(2000), Robert Stevens Fish
There’s something refreshing about the author of a self-help book offering the following sage advice for conquering procrastination: “Allow guilt to consume you.” Or sharing his own chagrined road rage after chasing down an irritating driver:
As I passed this creep, I glared over at him. He was an older man, maybe in his sixties, robust, not feeble or anything, with a huge white beard and strong, penetrating eyes. He had a softness about his face, and I had two immediate images: Santa Claus and an actor in a Biblical epic… All the fire went out of me. I felt small, insignificant, stupid.
Robert Stevens Fish, author of The Woman Who Walked to Paradise: Stories for Coping in a Chaotic World, has written a disarming collection of autobiographical sketches and folktales that share a common thread of fragile humanness. “Just because I teach stress reduction,” Fish confides to us, “I wouldn’t want you to get the idea that I always have it together.”
The author’s self-effacing candor sets his book apart from the glut of inspirational literature by Schwarzenegger-like champions of confidence-building. A former university professor with a Ph.D in Speech Communications, Fish left the insular world of academia in 1980 to explore an unusual career path: “I decided to become a street performer at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco.” Working as a storyteller in front of distracted pedestrians, however, wasn’t exactly the countercultural equivalent of the good life. In fact, it was often nerve-wracking. A kind of sidewalk stage fright overtook him. “I had stomach aches,” he writes. “I didn’t want to show up, and I didn’t want to do my act. I wanted to quit.”
Storytelling—as an art form and a motivational tool—is central to Fish’s way of looking at the world. He believes that by expressing our fears honestly, we can learn to rewrite the way in which we narrate our lives. The opening piece in his book is titled “The Wake-up Call” and describes Fish’s 1998 health crises when a colonoscopy and biopsy revealed a precancerous polyp in his body. Immediate surgery was recommended. “It’s a three-hour procedure,” the doctor calmly informed him. (“Why do they always call it a procedure?” the author’s suspicious inner voice wondered.) Fish opted for a different approach:
I made a deal with my GP. I would spend the next four months attempting to heal myself using alternative methods. Then I would go back in for another colonoscopy. If the polyp wasn’t any smaller, I would go in for the surgery.
Determined to revamp his lifestyle, he overnight turned himself into a vitamin-popping vegetarian and “om”-chanting student of meditation. Miraculously, the polyp dutifully shrank and the surgery was deemed unnecessary.
The title story is an updated folktale that begins, “Once upon a time there was a woman who lived in Silicon Valley.” A telephone psychic sends the woman on a quest for paradise that, not surprisingly, leads her right back to Silicon Valley and her quotidian complaints. The message is clear: our humdrum lives can be transformed by seeking new approaches to old behaviors. When we’re banging our heads against the wall for no good reason, a moment of grace can arrive to bring us to our senses. As a child of the 1950s and 60s, Fish has a fondness for life-affirming epiphanies found in popular culture, from the sublime harmonies of doo-wop (Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters’ 1954 recording of White Christmas) to the mind-blowing transcendence of motion pictures (2001: A Space Odyssey). Songs and movies mirror our yearnings and encapsulate our anxieties. In a piece titled, “Lessons from Stanley,” Fish pays homage to Stanley Motss, the unflappable Hollywood producer played by Dustin Hoffman in the film, Wag the Dog. “I want this guy around when I run into tough times,” Fish writes. “When I’m staring down the gun barrel of a sudden disappointment or challenge, I want Stanley at my side yelling, ‘THIS IS NOTHING!’”
Some of the pieces in The Woman Who Walked to Paradise are more substantive than others, but the material is consistently engaging. The insights steer clear of trendy psychobabble or easy palliatives. Worth the price of admission are the autobiographical sketches, which are first-rate. Fish should give some future thoughts to penning a full-scale memoir.
– Bob Wake