now it feels like the best, warmest, safest place to be.
The following is a draft of an essay that was later published in literary journal Beatdom in 2010. Note: my literary fixations have not changed.
Literature and the art of self-realisation
I was lucky. By the time I discovered that personal autonomy is one of those American tropes that gets full lip-service but absolutely no practical respect (see also: “all men are created equal” and separation of church and state), I’d read The Grapes of Wrath and it was too late. Already, tires on asphalt were singing and orange trees bloomed somewhere. There was also a dark undercurrent in Steinbeck’s prose, the murmured caution I might not survive the trip or, reaching an end, find what I was seeking.
The mythic American journey is a quest for self-realisation, a conscious effort to shake off the ties of convention and to seek truth through action. Henry David Thoreau showed the way when he went to Walden Pond to “suck the marrow out of life”. Note: it is okay to gather moss as you invent yourself. Movement, per se, is not the point. To actively choose a mode of being is what matters.
Hunter S. Thompson put this as beautifully as I’ve seen, advising his kid brother: “Don’t think in terms of goals, think in terms of how you want to live. Then figure out how to make a living”. I first read those words on a bus rolling through the high plains outside Mexico City and they echoed in my head as we plunged south, through the impoverished streets of Acapulco to the wild beaches of Guerrero. It struck me that in all my years of work and education no-one ever suggested it is important to think about how to live. If I wanted any wisdom on that front I would have to find it on my own.
Inspiration is rare because twenty-first century America is obsessed with security. Running away to find yourself is disreputable. The joy of movement, of self-propulsion, is viewed with suspicion because it is antithetical to stability. If even a fraction of the dreamers shrugged off the encumbrance of property, life insurance and steady jobs the social order would collapse. So Americans are allowed Easy Rider and On the Road, while being subtly shackled by 401(k) plans and 10 days per year paid vacation.
Daily life is full of opportunities to behave in familiar ways. The trick is to avoid doing so. This means taking a hard look at what convention has to offer, and refusing it. “This is why I left the States when I was 22,” rock icon Chrissie Hynde once remarked. “I saw that I was going to be trapped into buying a car so I could get to work so I could pay for my car.” Like all artists, she understands the vital importance of action, of embracing uncertainty. Such choices are fraught with insecurity; with the promise of bittersweet, intoxicating thrills.
“Nobody’s ever taught you how to live out on the street,” Bob Dylan hymns in Like a Rolling Stone, “And now you’re gonna have to get used to it.” Getting used to it is hard. If it weren’t everyone would do it. Death and desperation drive the Joads; in Breakfast at Tiffany’s Holly Golightly runs from the wilderness to the glass canyons of New York City to the jungles of South America, never quite catching up to her dreams. Their journeys are tragic, not triumphal, yet the dream remains – wistful, stubborn – of California sunsets and the glint of diamonds. Travelling your own road requires a fervent belief in the infinite possibilities of freedom, but catastrophe and failure are always among the possibilities.
Vincent Van Gogh, who is unjustly dismissed as an ear-hacking auteur, wrote luminous, philosophical letters pondering his struggles to live with artistic integrity in a material world. “I think that most people who know me consider me a failure, and… it really might be so, if some things do not change for the better,” he wrote on his thirtieth birthday. “When I think it might be so, I feel it so vividly that it quite depresses me… but one doesn’t expect out of life what one has already learned that it cannot give.” What life, faced square on, cannot give is any assurance of a happy ending. There is powerful literary testimony to the fact that courage is no guarantor of success.
Martha Gellhorn, novelist and war-correspondent extraordinaire, knew this better than most. I’ve dragged her superb memoir, Travels with Myself & Another, across two continents as much for the spine-stiffening effect of her brusque prose as for her mordantly funny stories of ‘horror journeys’. “Moaning is unseemly,” she concludes. “Get to work. Work is the best cure for despair.”
Contrary to popular belief, work matters to the wanderers. There is nothing lazy about going in search of experience. Hunter Thompson scraped, rowed and rolled across the Americas not because he didn’t want to work but because he wanted meaningful work. The tragedy of The Great Gatsby is that the idle rich flourish at the expense of hungry, intelligent young men who cannot find honest labour. Hell, even Dean Moriarty, “the most fantastic parking-lot attendant in the world”, pays for his adventure with stints of “working without pause eight hours a night.”
America trivialises the industry and vitality of people who carve their own paths because it needs well-rooted consumers to prop up its web of shopping malls, real estate brokers and HMOs. And because it is afraid of being called to account for broken promises about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In The Grapes of Wrath Steinbeck offers a deadly accurate diagnosis of establishment dread:
The Californians wanted many things, accumulation, social success, amusement, luxury, and a curious banking security, the new barbarians wanted only two things – land and food…. Whereas the wants of the Californians were nebulous and undefined, the wants of the Okies were beside the roads.
Land and food are buried deep in the heart of every personal saga. Even rolling stones need a resting place. (Kerouac first uses “beat” in the sense of beat-up, worn out, kicked around. Only later did it become a badge of honour.) Truth is, unhitching yourself from the comfortable yolk of everydayness is difficult business. It is an act of necessity, desperation even, undertaken by those who refuse to live half-lives. If you heed Thoreau’s injunction to “step to the music [you hear], however measured or far away”, you are liable to find yourself lost, cold, broke, alienated, adrift. Getting to California means crossing the Great Divide. Like as not, your only encouragement along the way will be the books at the bottom of your rucksack. And faith the destination will prove worthy of the journey.
Capote, Truman Breakfast at Tiffany’s
Dylan, Bob ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ from Highway 61 Revisited
Eliot, T.S. ‘East Coker’ from Four Quartets
Gellhorn, Martha Travels with Myself & Another
Kerouac, Jack On The Road
Steinbeck, John The Grapes of Wrath
Thompson, Hunter S. The Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman
Thoreau, Henry David Walden
Van Gogh, Vincent The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh (ed. Mark Roskill)
In 2009 I took a shot at writing a children’s mystery of the sort I grew up on (Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, The Hardy Boys, etc). Revisiting it, I was as much in thrall to J.D. Salingeras to Carolyn Keene. It remains unfinished but I’m open to offers 😉
Benjamin Riddle-Smith wasn’t happy. His summer had started badly, and right now it was sunk deep in the doldrums. I feel like this stupid yacht, he thought, staring across the deck from his lounge chair, stuck here boiling under the sun and never getting anywhere. Benjamin’s face folded down into a deep frown as he remembered the events of the final few days of school, which had cost him his freedom this summer.
Despite their looming eleven-plus exams he and his best friend Tod had been having a jolly time. They were both sport mad, and spent every spare moment climbing, swimming, and playing rugby or tennis. That wasn’t a problem until their housemaster decided on long, boring mandatory study sessions in preparation for their eleven-pluses.
Tod and Benjamin had never seen eye to eye with the headmaster on the subject of studying versus sport, so they shouldn’t have really been surprised when he took a dim view of them sneaking out to play games during library hour. The more Mr. Hawkins watched them, the harder they tried to get around his rules, until one night they executed a daring free climb right up the stone and ivy façade of Ashford House.
Worst of all, they made it cleanly to the second floor, and were only feet from the safety of their shared room when their prank was discovered. They were at the room next door, to be precise, and Thomas Smyth’s shriek of surprise as they tumbled through his open window had woken most of the corridor. Mr. Hawkins would have dearly loved to see the two mischief makers gone for good. But luckily Benjamin’s father Alfred Riddle was an extremely wealthy and persuasive man, and Tod’s nearest relative was his elderly uncle – a close friend of the queen’s.
There had been a lot of fuss about it, but in the end the real punishment didn’t come from grumpy Mr. Hawkins but from Benjamin’s parents who agreed that instead of spending the summer with his mother in Switzerland he would spend it with his father on his yacht, the Icarus. It was a huge, triple deck floating palace, packed with gadgets, and Benjamin enjoyed spending the occasional weekend there. But eight hot weeks? No thanks! Ben loved climbing more than anything. Now, after months of waiting for summer in the Swiss Alps, where he could climb every single day, he couldn’t believe he was stuck baking slowly on deck.
He stood up and shuffled over to the edge of the pool. The water was perfectly still. Peeling off his tee shirt he dove into the pool and started swimming lengths. It wasn’t as much fun as climbing, but he’d been swimming since before he could walk and he liked the steady rhythm of his arms and legs. Plus, his little sister Jasmin couldn’t keep up with him, so the swimming pool was about the only place he could get a minute’s peace.
It never lasted long though. No sooner had Ben gotten back to his cabin, changed, and settled down to tackle the next level of Prince Of Persia than she came running. “Benjamin! Bennnn-ja-miiiin!” Her high-pitched voice carried through the corridors and portholes till it bored right through the door. Benjamin was squinting in concentration, but his thumb slipped and his lifeline fell into the red. With a grunt of irritation he put down his PSP. There wouldn’t have a moment’s peace until he answered Jasmin’s piercing call.
“What?!” he shouted, pulling open his cabin door with a bang, “I’m down here. What is it?” A minute later his seven-year-old sister came flying down the passageway, bare feet slapping like wet towels against the polished surface.
“Daddy says you’re to come up to the third deck, aft, as soon as possible. She-hike Sullyman is visiting and Daddy wants you to come greet him.”
Benjamin let out a very deep sigh. Along with Jasmin he spent his summer holidays with his father. Being called to meet and greet an assortment of politicians, business moguls, and celebrities was inevitable. Since Father had bought Icarus there had been a lot more visitors like Sheik Suliman.
“Honestly,” he said, thinking out loud. “You’d think the Sheik would have seen enough yachts – what with having three of his own – that he wouldn’t need to come and snoop around ours.”
“Come on Benj,” Jasmin whined. “Daddy told me to tell you to hurry up!”
“Ok, ok,” he replied, “just a second.” He saved his game, switched off the PSP, then locked the door and pocketed the key before following the slap-slap-slap of his sister’s footsteps.
This was written for… Mixmag? Ibiza Voice? DJ Mag? In any case, some dance magazine in 2008.It contains far too many adverbs and hyphens. Maybe someday I’ll learn to rein those in, maybe.
Justice @ Club 75, Pacha Ibiza
Justice has never stuck to clearly defined roles. The fashionably thin, intensely Gallic duo of Gaspard Augé and Xavier de Rosnay manage to both embody and defy stereotypes. They are intense in a well-educated, laconic, smoky Parisian sort of way (“we smoked 30,000 cigarettes making this record,” they said of debut album Cross). Yet their music pops with rainbow colours and kiddie-friendly choruses. Without ever courting the music press they snared the world’s attention by upstaging Kanye West at the MTV Music Awards. His onstage temper-tantrum ensured their notoriety to an audience that might never have noticed them otherwise. This, too, seemed to slide off their skinny, black-leather-bound shoulders. Justice simply marched on. From hipster hip hop parties in dingy Paris nightclubs to manic mainstage gigs at Sonar by night to international tours with audiences writhing in near-tearful devotion – they’ve done it all, and seen it all.
This makes their arrival at Pure Pacha highly incongruous. Pacha prides itself on sophistication and as much gentility as becomes a discotheque. It isn’t a natural destination for raving teenagers waving white crosses and homemade “Justice” banners. Tonight they are joined by Cassius, completing the French twist on the evening. On the corner, just past the main entrance a group of indeterminate youngsters is swigging down on bottled drinks. This is typical behaviour outside Amnesia, but here you almost expect one of the doormen to lumber down and have a word. No one does though. There is plenty of merriment in the warm air, and the kind of good natured jostling that happens in high-spirited queues. Judging by the snippets of conversation running Justice fan base travels well: Italian, Spanish, French and a fair portion of English voices ring out. Everyone is fidgeting to the hint of the kick drum oozing through the dense walls.
By the time we scramble inside there is a mini rush for the dancefloor. Any latent concerns about how Justice’s cheeky style and flamboyant showmanship would fit in the calm lines of Pacha vanishes in a moment. The booth – always a hive of activity – is a veritable swarm, with enough arms flailing through the dry ice to look as if it’s been taken over by an impatient octopus. Justice and Cassius are playing back to back, moving so fast it seems as if there surely must be more than three of them. On the dancefloor an enthusiastic moil keeps pace with the hyperactive display in the DJ box, swishing and pitching from side to side with giddy abandon. Girls in boutique dresses have bade farewell to propriety and are dancing manically. One, actually around her handbag (ironically, we hope).
Justice’s knowing melange of electro, pop and the odd stonking guitar riff is perfectly gender balanced: the boys are stomping away with equal concentration. Somehow, they engage the crowd without seeming to pay it much attention. Xavier, small and perky as a meerkat, bobs up from behind the decks to cheer the floor; Gaspard’s most demonstrative moment is a smile and half-wave when someone thrusts a mobile phone up at him, yet they are in perfect harmony with the crowd. The gurgling pop of ‘D.A.N.C.E.’ whips up a storm, and a tough, techno-tinged track gets just as much of a hearty response. Tonight, Justice – with a little help from their friend, Cassius – demonstrate perfectly why the are who they are: every expectation broken, every rule bent and everyone dancing towards dawn with a smile on their face.