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Last March I fell in love with riding a bicycle, and since then, I’ve blogged about my adventures here and there.
A batch of thoughts and things I’ve learned off the top of my head, many inspired by Grant Petersen’s Just Ride and Bicycle Sentences, which have a kind of punk, unfussy ethos that meshes with my own:
1. If you’re new to biking, just go to the bike shop and try out some bikes and buy whatever’s in your budget. Don’t fuss over it too much. After six months of riding you’ll know what you really need and want.
2. Better to ride up a hill than to ride into the wind. You’ll overtake the hill eventually, but you can’t overtake the wind. Also: Everywhere seems flat until you try to bike it. There is no flat. (Kevin Kelly said this to me.)
3. Get a basket or a pannier. I always ride with one of my bags now. You never know what you’ll want to pick up when you’re out riding. Biking is this perfect pace between walking and driving — you take in more than you would walking, but it’s still easy to spot things and stop and investigate.
4. Start a bike gang. It will make you happy. Easiest way to do this is start riding regularly — taking off at the same time and place — with one other person. Pretty soon you’ll have a gang. Give your bike gang a stupid name. My bike gang is called The Turtles, because our sensei, Hank, aka Master Splinter, who is 75, always says, “Off like a herd of turtles!”
5. A two-hour ride is plenty long. Anything longer than that is vanity and wankery and needs to be broken up with lunch or beers. Better for a ride to be too short than too long.
6. If your friend asks you if you want to ride, drop everything, if you can, and go out. Always worth it. Some of the best rides I’ve had were with my pal Marty in the middle of the afternoon when we probably should’ve been working.
7. I don’t know what it is about men, but two men can ride and have an intimate conversation with each other, but 3 quickly becomes a locker room, somehow, unless somebody’s being left out. (I like to ride in the back when we have 3, it’s like having ambient chatter and camaraderie, but I can withdraw into my thoughts a bit.) Even numbers, like 4 riders, means you can pair up and have conversations.
8. Keep a bike that you can hop on without much fuss so you can go out for short rides whenever you want. It’s nice to have a simple, fun, extra toy-like bike for errands and joy rides.
9. Look out for dogs, children, and Lexuses. All wildly unpredictable.
10. Riding a bicycle is a beautiful paradox — it requires you to become one with the machine while also making you feel more human.
I probably have more that I’ll remember the minute I hit “publish” on this post, but that feels like enough for now.
Nobody said it better than Mark Twain: “Get a bicycle. You will not regret it, if you live.”
My bike gang calls ourselves “The Turtles” so this is extra meaningful to me ? ? https://t.co/sLUHtz1IuG
— Austin Kleon (@austinkleon) March 27, 2023
A reader sent me this video of artist Debra Frasier talking about how she creates a picture book:
Towards the middle of the video, she talks about how critical her journal is to her process, how it’s “this active space where a kind of magic happens… it’s not a scrapbook, it’s not a diary, it’s this place.”
She learned to think about journaling this way from her mentor, the artist Paulus Berensohn, a dancer who turned to pottery. (He wrote a popular book called Finding One’s Way With Clay.)
There’s a documentary about Berensohn called To Spring From The Hand, and the website is full of all kinds of interesting stuff about his life and work.
In the mini documentary, Soul’s Kitchen, Berensohn talking about his journal and bookmaking workshops. He says:
The journal is not so much a way of diarizing one’s life, but a portable studio, a place where you can hang out, with your imagination, your intuition, your inspiration.
His emphasis on the journal as a place reminded me so much of what I’ve learned from Lynda Barry: that the page is a place where you go wandering around. (Because I don’t believe in coincidence: I wrote that post on this day 4 years ago.)
Debra Frasier makes an appearance in the documentary and she explains what Paulus taught her:
That you have this antenna that knows where you’re going before your body knows where it’s going. So if you have this journal space, and you allow yourself to trust whatever is drawing your attention, and put it into that journal, it gave me a way to magnetize the question, be alert to the answers, and have a place to store it.
Berensohn himself said making a journal was “like building a nest,” which reminded me of Thoreau’s idea about nest eggs.
Recently I saw a piece about how Americans don’t hang out anymore.
But not only do we not seem able to hang out with others, we can’t even hang out with ourselves.
Your journal is a place to do that.
(And I suspect that if you can hang out with yourself, you can get a little bit better at hanging out with others.)
One of my new studio routines is to re-read my diaries on today’s date. (Something I learned from reading Thoreau’s diary.)
So, today, for example, when I got in the studio, I went to March 27th of each year 2017-2022 and read what was there. There are almost always weird connections and things worth writing about.
I thought it would be fun to be able to this with my blog, too, which is much older than my diaries, so I used ChatGPT to help me write a WordPress widget that shows me “On This Date” posts from the past few years on my sidebar.
3 posts it turned up that spoke to each other:
2019: Unboxing my copies of Keep Going for the first time.
2017: My notes on a show by Nina Katchadourian, who was a big influence on Keep Going.
2008: “Overheard on the Titanic,” a post that ended up being my most famous blackout poem and opens Keep Going.
“Overheard on the Titanic”
I made this poem on this day 15 years ago pic.twitter.com/LkfHMOhCIs
— Austin Kleon (@austinkleon) March 27, 2023
It will be fun to check the blog every day for the next year and see what comes up.
Exercises like this reinforce my belief in the cyclical nature of time.
* * *
Update (3/28/2023): Today serves me the original “How To Keep Going Talk” from 2018 and “Potential Reactions” from 2015 that made it into the book. And from 2019, “The Page is A Place,” which is spookily similar to a post I wrote this morning, “A journal is a place to hang out.”
A few weeks ago, I was on the phone with my friend James and he said, “You’re someone who’s so curious about so many things — why aren’t you curious about this?”
It’s become a question I’ve started asking myself almost once a day. Why aren’t you curious about this?
Like many of us, I do a lot of what my friend Alan Jacobs in Breaking Bread with the Dead calls “informational triage” — constantly trying to separate and sort out what the heck I should be paying attention to.
So I shut out a lot. But I also have to be open — what if the things I’m not interested in turn out to be interesting?
I mentioned this dilemma to Kevin Kelly (we were talking about AI), and he quoted one of the pieces of advice in Excellent Advice for Living: “For a great payoff / be especially curious / about the things you are not interested in.”
This is particularly true if you want to be a curious elder.
It reminded me of the perfect title of Nina Katchadourian’s great show that I saw five years ago: Curiouser. Nina spoke about how she liked the idea of “curiouser” as a noun, a job title, something you could be.
My audiobook trilogy is on sale through Apple: all 3 books for $5!!!
It’s a… steal.
In the comments of my “spring bouquet” newsletter, Ann Collins, writer of the newsletter Microseasons, wrote:
At certain times of the year, I feel like time is both— linear and circular! And that is what has sparked my fascination with the ancient idea of 72 microseasons —each lasting just 5 days. Five days seems like a linear, human-sized, tangible amount of time. Yet the small linear segments are part of a larger Circle of an entire year, which is, in turn, part of a larger Spiral made of many years.
I really like this. (I follow @smallseasonsbot on twitter to remind me of these seasons.)
On this image of circular vs. linear time: It made me think about how if you draw a circle in Photoshop and keep zooming in, eventually the circle will look something like a straight line or (depending on the resolution) a series of steps:
Ann also sent me Tomas Tranströmer’s poem, “Answers to Letters”:
Sometimes an abyss opens between Tuesday and Wednesday but twenty-six years may be passed in a moment. Time is not a straight line, it’s more of a labyrinth, and if you press close to the wall at the right place you can hear the hurrying steps and the voices, you can hear yourself walking past there on the other side.
I could probably talk about moving in a straight line in curved spacetime, but I wouldn’t really know what I was talking about. (Think of the way the earth seems pretty darned flat when you’re driving across Texas.)
Ann’s great point remains: In the micro sense, time usually feels linear — like a line of weekdays on a calendar. But in the macro sense, say, revisiting your notebooks over many years, it often feels circular.
In my latest newsletter: a bouquet of thoughts about spring.
In 1831, at the age of 22, Charles Darwin learned to keep notebooks by emulating Captain Robert FitzRoy of the HMS Beagle.
From Annie Murphy Paul’s The Extended Mind:
Darwin had never kept a journal before coming aboard the Beagle, for example, but he began to do so under the influence of FitzRoy, whose naval training had taught him to keep a precise record of every happening aboard the ship and every detail of its oceangoing environment. Each day, Darwin and FitzRoy ate lunch together; following the meal, FitzRoy settled down to writing, bringing both the formal ship’s log and his personal journal up to date. Darwin followed suit, keeping current his own set of papers: his field notebooks, in which he recorded his immediate observations, often in the form of drawings and sketches; his scientific journal, which combined observations from his field notebooks with more integrative and theoretical musings; and his personal diary. Even when Darwin disembarked from the ship for a time, traveling by land through South America, he endeavored to maintain the nautical custom of noting down every incident, every striking sight he encountered.
As I understand it, Darwin would take a pencil and a notebook off the ship, and then when he was back on board, he would use pen and ink. (He also switched in between notebooks a lot.)
He wrote, “Let the collector’s motto be, ‘Trust nothing to the memory;’ for the memory becomes a fickle guardian when one interesting object is succeeded by another still more interesting.”
[A naturalist] ought to acquire the habit of writing very copious notes, not all for publication, but as a guide for himself. He ought to remember Bacon’s aphorism, that Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man; and no follower of science has greater need of taking precautions to attain accuracy; for the imagination is apt to run riot when dealing with masses of vast dimensions and with time during almost infinity.
I’m reminded that another great journalizer, Henry David Thoreau, started keeping his journal at the age of 20, in 1837, because an older man, Ralph Waldo Emerson, asked him whether he kept a journal.
And I’m also thinking about what the relationship of journaling is to pirates and farmers. A captain’s log is kept to keep track of where you’ve been in space and what happened over time. Thoreau’s log is a record of where he’d been in (mostly) the same place and the changes and what happened there over time…
In the studio talking to my imaginary assistants pic.twitter.com/P7lgqVZQBN
— Austin Kleon (@austinkleon) March 22, 2023
When Kevin Kelly visited me in the studio last week while he was in town for his SXSW talk, I asked him to tell me about AI, something I am not terribly interested in. (One of the pieces of advice in his forthcoming Excellent Advice for Living is: “For a great payoff / be especially curious / about the things you are not interested in.”)
He told me that AI right now is like having a little assistant to boss around and make you some stuff so you can say, “Most of this is garbage, but I can use this part, and you’ve given me something to work with or against.”
Quoting him from elsewhere:
This first round of primitive AI agents like ChatGPT and Dalle are best thought of as universal interns. It appears that the millions of people using them for the first time this year are using these AIs to do the kinds of things they would do if they had a personal intern: write a rough draft, suggest code, summarize the research, review the talk, brainstorm ideas, make a mood board, suggest a headline, and so on. As interns, their work has to be checked and reviewed. And then made better. It is already embarrassing to release the work of the AI interns as is. You can tell, and we’ll get better at telling. Since the generative AIs have been trained on the entirety of human work — most of it mediocre — it produces “wisdom of the crowd”-like results. They may hit the mark but only because they are average.
This, so far, has been the most convincing case I’ve heard.
But then, I’ve always resisted having an assistant — in my experience, doing the “grunt work” of researching, writing a first draft, etc., is where a lot of my good discoveries are made. I want my hands on the work, because that’s how I find it.
(Though I do like bossing Siri around and telling her to remind me of stuff and I do like being a good assistant to my future self.)
More notes from our visit:
I like this “Slow Learning” project that Idler editor Tom Hodgkinson took part in and shared in his (excellent) weekly newsletter.
He and a group of around 15 authors, artists, and teachers came up with a “Manifesto for Slow Learning,” which includes a “Bill of Rights” for the slow learner. (Start each of these with the phrase, “You have the right to…”)
1. Focus on direction, not destination
Immerse yourself completely in the journey and you will reach your final goal gradually.
2. Raise your hand
Asking questions is a fundamental human right.
3. Learn at your own pace
Find your rhythm, find your flow. Don’t compare yourself to others.
You have the right to disconnect and move your attention towards what’s essential. Learn unplugged, far away from digital distractions.
5. Change your learning path (and mind)
Don’t get too comfortable in the habit zone and start with changing the aversion to change. Think differently and learn new things.
6. Take a break
Micro-breaks, lunch breaks, and longer breaks will all improve your learning performance. You have the right to rest.
7. Make mistakes
Don’t fall into despair but Fail Forward.
8. Leave it unfinished
We live in a super busy, multi-tasking, results-oriented society. Step away from your long to-do list and enjoy once in a while the beauty of an unstructured day.
9. Unlearn and forget
Harness the power of unlearning. Reboot your mind, abandon old knowledge, actions and behaviours to create space.
10. Slow down
Sometimes slow and steady will win the learning race. Make haste slowly.
You can read more in a free book the group put together.
Tom reminds us: “The ancient Greek word for ‘leisure’ or ‘free time’ was ‘skole’ which turned into the Latin word for school.”
I’m a big fan of another manifesto by Tom: “Manifesto of the idle parent.” (Also: Daniel Pennac’s “The rights of the reader.”)
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