I live a charmed life, a very charmed life – but I am not sure it’s mine. I turned 60 this winter and ask myself the same questions now that I have asked almost every decade since the 8-track tape replaced vinyl. Is what I have mine? If it all ended after I typed this, would my history be one carved from my own stone using my own tools, or have I found ways to channel every other person and moment of inspiration that tapped on my shoulder? Is all this borrowed from others who have done it before me?
Not a day goes by when my reaction to something, my first thought, doesn’t summon up an image or anecdote from another time. It could be a scene in a movie I once saw. Some poignant words from a speech that touched me. A tagline from a print ad. Or a song. It’s as if I am hardwired to reflect back on soundbites I have consumed over time. Some people develop based on what they are taught in the classroom. My classroom had no walls. There may have been no teachers.
If I were to drop the gloves, have a look at myself, and be brutally honest, I’d say I think I’m near incapable of original thought. I observe well. I receive well. But who I am is what I was fed at an earlier date. Some of it’s been stored for eons and returns when my sub-conscience deems it appropriate – the right reply at the right time. Often, the words return as phrases, rearranged so that they sound cool, or might suggest I possess wisdom and enables me to make an impression. I have done this for so many years that the lines are blurred between how much of it is me is based on consumption and life experiences and how much is really me – a me who, as a man who should be able to make decisions, draw conclusions, and contribute to daily situations as an adult, but is parroting out of convenience, or even out of ignorance. It’s not easy for me to take stock and to think that I know so much less than others seem to think I do. Having a lot and knowing a lot are not the same. The information isn’t knowledge. Tapping the information is alchemy, if it’s anything at all.
The only refuge I have from what I have described above is my workbench. I am completely self-taught. I was exposed to bicycle making during a year abroad in 1972, but it wasn’t formal training and certainly not an apprenticeship. By the time I had my own name on them, everything I did came from trial and error, repetition, and reflection. While I have seen photographs and films showing others in my trade, I haven’t watched someone else do what I do for nearly forty years. There’s some satisfaction that comes from knowing all the decisions, processes, mistakes, and successes are yours and yours alone. My studio is the only place where I own everything and can blame no one. My bicycles aren’t just materials, tools, designs, and procedures rearranged to fill an order from an eager client. They are my offspring. A full life of information gathering goes into each one. As does the knowledge I bring to the table. My emotions are also part of this mix, and I’d like to think my self-esteem is, too.
Still a man hears what he wants to hear
And disregards the rest
Or so sang the Funkel Brothers, Simon and Gar. Those words are used to illustrate my point. It’s all you need to know about how I see myself. I have received a lot. I have absorbed and digested a lot. And much of it has already been served back up. If, one day, others look at what I leave behind, the most I can hope for is someone will say, He gave as good as he got. None of it was mine. All I did was store it for a while before putting it back into the ether. Oh, except for the bicycles. They are mine.